Ten Best William Holden Movies

Knoji reviews products and up-and-coming brands we think you'll love. In certain cases, we may receive a commission from brands mentioned in our guides. Learn more.
William Holden was one of Hollywood's top stars of the 1950s and '60s. Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Picnic, The Wild Bunch, The Counterfeit Traitor, Sunset Boulevard, The World of Suzie Wong, Executive Suite, The Horse Soldiers and Golden Boy

William Holden was one of Hollywood's top stars of the 1950s and '60s. Born William Franklin Beedle Jr. in O'Fallon, Illinois, on April 17, 1918, Holden made his motion picture debut as an inmate in Prison Farm (1938). Holden later appeared on television, most notably playing himself in the I Love Lucy episode "Hollywood at Last," telecast on February 7, 1955. William Holden died in Santa Monica, California, on November 16, 1981.

Here are ten William Holden movies that no dedicated film fan should ever miss. As the actor often announced on the set, "Bill Holden is ready!"

Stalag 17 (Paramount, 1953)

William Holden plays Sgt. J.J. Sefton, a wheeler dealer American noncom who provides creature comforts for a price at a German POW camp during World War II. His fellow prisoners distrust Sefton, believing him to be a source for leaks when their escape attempts end in tragedy. But Sefton is on to the real culprit, a fellow named Price (Peter Graves), who is a spy planted in the camp by the Nazis. Holden is in top form as the cynical Sefton, with Don Taylor, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Richard Erdman and Neville Brand in excellent support.

Academy Award nomination: Best Actor (won)

Great Holden line: "He's a Nazi, Price is. For all I know his name is Preissinger or Preishoffer. Oh, sure, he lived in Cleveland. But when the war broke out, he came back to the Fatherland like a good little Bundist. He spoke our lingo, so they sent him to spy school and fixed him up with phony dog tags."

Director: Billy Wilder

On DVD: Stalag 17 Special Collector's Edition (Paramount, 2006)

1959 reissue movie poster: William Holden as Sgt. J.J. Sefton in Stalag 17 (1953)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (Columbia, 1957)

William Holden stars as Shears, an American sailor masquerading as a naval officer at an island Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Shears manages to escape, but is dragooned into leading a commando mission back to the camp in order to blow up a bridge designed and built by a British colonel (Alec Guinness) and his men. Filmed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), The Bridge on the River Kwai was made for $3 million and also features Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne, Andre Morell and Ann Sears. "Brilliant is the word, and no other, to describe the quality of skills that have gone into the making of this picture..." reported Bosley Crowther of The New York Times (12/19/57). The Bridge on the River Kwai, which earned William Holden $300,000 plus 10% of the gross, won seven of eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Guinness).

Great Holden line (on Sessue Hayakawa's Colonel Saito, the brutal commandant of the camp): "I can think of a lot of things to call Saito, but 'reasonable'... that's a new one."

Director: David Lean

On DVD: The Bridge on the River Kwai (Columbia TriStar, 2000)

Italian photobusta movie poster: William Holden as Shears in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Picnic (Columbia, 1955)

William Holden appears as Hal Carter in this big screen adaptation of the Broadway play by William Inge. It's the Labor Day weekend in a small Kansas town, and drifter Hal Carter shows up looking for work. His friend, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), gets him on at his father's grain elevator. During the annual picnic, Hal and beauty queen Madge Owens (Kim Novak), who is Alan's girl, fall hard for each other, creating bad blood in the town. Although the 37-year-old Holden was a little long in the tooth for the part (he is referred to as the "young man" in several scenes), he is dynamite in the role of Hal, magnificently carrying off the big dance scene with Kim Novak to the haunting strains of "Moonglow" in one of Hollywood's greatest romantic interludes. Betty Field, Susan Strasberg, Arthur O'Connell and Rosalind Russell, who drunkenly rips the shirt off Holden's well-muscled frame, are also on hand. Picnic garnered six Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture.

Great Holden line: "I gotta get somewhere in this world. I just gotta."

Director: Joshua Logan

On DVD: Picnic (Columbia TriStar, 2000)

1961 six sheet reissue movie poster: William Holden and Kim Novak in Picnic (1955)

The Wild Bunch (Warner Bros./Seven Arts, 1969)

William Holden plays Pike Bishop, the aging leader of an outlaw gang in the rapidly disappearing American frontier of 1913. When a bank robbery goes awry, Pike and his boys head south to Mexico, pursued by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) and his hired guns. The Wild Bunch remains one of Hollywood's most violent westerns, with over 90,000 rounds of blank ammunition spent during filming and some 10,000 squibs (small explosives used to simulate bullet hits) employed in the final shootout scene. Holden is ably cast as one of the Old West's last desperados, with Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson in strong support. Made for $6 million, The Wild Bunch earned two Oscar nominations.

Great Holden line (on the bank hostages): "If they move, kill 'em!"

Director: Sam Peckinpah

On DVD: The Wild Bunch - The Original Director's Cut (Warner, 2006)

Lobby card: L-r: Ernest Borgnine, William Holden, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson in The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Counterfeit Traitor (Paramount, 1962)

William Holden stars as Eric Erickson, the real life American-born Swedish businessman who spied for the Allies during World War II. An oil trader, Erickson is recruited by British Intelligence in Stockholm to gather vital information on installations during his business trips to Nazi Germany. The Counterfeit Traitor is a tense, taut thriller, replete with a number of harrowing scenes. The one in which a screaming Erickson watches his female contact Frau Marianne Mollendorf (Lilli Palmer) executed by a Nazi firing squad from his prison cell will stay with the viewer for a very long time. Hugh Griffith, Carl Raddatz, Ernst Schroder and Helo Gutschwager as a particularly vile Hitler Youth member offer excellent support.

