"The Big Parade"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)
War / What is it good for / Absolutely nothing
Lyrics to the song "War" written by Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong
King Vidor's "The Big Parade" (1925) is routinely listed as one of the greatest anti-war movies ever made, one of the greatest silent movies ever made and simply one of the greatest movies of all-time. This is one of those rare occasions when I must agree with the masses. "The Big Parade" is guilty of all charges.
When I first saw "The Big Parade" I enjoyed it quite a bit however I felt it lacked the gritty realism of "All Quite On the Western Front" (1930), the Academy Award winner for best picture. That movie, for me, remains the greatest of all the early war movies, however, watching "The Big Parade" again, I think I would say this is more of a "human story". It tries to capture life, love, death and war and puts it all into one movie. It reaches all the same conclusions as "All Quite On the Western Front" but goes about it in a much different way.
"The Big Parade" helped catapult the career of King Vidor and established him as one of the major filmmakers at M-G-M. This movie, along with "The Crowd" (1928), also one of the greatest movies ever made, exhibits a sense of realism Mr. Vidor would become associated with. Although the movie was released prior to the existence of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences it is not difficult the believe "The Big Parade" would had scored an Academy Award nomination as did other films directed by Mr. Vidor such as the melodrama "The Champ" (1931), "The Crowd", "Stella Dallas" (1937) and "Hallelujah" (1929).
The movie begins in 1917 as we follow Jim Apperson (John Gilbert) a wealthy, floppish young man. He is engaged to Justyn (Claire Adams) and is a disappointment to his father (Hobart Bosworth), who believes his son is too lazy and needs to prove himself as a man instead of living off the family name.
On this particular day we learn war has been declared by President Wilson. Here is where "The Big Parade" makes its strongest anti-war statement. Justyn tells Jim how excited she will be to see him in uniform. It will make her love Jim more. Jim's father is proud when he discovers his son has enlisted. There is a parade for all the men who have listed. The crowd waves American flags. The would-be soldiers hold up signs indicating they can't wait to fight and kill the enemy.
Mr. Vidor and "The Big Parade" present these people as fools. What exactly is the crowd cheering, the death of these young men? It is a certainty not all of them will return home. Why would Justyn love Jim more for enlisting? In a woman's eyes, does that make him seem brave? Could the men that have enlisted tell you why the war is even being fought? Probably not. But, people wave their flags and feel they have done their part. They will stay behind and read about the war in the paper. If they felt such a sense of patriotism why didn't they enlist?
There are those that say, war is a rich man's game. Presidents of countries have disagreements while poor people do the fighting. And for what? Where are the presidents while the fighting is going on? Where are the rich? Who benefits from having poor people kill each other against an enemy they have never seen, spoken to or heard of? Some will say that sounds like the kind of thing someone who is afraid of war and death would say. You're damn right! I'm afraid of death and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Why should I or anyone else be ashamed to admit that? Because of fear of a stranger calling you a coward? That's what causes the problem.
"The Big Parade" sees drama in telling the story of a rich man enlisting. The movie feels this will create the greatest transformation. A rich man, who has lived an easy life and knows nothing about the world, will see the hell of war. On the battlefield his money will not matter when bullets are flying in his direction. To further humanize Jim, the movie has him befriend two working class men that have enlisted as well, Slim (Karl Dane), a construction worker, and Bull (Tom O' Brien), a bartender.
This kind of story was more commonly told during World War II. Because of the draft Americans have always, rightfully so, believed the rich are able to avoid being drafted and only the poor fight. In order to keep harmony you will notice Hollywood would often tell stories of rich men being drafted, unable to use their connections to avoid serving, and fight along side the working class. The movies would even go a step further and suggest the rich men made good soldiers.
After this strong social commentary "The Big Parade" then becomes a love story. Jim and his regiment are sent to France, where Jim meets Melisande (Renee Adoree) who works on a local farm with her mother. Jim, Slim and Bull each find Melisande attractive and make passes at her but she only responds to Jim. Melisande doesn't speak English and Jim doesn't speak French but there is no denying their physical attraction towards each other. The question is what will Jim tell Justyn, who writes letters to Jim, expressing how much she misses him.
For me this aspect of the movie takes "The Big Parade" off track and slows the movie down. As it stands now "The Big Parade" has a running time of two hours and 30 minutes. Sequences involving this love story and the antics of the three men could have easily been left on the editing room floor. The only explanation for elongating the romance between these two characters is because John Gilbert is in the lead. Mr. Gilbert was emerging as a sex symbol rivaling Rudolph Valentino. You couldn't waste that reputation. It would make the females audiences sympathize with him as now he has a reason to stay alive, the love of a good woman.
Finally, after nearly 90 minutes, "The Big Parade" takes Jim on the battlefield, where he will be tested. Now he will see what war is like. The men are sent walking through a battlefield while a German sniper is firing at them.
I had forgotten how good the fighting sequences are. It further helps promote the movie's anti-war agenda. Men are seen dying left and right in the background as Jim, who is part of the front line, keeps walking forward, unaware of those that have fallen. It is during this sequence we think of the crowd cheering earlier in the movie as these men had walked together in that moment too. The men bragged about fighting. They seemed so eager to fight. Now look at them. They fear for their lives.
The movie directly makes this argument when Jim is stuck in a ditch. He fears one of his friends has died from enemy fire. If Jim runs out to save him, he may die too. What should he do? Frustrated he yells "God damn" the war. What is he fighting for?
"The Big Parade" is a near perfect movie with only three exceptions. One, it goes on too long. Two, the romance sequences go on too long and are not needed. It disrupts the flow of the movie and its anti-war sentiment. Three, Jim is not activate enough on the battlefield. I would have preferred if Jim killed someone, even if it is reluctantly. This would greatly change him. Now you can see what war does to a man. The mental effect killing someone, even on the battlefield, has on a soldier.
Because "The Big Parade" is a pre-code movie, a movie made before the Production Code was strictly enforced, starting in 1934, it can get away with certain things other movies would not have been able to. For one thing the language. There is a lot of "God damn" which the code would have looked down upon and consider blasphemy. There is also a scene involving nudity, as we see the backside of Slim and Bull taking a shower.
Because of the strong anti-war sentiment I wonder why did King Vidor feel the need to tell this story, which was based on a play by Joseph Farnham and an autobiography by Laurence Stallings. The war ended in 1918. America was going through good economic times. Was "The Big Parade" a cautionary tale, warning Americans to never allow this to happen again?
"The Big Parade" would go on to influence countless war movies which followed. Only "All Quiet On the Western" would match it. "The Big Parade" stands as one of the most important movies any serious film lover should see.