Tuesday, July 19, 2011

#58 - The Big Parade

BACK-STORY: “The Big Parade” is a very influential war movie released in 1925. It was directed by King Vidor and was a huge hit. The film cost $245,000 and made over $22 million. It is the highest grossing silent movie in history. The screenplay is based on a play by Joseph Farnham and the autobiographical novel Plumes by Marine veteran Laurence Stallings. It made a superstar of its lead John Gilbert (previously known for romantic roles opposite Marlene Dietrich) and boosted the career of Renee Adoree, who sadly died a few years later from tuberculosis. Vidor had the cooperation of the War Department, specifically the 2nd Division and the Signal Corps. Vidor watched hours of Signal Corps film to get the rhythm of battle and used some of the footage in the movie.

OPENING: The movie opens in 1917 before U.S. entry. The main character is Jim Apperson (Gilbert) who is a spoiled rich boy who has no intention of either working for his father or fighting for his country. However, he succumbs to peer pressure during a parade celebrating America’s entry and enlists. (A scene similar to the schoolboys marching off in “All Quiet”.) This thrills his fiancé Justyn who coos “You’ll look gorgeous in an officer’s uniform. I’ll love you more than ever.” On the other hand, his mother is upset as mothers are wont to be. His previously disappointed father is now proud of him. (Again similar family dynamics to “All Quiet”)

SUMMARY: Jim ends up in the Rainbow Division. There is a disappointingly short training scene and then the unit marches off to war (apparently marching across the Atlantic). It is disappointing because we do not get to see the rich boy at boot camp. How does he become a soldier?

     They are billeted at a farm in the village of Champillon in France. Jim bonds with two men from the other side of the tracks. Slim (Karl Dane) was a worker on skyscrapers and Bull (Tom O’Brien) was a Bowery bartender. They share a very stale cake sent by Justyn and then want to share the cute farm girl Melisande (Adoree), but she chooses Jim. They conduct a chaste romance which is hampered by Jim’s inability to speak French (it’s Greek to him), but he tells her “I don’t understand a word you say, but I know what you mean.” Remember, she’s a French girl (contrast to “All Quiet”’s French mademoiselles). Some of the dialogue is done without subtitles which is cool. Being an American, he teaches this backwards European how to chew gum in a cute scene. Shockingly for a film made in 1925, Jim is carrying on behind the back of his American sweetheart which proves this movie is not your typical flag-waver.

     Guess what? There’s a war going on and soldiers have to fight. The trio is shipped off to the front. In a scene often copied (recently I saw a similar version in “The Cranes are Flying”), Melisande works her way through the chaos of embarking to finally locate Jim. They embrace and then she grabs his leg (foreshadowing) as the truck pulls away. She is dragged (I’m sorry to admit I laughed at this) and then he throws her a shoe? ( apparently he foresees that he will not be needing it in the future).

     In an amazing shot, we see a long line of trucks heading for the front (200 to be exact) while planes fly over (300). They take their first casualties when “Flying Fritzie” strafes them. The battle is set in Belleau Wood and the Americans naively advance in long lines shoulder to shoulder (at first). They march relentlessly forward disregarding the casualties taken from snipers. There is a plinking noise every time a sniper scores. After dealing with the snipers they encounter machine gun nests and use grenades (they pull the pins with their teeth) against them. The pace quickens as does the music. Next, they are hit by artillery. The nice disciplined lines are no more. They exit the woods and head into no man’s land. They need their gas masks.

     The trio ends up in a shell crater. The Germans are firing a trench mortar at them. (When they hit, someone off screen throws shovels of dirt on them.) They get an order for one of them to take out the mortar. Slim wins a spitting contest (no surprise since he’s been practicing spitting the whole movie) for the honor of committing suicide. Jim does not insist on a contest a rich guy could actually compete in.

      Slim manages to eliminate the mortar crew, but is wounded in the process. Jim loses it and he and Bull go after Slim. They find Slim dead and Jim goes Audie Murphy on the Germans followed by the more reluctant Bull. Bull gets mortally wounded and dies in Jim’s arms. Bull: “I’ll see you in Berlin.” Jim is hit in the leg and crawls after a German he had wounded, but he can’t bring himself to finish the German off and instead gives him a cigarette before he expires. (Contrast to the famous scene in “All Quiet”) The attack is renewed in the dark. The scene turns hellish with numerous explosions from frantically firing artillery. The Americans march in lines toward the enemy line.

CLOSING: A long line of trucks comes at the camera (a mirror of the earlier shot) indicating the close of the offensive. Jim is in the hospital having had his leg amputated. He sneaks out to return to the farm, but finds it deserted. Melisande is now a refugee. Jim returns home embittered. He does not know that his fiancé is now in love with his brother! His mother does, however, and when Jim tells her about Melisande, she encourages him to go find her. Jim returns to France. Melisande is plowing a field when she sees a figure on the horizon. Could it be? She goes running, he comes hobbling like Chester from “Gunsmoke”. The music swells, they kiss.


