The Big Parade (1925)

Director: King Vidor

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By Roderick Heath

King Vidor deserves to be held high in the pantheon of American directors, and yet he’s never quite gained the stature he deserved in comparison with the likes of Ford, Hawks, and Wyler. Perhaps this is because his best work was more intermittent and mainly done as a young man, during the silent era. He spent much of the late 1940s and ’50s taking shoddy work for hire, ending his feature film career with his uneven adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1956) and the truly awful Solomon and Sheba (1959).

The colossal project that was The Big Parade reputedly sprang from Vidor and his desire to create movies with a longer life span than the almost instantly disposable general cinema product. His idea was shepherded to realisation by Irving Thalberg at a time when films about the Great War were largely considered box office poison. The risk paid off: The Big Parade was an event movies of the 1920s, and is still officially recorded as the highest grossing silent film ever made, making more than $22 million in its worldwide release, a colossal sum for the time. The Big Parade holds up mightily, obviously superior in terms of cinematic construction and dexterity of expression, and a testament to silent-era Hollywood’s sweeping force and openness to innovation in style and story. The film could well have helped invent the basic structure of the modern war movie, and tonal disparities aside, echoes can be seen even in a film like Full Metal Jacket (1987), particularly in the finale in which a wounded soldiers’ buddies are driven to irrational actions in the face of an unseen threat.

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Vidor’s inventive filmmaking is evident from the get-go, depicting various strata of American life called to action by cutting between construction riveter Slim (Karl Dane), bartender Bull O’Brien (Tom O’Brien), and rich layabout James Apperson (John Gilbert) at the fateful moment the U.S. declared war, announced by hooting sirens and marching revellers. Even Gilbert falls for the hypnotic spell of patriotism, which, as a title card puts it, can awaken in a heart in which it has never stirred, and joins several of his pals in the march to the recruiting office. Gilbert returns home to his plutocrat father (Hobart Bosworth), loving mother (Claire McDowell), and ludicrous brother Harry (Robert Ober). Mr. Apperson is proud of Harry, who’s putting his shoulder to the wheel by organising double shifts at their factory, and demands of his other shiftless son that he either pledge some effort to the war or get out of his house. Jim sarcastically asks if he can stay the night before clearing out. But his girlfriend Justyn (Claire Adams) excitedly lets slip the news, which he wants to keep from his worried mother, that he’s already joined up. In basic training, he’s thrust into a unit that includes Slim and Bull, and learns the ropes of soldiering alongside them.

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The first half of The Big Parade is generally played as a romantic comedy laced with serviceman humour, predicting the likes of MASH in the sardonic contrast of dutiful patriotism and filthy reality. It observes the tawdry and amusing proliferation of petty irritants, deprivations, and perils of military service, and the awakened native guile of the khaki-clad wayfarers in coping with the alienation of distance, language, and an unfamiliar and dangerous situation. Thalberg’s original hope had been to film What Price Glory?, the hit Broadway comedy-drama by Maxwell Anderson and military veteran Laurence Stallings, but the rights to that had already been purchased. Thalberg had Stallings write a new scenario for The Big Parade that has a strong resemblance to Glory. Vidor brilliantly employs Irving Berlin’s sarcastic anthem “You’re in the Army Now” as a motif for tying the early segments together; it becomes an integral part of building their esprit de corps as the recruits sing it when they march, and then its lyrics are quoted repeatedly as the company contends with a filthy bivouac in France that lacks showers and other conveniences.

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Jim soon devises a way to wash—converting an empty wine barrel into a showerhead suspended in a treetop, with the unexpected result of drawing mademoiselle Melisande (Renée Adorée), whom Apperson ran into when transporting the barrel, to entertain herself with the sight of their naked backsides. Soon, Jim’s efforts to strike up a relationship with Melisande—assigning himself to “skirt detail” as the title cards put it—draw him into her farming family’s circle of friends who gather to read letters from relations at the front. In a comic piece, Slim and Bull raid the wine cellar while Jim sits with Melisande and her friends, causing a ruckus that nearly gets Jim arrested by some MPs. Recognising that they got him into trouble they save his hide been starting an even bigger ruckus. Such hijinks could have been buffoonish if not for the intricately observed, nuanced behaviour that is one of the great pleasures of silent films, building hilarious bits of business: for example, Jim’s efforts to break apart a rock-hard cake Justyn has sent him so he can share it with his fellows or introducing Melisande to the pleasures of chewing gum.