Great Holden line (to Lilli Palmer's Marianne): "My conscience has always been like a well trained dog. You could tell it to go sit in a corner and be quiet and it would. Since I've known you it hasn't been quite so obedient. It keeps shouting for me to do the very thing that your conscience won't permit."

Director: George Seaton

On DVD: The Counterfeit Traitor (Paramount, 2004)

One sheet movie poster: William Holden and Lilli Palmer in The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

Sunset Boulevard (Paramount, 1950)

William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a struggling Hollywood screenwriter who falls under the spell of silent movie queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Down on his luck, Joe moves into Norma's mansion on Sunset Boulevard, working on the screenplay which she believes will herald her triumphant return to the cinema. Holden registers an outstanding performance as the old femme fatale's "kept man," with Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson and Jack Webb lending a strong hand. Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner appear as themselves. Sunset Boulevard earned eleven Oscar nominations.

Academy Award nomination: Best Actor

Great Holden line: "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big."

Director: Billy Wilder

On DVD: Sunset Boulevard Special Collector's Edition (Paramount, 2002)

Lobby card: L-r: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The World of Suzie Wong (Paramount, 1960)

William Holden stars as Robert Lomax, an architect who moves to Hong Kong to pursue his passion for painting. Checking in to a cheap hotel frequented by prostitutes, Lomax meets one of the bar girls on a ferry, Mee Ling a.k.a. Suzie Wong (Nancy Kwan), whom he hires as a model for his work. The two eventually fall in love, with Suzie's secret infant and Lomax's financial troubles complicating their relationship. Filmed partly on location in Hong Kong, The World of Suzie Wong also features Sylvia Syms, Michael Wilding, Jacqui Chan and Laurence Naismith.

Great Holden line (to Nancy Kwan's Suzie): "You're the most exasperating girl I ever met."

Director: Richard Quine

On DVD: The World of Suzie Wong (Paramount, 2004)

Lobby card: William Holden and Nancy Kwan in The World of Suzie Wong (1960)

Executive Suite (MGM, 1954)

William Holden plays McDonald Walling, a design engineer working for the Tredway Corporation. When Avery Bullard (Raoul Freeman), Tredway's president, unexpectedly dies, a power vacuum is left in the company. Executive Suite is one of the finest business movies ever made, exploring the machinations inside a big company and how it plays out on Wall Street. Nominated for four Academy Awards, Executive Suite also features June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, Shelley Winters and Paul Douglas. "Mr. Holden's blueprint of a smartly tailored young executive is in the agreeable tradition of the success-magazine ideal," observed Bosley Crowther of The New York Times (5/7/54).

Great Holden line: "The force behind a great company has to be more than the pride of one man; it has to be the pride of thousands. You can't make men work for money alone – you starve their souls when you try it, and you can starve a company to death the same way."

Director: Robert Wise

On DVD: Executive Suite (Warner, 2007)

Half sheet movie poster style B: William Holden in Executive Suite (1954)

The Horse Soldiers (United Artists, 1959)

William Holden plays Major Henry "Hank" Kendall, the regimental surgeon in this big, sprawling John Ford adventure. Set during the Civil War, The Horse Soldiers features Kendall and his fellow Union cavalry on a mission behind enemy lines to destroy Confederate transportation hubs and supply centers. Big John Wayne stars as Colonel John Marlowe, with Constance Towers, Judson Pratt, Hoot Gibson and Ken Curtis along for the stormy ride. The Horse Soldiers was principally filmed on location in Mississippi and Louisiana. Holden's interplay with "The Duke" is the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Great Holden line (to John Wayne's Col. Marlowe): "As usual, I'm just presenting the grim facts. Colonel Secord doesn't seem to understand that the coffee tastes better when the latrines are dug downstream instead of upstream. How do you like your coffee, Colonel?"

Director: John Ford

On DVD: The Horse Soldiers (MGM/UA, 2001)

Insert movie poster: William Holden and John Wayne in The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Golden Boy (Columbia, 1939)

William Holden appears as Joe Bonaparte, whose father (Lee J. Cobb) wants him to pursue a career as a concert violinist. But Joe wants to get into the professional fight game and earn some prize money, hooking up with manager Tom Moody (Adolphe Menjou). Joe ascends the pugilistic ladder, eventually earning a title shot at Madison Square Garden where he breaks his hand while delivering a fatal punch to his opponent. Barbara Stanwyck plays Lorna Moon, Holden's love interest. Victor Young's music score earned an Oscar nomination. Golden Boy was William Holden's first credited role on the big screen, and he scored a clear knockout in his role as the young fighter. "Hey, Golden Boy!" co-star Barbara Stanwyck always greeted him afterwards.

Great Holden line: "Papa, I've come home."

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

On DVD: Golden Boy (Sony, 2007)

Promotional still: William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck in Golden Boy (1939)

Ten More William Holden Film Favorites

  • Sabrina (1954)
  • The Moon Is Blue (1953)
  • Alvarez Kelly (1966)
  • The Earthling (1980)
  • The Country Girl (1954)
  • The Devil's Brigade (1968)
  • Breezy (1973)
  • Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)
  • The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)
  • Network (1976)

Images Credit

  • All images courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas
  • Top image: Lobby card: William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)


lucia anna
Posted on Jan 25, 2011
Kathleen Murphy
Posted on Aug 13, 2010