Action – 7

Acting - 8

Accuracy – 7

Realism – 7

Plot – 7

Overall – 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Yes. The love story is well done and engaging. The two leads are attractive and have good chemistry. The violence is not graphic and although intense at times, not especially macho.

ACCURACY: Although it is not specifically mentioned in the film, the battle is obviously Belleau Wood. Stallings lost a leg fighting in the battle. The depiction of the battle is very simplistic. In reality, the battle was in an artillery- ravaged forest and although the Marines (it was the Marines, not the Army as shown in the film) marched in lines into the forest, this did not last long. The problem in the woods was the numerous machine gun nests. The movie does not do a realistic job showing the slaughter inflicted by these machine guns. The battle took three weeks of consistently brutal fighting. Many of the Marines did not bathe or change clothes for the duration. The men did not robotically march forward to clear the woods. The tactics reenacted are consistent with an attack across no man’s land, however. By the way, soldiers do not pull pins out of grenades with their teeth, Hollywood.

     For a black and white movie made in 1925, the combat is pretty realistic in its hellishness. Veterans commented positively on this. No man’s land is accurately depicted and the grim reality of death is apparent. The soldierly bonding is well done. The effects of war on civilians is also touchingly rendered. Jim’s encounter with the wounded German soldier rings true, although it could have realistically gone the other way as well.

CRITIQUE: I was pleasantly surprised at how good this movie was. It holds up well and deserves its reputation as a classic. The cinematography is very good and the score fits the film well. The acting is top notch for the most part. Since it’s a silent movie, expect a lot of arm waving. Gilbert is outstanding. It would have been interesting to see him negotiate the transformation of a reluctant rich boy to a soldier in boot camp, but the movie inexplicably jumps over this phase. Yet, Vidor includes an extended segment of the unit shoveling manure! Go figure. Adoree is adorable (sorry). The chemistry between the two is palpable. The gum chewing scene is noteworthy in this respect. O’Brien as Bull is effective, although he plays him as a noncom leader at first when they arrive at the farm, but suddenly he turns into a typical stay-one-step-ahead-of-the-MPs soldier. This allows for comic relief with Slim. Speaking of Slim, Dane is the weak link in the quartet. He is so bizarre looking you can’t take your eyes off him, but not in a good way. It would be like putting Marty Feldman (for those who say “who?’, substitute Flavor Flav) in a serious war film. He would be good for the lighter moments, but what about when you get to combat?

     The romance feels a bit rushed. They fall in love quickly which is due to the time constraints of the plot. “All Quiet” does a more realistic job depicting wartime “romance”. The iconic departure scene is powerful and influential, but is definitely dated and I can’t imagine my high school students not laughing at Melisande being dragged behind the truck. The tidy resolution of Jim’s engagement by having her already jilt him in favor of his brother drained the potential of him choosing Melisande over his fiancé.

      The battle section of the movie is very good. It may lack a bit of accuracy and realism, but it is excitingly done. The deaths are unexpected. The “fog of war” is emphasized. Audiences got a taste of what it must have been like to be trapped in no man’s land.

      The movie is important because it showed the human dimensions of war. Previous movies about war had not concentrated on the grunts (or in this case, doughboys). You had not seen realistic deaths like Slim’s and Bull’s. The main character would not have been maimed. Previous movies were either anti-German or propagandistic, or both. This movie is neither. It is anti-war, but not as strongly as some critics have claimed. It does have a happy ending which dilutes the anti-war message.

CONCLUSION: If you define “greatest” as most important, “The Big Parade” belongs in the top 100 and probably should be higher than #58. It is one of the great WWI movies and follows “All Quiet” (#1), “Paths of Glory” (2), “Wings” (11), Sergeant York (19), “The Dawn Patrol” (38), and “Hell’s Angels” (43). It will be interesting to see how it stacks up against “Wings” and “Hell’s Angels”. As far as the most obvious comparison, it is definitely inferior to “All Quiet” which came out five years later. However, if you define “greatest” as best quality, “The Big Parade’ naturally comes up short due to its simplistic plot and the drawbacks of the silent era. I would not hesitate to call it a classic, but it is not one of the best war movies ever made.


  1. Never even heard of this one! Will definitely try and find it!

  2. the war movie buffJuly 19, 2011 at 8:38 PM

    Good luck. It is very famous, but not on Net Flix (one of the four from the Greatest 100 list that is not available). I had to download it (as I had to do with Dunkirk). The other two btw are Scipio Africanus and Ministry of Fear.

  3. I like this review a lot. I had heard of it but wasn't aware that it was that old. I'm quite intrigued and would like to watch it.

  4. the war movie buffJuly 20, 2011 at 8:15 AM

    I think you would enjoy it.


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