February 5, 2015
The Big Parade – U.S., 1925
There were no Academy Award ceremonies during the majority of Hollywood’s silent years, yet I have a feeling that had there been, King Vidor’s epic 1925 film, The Big Parade, would have picked up quite a number of nominations. I believe this because the film is exactly the kind of film that Hollywood has thrown accolades at in the years that have followed. It is grand in scale, dramatic in its message, visually stunning, and directed with such skill that one may immediately want to search out the director’s other cinematic works. All of this does not a masterpiece make, yet what impresses about The Big Parade is of such high quality that complaining about its lesser parts seems practically sacrilegious.
The film takes place in 1917 on the eve of the United States’ entrance into the First World War, and in its opening scene it introduces its audience to its three main characters: “Slim” Jenson (Karl Dane), “Bull” O’Hara (Tom O’Brien), and Jim Apperson (John Gilbert). In the scene we see them going about their normal routine – Slim is riveting, Bull is tending bar, and Jim – well, he is just waking up. An alarm sounds. According to Jim, it is loud enough “to wake the nation.” Vidor then skillfully shows Slim and Bull answering the call to duty, and in images that are hauntingly simplistic, we see Slim’s abandoned riveting gun and the half-cleaned glass that moments earlier had been in Bull’s hands. Jim needs a little more time and encouragement. That comes in the form of an emotional mother, an encouraging fiancée who says she’ll love him more in a military uniform, and the patriotic fervor that grips him as he watches a parade in honor of men going off to fight. Tellingly, the intertitle proclaims patriotism to be “life’s greatest emotion.” Left unexplained is by 1917 that it had been more than fifty years since America’s last armed conflict, and many Americans had simply forgotten how horrible war could be.
Throughout the first half of the film, The Big Parade is a collection of the kinds of scenes that would soon become cliché in war films. Fellow soldiers came to be “characters,” and, for the most part, the army was a place of joviality and fun. In this film, it is a place where soldiers sing comical songs about army life and get to shovel hay onto their superior officer without any fear of reprisal. At one point in the film, a character even states, “This ain’t such a bad war.” As the film progressed, I couldn’t help feeling that Slim and Bull were caricatures rather than fully-developed characters, similar to the way later war films have to have “Bible-thumping” characters and squad “jokesters.” Here, Slim and Bull provide comic relief. They have spitting contests, displays of drunkenness, and moments of fear in which they bury their heads in the sand like ostriches. Sadly, there is little explanation of the lives or people they left behind, and neither character is as involving as he should be.
However, even when the film remains upbeat and audience-friendly, Vidor has the good sense to intersperse the more light-hearted moments with brief, subtle reminders of the horror that lies ahead. Early on in the film, he cuts from Jim and his squadron’s first day at boot camp to months later when they are fully-trained soldiers. Vidor use close-ups during the scene to show the clear, naïve faces of the young men about to go to battle. It is perhaps the last time they will look this young. Later on there’s a nice juxtaposition between how Jim’s fiancée imagines his surroundings in France to be and his actual sleeping arrangements. And Vidor adequately conveys the differences in the reactions of the two women Jim loves: The first, far from the war itself, cheered as he went off to war; the second, much closer in proximity to the fighting, does all she can to prevent him from going, even going so far as to hang onto him for dear life. It is quite moving.
When the fighting does begin, Vidor elects to depict it in stages, and with each step, there is a sense of escalating horror. It is as if each one is taking them further and further into the depths of hell itself, until the world is literally upside down - day has become night, death is all around them, and the light is their enemy. It is this part of the film that likely had the greatest impact on audiences in the 1920s, and I believe that present-day audiences will still find its images hard to shake.
These scenes lead to Jim’s moment of awakening, to his sudden realization of the pointlessness of war and what he sees as the lack of value placed on an individual soldier’s life. This should have been a heart-wrenching, eye-opening moment; however, it falls slightly flat, for it seems as if writer Laurence Stalling used post-1917 experiences as a basis for the sentiments expressed in the scene instead of the experiences of a man who never really wanted to go to war in the first place. Also, Jim does not reject war or killing afterwards; in fact, his lone act of mercy does not change his feelings about war, for in the very next scene, there he is happily celebrating the advance of allied forces. A true anti-war film would depict him looking on at this new wave of death and violence in shock and revulsion.
It could be argued that The Big Parade is a love story set during war rather than a war film that includes a love story. This is certainly plausible. However, if this is true, what the film initially says about men and love is questionable and potentially unsettling. In the film, Jim falls in love with a young French woman named Melisande (Renée Adorée) from Champillon, and after an extremely uncomfortable scene in which the poor woman is accosted - perhaps sexually harassed is a better word for it - by Jim and his two buddies, Jim and Melisande begin the kind of relationship that is perhaps much more commonplace in movies. To get an example of what I mean, think about the relationships in Pocahontas and China Doll, relationships in which couples fall in love despite not being able to speak the same language. That’s essentially what we have in The Big Parade. In the beginning, Jim speaks to Melisande in broken English and has to rely on a French-English translation book to convey even the most basic of ideas – often about how much he likes her or how pretty she is. For her part, Melisande speaks to him in French, which he cannot understand a word of. This is kind of cute for a while, yet suddenly the two of them are having much more complex conversations about the nature of love, war, and infidelity – all without the use of any dictionaries or phrase books. This would be more realistic if the film explained that a year had passed. However, it doesn’t, and their sudden ability to communicate is hard to accept. Still, it’s better than a tree telling a young woman to listen to her heart.
In the end, The Big Parade is a good film that in my opinion is more admired for its parts than its whole. Its depiction of war and its effects on cities and the human psyche are unforgettable; its tale of romance is sweet if you can get past its awkward origin; and its representations of army life and soldiers are stereotypical and underdeveloped. It is a film that clearly demonstrates the remarkable talents of Vidor, Gilbert, and Adorée, yet also lays bear just how far film still had to go in its depictions of war and soldiers. It is indeed powerful and worth seeing, but it is also one of those films whose emotional moments are so well done that the rest of the film seems much better than it actually is. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars