Film: The Big Parade
Format: VHS from Downers Grove Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.
Most of the time, movies are about escapism. At least the movies I tend to enjoy the most are about escapism; I don’t always look for a lot of reality in my films because I get enough reality in my everyday life. It’s one of the reasons I tend to like horror, science fiction, and action as genres more than any other. But with war films, I appreciate a level of realism instead of escapism. The Big Parade, the highest grossing silent film in history, made a real attempt at realism, showing the war not as a grand adventure or something that turned boys into men, but a terrible conflict that caused pain, death, and destruction, but still had the potential to ennoble those who survived.
Our main character is James Apperson (John Gilbert, and notice that the character’s last name is a letter and a space away from being “a person”), who is a wealthy wastrel more interested in having a good time than in doing an honest day’s work. When war is declared, Jim is essentially guilted into joining by his friends, and wearing an Army uniform is evidently the first thing he’s ever done to meet with his father’s approval. Jim heads off to war and France with the assurance that he will one day return to marry his sweetheart, Justyn Reed (Claire Adams).
Along the way, we meet the two men who will prove to be the main companions of Jim as he experiences life in the Army and the war in France. These men are Slim (Karl Dane), a construction worker with a constant huge plug of tobacco in his cheek and Bull (Tom O’Brien), a short, feisty bartender. The three men make an unlikely trio, but as they prepare for the fighting during a stay in the village of Champillon.
The most important event in Champillon is the meeting of the three men with Melisande (Renee Adoree), a local girl in the village. All three men are attracted to her, but it’s Jim that she decides to allow to court her. Slim and Bull break into cellars and drink wine, Jim and Melisande romance each other for a bit, and Jim feels guilty about making time with the girl while Justyn is still waiting at home for him. Right when this is going to become a problem, the Americans are sent to the front and into the shooting war.
For me, this is where the film really picks up. The first hour of the film is really little more than a character study of Jim as he goes from spoiled, wealthy socialite with no social conscience or accountability to a man willing to put himself out for his fellow soldiers and willing to feel something about two-timing his faithful girl back home. I certainly understand the point of this part of the film, but would have been just as happy with it had it been about half as long.
The war scenes, though, are impressive. Huge lines of vehicles, massive explosions, and clouds of poison gas cover the battlefield, and it very much looks like the real thing. Mortar shells and bombs land near groups of men who are nearly buried in the massive clods of earth that spray up and cover them. Men drop in the wake of brutal machine gun fire. These scenes, while obviously staged for the film, have the feel of the genuine article. I can’t imagine the logistics involved with filming something of this size and scope in 1925, but King Vidor pulled it off brilliantly.
I have no real desire to spoil this film. Suffice to say that the three men in our story aren’t too long at the front, at least in terms of the film’s narrative. Jim finds himself wounded and has a face-to-face encounter with a German soldier that was later referenced in All Quiet on the Western Front. Eventually, Jim is taken to a field hospital and while recovering, he learns that Champillon has changed hands over and over. Worried about Melisande, he leaves the hospital to investigate, which creates a number of complications in his recovery.
The happy ending feels a bit tacked on here, but in its own way, it also feels earned. Following the still harrowing scenes of war and battle, a little happy ending isn’t so bad. It’s here that the first hour of the film—the comic scenes with Slim and Bull and the romance between Jim and Melisande pay off. I’m not entirely convinced that the payoff is entirely big enough to justify the length of that segment of the film. I’d still like to cut a bit from it, but based on the second half, I like them better in retrospect than I did in the moment of watching them.
Silent dramas are still a tough watch, but in the case of The Big Parade, it’s worth the struggle of getting through. Make it past the first hour, and you’ll find yourself amply rewarded both in terms of the quality of the action sequences and in terms of satisfaction in getting a return on the investment in the characters.
Why to watch The Big Parade: An early, successful attempt at wartime realism.
Why not to watch: The first hour is too slow even if it pays off eventually.