Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

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The Westerns of William Holden

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William Holden (1918 – 1981) was a very big star. He won an Oscar and was nominated twice more. He was named one of the “Top 10 Stars of the Year” six times (1954–1958, 1961).
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But this was really for non-Western movies. Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17 and Network would probably be the first films that came to mind if you asked most people about Holden. Maybe The Bridge on the River Kwai.

 

Yet for me he remains one of the best Western actors of them all. Not that he made many. He only did two in the 1950s, the golden age of the genre, and ‘only’ eleven in all. But he was always absolutely excellent in them. A good Western hero needs to be tough, a bit of a loner, self-reliant, knowing, brave, decent. Holden came across as all these. Maybe also a love of danger helps. Holden said, “I don’t really know why, but danger has always been an important thing in my life – to see how far I could lean without falling, how fast I could go without cracking up.”
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William Holden started as a young half-contract player with Columbia doing two cheerful black & white Westerns named for states, Arizona (we have reviewed all his Westerns on this blog so consult the index if you want to read more about any particular picture) in 1940 and Texas in 1941. In Arizona he played opposite an excellent Jean Arthur and Texas he did with his great pal and fellow Columbia contracter Glenn Ford. They are fun movies and Holden was very good in them. He said, however, that he did not want to be typed in “Smiling Jack” roles and he wasn’t, at least as far as Westerns were concerned. He starred in three in the post-War period, the excellent, noirish The Man from Colorado  in 1948, again with Glenn Ford; Rachel and the Stranger, an interesting 1948 love-triangle picture with Robert Mitchum and Holden both after Loretta Young; and a picture which grows on you, Paramount’s Streets of Laredo in 1949, a color remake of their 1936 The Texas Rangers, with Holden taking the Fred MacMurray lead part.

 

After a pause, in the 1950s came the superb John Sturges-directed Escape from Fort Bravo, a hard cavalry Western shot in Death Valley, then in 1959 John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers with John Wayne – certainly not John Ford’s greatest work but Holden as the army surgeon was again excellent.

 

Four later Westerns completed his Western career: Alvarez Kelly, another Civil War drama with Richard Widmark, in 1966; his greatest ever performance as Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch in 1969; and two in the early 70s, the cult Wild Rovers and the more routine but still good The Revengers.

 

Of course these eleven pictures varied in quality; how could it be otherwise? Holden himself said once, “Take any picture you can. One out of four will be good, one out of ten will be very good, and one out of 15 will get you an Academy Award.”
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But Holden’s own superb performances did not. They were uniformly excellent. When a young actor once asked him for suggestions on how to become a star, Holden answered, “Well, you gotta have it.” And he had it.
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“For me, acting is not an all-consuming thing, except for the moment when I am actually doing it.” (William Holden)
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One Response

  1. Nice write up. To me, he always struck me as an authority figure and was perfect in his roles where he was a leader. If you're a big Holden fan, then you should probably check out "The Blue Knight," if you haven't seen it already.

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