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Moreover, The Big Parade is cunningly structured. Except for the bookend scenes stateside, the bulk of the film takes place in the course of two or three days, and the comedy and romance gives way soon enough to the grimmer tasks at hand. The film was reportedly expanded after test audiences responded enthusiastically to its fresh, romantic, antiheroic style, but no seams are apparent. The sequence in which the troops are ordered to the front, setting off a storm of frantic activity in the eye of which Jim and Melisande make their despairing goodbyes, was so instantaneously iconic that Vidor lampooned it four years later in his comedy Show People. It’s both vintage Hollywood schmaltz and a startling piece of filmmaking, alive with motion and drama in the smallest details, leaving Melisande finally alone on a desolate road, the big parade having surely gone by. Jim, Bull, and Slim ride off amongst an armada of trucks and tanks to meet their baptism of fire, first in a sniper-riddled forest, and then in a crater-riddled wasteland.

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The way the sequences build is all the more extraordinary for possessing both spectacle and gut-grabbing mystery and threat, in a vividly coherent vision of men in the midst of war. After the grandiose vision of the “big parade” itself, they march first into teeming, shadowy threat in the forest, and then into the midst of a colossal campaign, and finally, finish up lost, alone, isolated, surrounded by darkness, as if they’ve stepped off the end of the earth and ended up in hell. If Stendhal’s vision of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma has a clear cinematic counterpoint in a movie, it’s here. Pinned down by machine gunners, Slim, Bull, and Jim to draw lots to see who will go out and try to knock out one of the enemy emplacements. Slim “wins,” ventures out, and succeeds, but is riddled with bullets on his return and is left to die without a rescue attempt. Jim explodes in outrage when he and Bull are ordered to stay put, demanding “Who’s fighting this war, men or orders?” He goes to find Slim, and Bull pursues. Bull is quickly killed. Jim is wounded in the leg when he finds Slim, also already dead. Jim, flushed with hysteria and adrenalin, takes out another machine gun nest on his own, allowing the rest of the unit to spring from their foxholes and advance.

Jim awakens in hospital and hearing that Melisande’s farmhouse has been the centre of fighting, rises from his bed, sneaks out the window, dragging his crippled leg in search of her. But she’s already been shipped out with her family and other refugees, and all Jim accomplishes—revealed when he returns home—is having his leg amputated. This shocks his mother, and Vidor evokes the sprawl of her thoughts with a montage of her memories of him from infancy to manhood. This brilliant flourish underlines Vidor’s recurring fascination for cycles of mortality and internal struggles between transcendence and nihilism, essayed in works like The Crowd (1928) and Hallelujah! (1929). Vidor could also make a film as idealistic as The Citadel (1938) and as ornery as Beyond the Forest (1949) fit into this fascination, swinging from poles of mystically charged births to ignominious deaths.

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In the end, Jim’ larger quandary at home is that he’s still in love with and haunted by Melisande. But his mother knows that Justyn has fallen in love with Harry, and soon enough Jim is free to return to France and track down Melisande, who is labouring in the fields.

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The storyline no longer has any glint of originality, but The Big Parade retains force and vivacity for a great many reasons, not the least because of its uncluttered simplicity, eye-level humanism, likeable characters, and an unruly mix of then-fresh elements makes it more ambiguous in tone and meaning and less ponderously grave than All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). This contrast is acute in a scene very similar to the one in which All Quiet’s hero was stranded in a foxhole with a dying enemy soldier: where the later film goes all out to establish the common humanity, The Big Parade evokes the idea without declaration, and with a dark sense of the unimportance of that humanity in such a ferocious situation.

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Gilbert, who had been a top matinee star already for several years but for whom this was surely the peak of his career, is a poised and restrained screen presence whose charisma is nonetheless effortless (although he does give into that worst habit of silent actors, waving his arms around in declarative fashion in his climactic foxhole speech). The fate of The Big Parade’s heroes reflects the connivance of classic Hollywood’s bosses, as MGM’s conniving executives went on to help wreck Gilbert’s career and cheat Vidor out of the small fortune that would have come his way—having as he did a percentage of the profits in his contract—by talking him into taking a smaller compensation. As Vidor himself put it, “I thus spared myself from becoming a millionaire instead of a struggling young director trying to do something interesting and better with a camera.” C’est la guerre. l

  • tdraicer spoke:
    28th/11/2009 to 1:41 pm

    I haven’t seen this in twenty years-you make me want to see it again. Which is the biggest compliment I can give.
    Have to disagree about War and Peace though, which I think is a very fine and seriously underrated film. (I think many people can’t get past Fonda’s not being physically like the character Tolstoy describes and miss that he captures Pierre’s inner nature very well. And Audrey was born to play Natasha, as Herbert Lom was born to play Nappy. Plus that wonderful Rota score.)

