Toward the Unknown (1956) truly was made for me. It’s an aviation film directed by Mervyn Leroy and starring William Holden. The film is virtually unknown in Bill’s filmography. It’s not as memorable as Sunset Boulevard or Network, or The Bridge on the River Kwai. But it’s certainly worth any Holden fan’s time. It was also the first and only film that he produced.
Golden Holden was one of the best actors of his generation. I may be quite accustomed to his abundant talent, but he still manages to surprise me. And that’s why he’s my forever favorite. I was seeing a totally new side to him in Toward the Unknown. And his performance left quite the impression.
Lincoln Bond (!) is a fairly typical Holden character. He’s a loner, but he’s not a self absorbed cynic. Lincoln is similar to McDonald Walling (again, !) in Executive Suite (1954), a noble man with a passion for what he does, frustrated by outside forces. But what sets Lincoln apart from McDonald is his self imposed isolation.
Lincoln is an ace pilot who cracked under torture during the Korean War. He has returned to the Edwards Air Force Base to resume flying. His request is denied by General Brigadier Bill Banner (Lloyd Nolan), who doubts Lincoln’s ability following his breakdown. In fact, Lincoln is treated to a cool reception at the air base upon his return. No one makes any allowance for his struggles and he is subject to condescending dismissals. Further complicating matters is Banner’s relationship with Connie (Virginia Leith), Lincoln’s old girlfriend.
Toward the Unknown does glorify the military, but its sensitive depiction of a soldier suffering from PTSD stands out. As a TCM article notes, the film precedes the coinage of the term and its identification as a disorder. And that alone makes the film worthwhile. The breathtaking aerial shots for fellow aviation enthusiasts out there is a sweet bonus.
There is an exchange between Lincoln and Banner that demonstrates how Lincoln has suffered, but there are no traces of self pity. It’s mere resignation. Banner quotes one of his favorite lines from Faulkner and Lincoln responds.
“Man will not only endure. He will prevail.”
“Some men, yes.”
We run the risk of taking survival for granted sometimes. Being able to thrive is a worthy goal, but just putting one foot in front of the other is worthy too. That’s all Lincoln wants to do, in addition to flying. It’s all he can do, especially when no one offers any understanding or empathy.
I was seeing a totally new William Holden. He was still the same Mr. “I make it all look so effortless” Holden, but this time he walls himself off to grapple with his despair. This is William Holden at his most vulnerable. Slightly broken, but with an ironclad will to rise above. To endure and eventually prevail.
And now, my favorite aerial shots.
I wrote this post for Virginie’s second annual Golden Boy blogathon. You can read my previous year’s entry here. Last year I brought William Holden to Disneyland for his birthday (my first trip there)! While I won’t be doing the same this year, I’m glad to be celebrating what would have been his 99th birthday. Click on the banner to read more posts saluting Robert Osborne’s favorite actor and celebrate too!