  • Vanwall spoke:
    28th/11/2009 to 5:27 pm

    This is really the seminal war film, agreed, as it seems like many trench war films borrow heavily from it not just for visuals, but in the important shell-hole scene, which is de-rigueur it seems – even “Paths of Glory” had one of sorts. Few war films of the time got the stark details of that time, or the insanity of it, so well, either – the scene with sniper picking them off as they trudge like walking dead is the one I remembered most from seeing it as a kid on TV.
    I always wonder how much influence it had on Remarque’s book, it has some very close aspects, which are even more similar in the 1930 film. I have my suspicions there. The one thing I think TBP needed was a Louis Wolheim, someone so believable and naturally physical they could sell the pathos required for the inevitable supporting actor death scene – Dane and O’Brien were adequate, but they were almost comic-effect character before that. BTW, in “Sahara”, the Bogie war film, there’s a scene where Rex Ingram’s character dies heroically, that reminded me a lot of Slim’s.

  • Rod spoke:
    28th/11/2009 to 9:31 pm

    td: I called War and Peace uneven, and it’s a judgement I’m not going to alter. Great swaths of it are utterly plastic, and it reduces Tolstoy’s depth and breadth more often to homily than not. It was really something of try-out for the new idea of the big international co-production, and there’s a lot of resulting uncertainty in tone and acting…and all those comic opera uniforms. But I do have it on DVD and I greatly admire many aspects, including, as you point out, Fonda’s capturing the essence of Pierre’s conscientious character, Hepburn’s appropriateness to play Natasha, and Lom’s Bonaparte, and Vidor’s film-making is undimmed in sequences like the Battle of Borodino and that awesome retreat from Moscow, and also in his subtler experiments with lighting in intimate interior scenes that predict Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon experiments.
    Vanwall: Yeah, I started wondering if Remarque had seen the movie too about that point: considering what a hit the film was, it would have been hard for not to, methinks. The similarities are hard to miss. Granted, Bull and Slim are basically comic relief characters, where Wolheim’s Katczinsky is bigger than life in his humanity.

  • tdraicer spoke:
    29th/11/2009 to 12:03 am

    >td: I called War and Peace uneven, and it’s a judgement I’m not going to alter
    I wouldn’t dream of trying to alter your judgement about a film; you are far too informed and articulate for that (no snark intended). We simply disagree.
    (Though my favorite version of War and Peace might be Love and Death. “Goddamn, you love Russia, don’t you?”)

  • Rod spoke:
    29th/11/2009 to 2:55 am

    No snark taken, td. Just clarifying my mixed feelings about that film. I’ve not seen Love and Death, nor Sergei Bondarchuck’s version. I am a fan of Bondarchuck’s Waterloo, but that’s a review yet to be written.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    3rd/12/2009 to 5:35 pm

    “This brilliant flourish underlines Vidor’s recurring fascination for cycles of mortality and internal struggles between transcendence and nihilism, essayed in works like The Crowd (1928) and Hallelujah! (1929).
    Indeed Rod, I couldn’t agree with you more, and this is yet another review at this scholarly oasis that deserves the highest praise. This silent masterork is still MIA on a legitimately released DVD, along with the aforementioned THE CROWD and the Sjostrom/Gish masterpiece THE WIND, not to even mention Von Stroheim’s GREED. My colleague Allan Fish also wrote an outstanding review of the film during a series he penned on early war films last year, but yours is certainly more detailed. However I do take exception with what you say there about Milestone’s marginally superior ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) being “gravely ponderous” a quality I did not find. And again that emotionally overpowering fox hole scene gets taken to task, when in effect it’s central to the films message. But I still respect you position as you inform it here with acute insights and masterful writing. I agree with you on stating that there is “eye level” humanism here, and it’s in large measure a great silent film.
    I am providing a link to Allan’s review of November 4, 2008 (where he seems to be completely in agreement with you) which includes a flattering comment by the film’s newly contracted composer, Donald Sosin:
    http://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2008/11/04/the-big-parade-%c2%bd/
    BTW, I would say THE CROWD is Vidor’s asterpiece, but this film is a close second.
    Again, a marvelously detailed essay.

  • Rod spoke:
    3rd/12/2009 to 6:29 pm

    Sam – whilst I love All Quiet, it does try a little hard. As one critic accurately described the novel, it relies on the effect stolen from Gothic literature of piling one nastiness on top of another, and the film rams home its message in the foxhole scene: no matter what else you say about it, you can’t get away from the fact it’s a message picture. Perhaps “ponderous” is a word that can be misconstrued in my use of it, for I meant it in the sense that the film reiterates the same “war is hell” point over and over, where it’s generally used to indicate slow-moving and dull, which All Quiet certainly isn’t, and Lewis Milestone’s film-making is nearly as great as Vidor’s. But I preferred The Big Parade‘s terser, more ironic approach to those matters.

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