(thanks, SilentPianoNinja for making this spectacular modernized trailer!)
If you know someone who’s straddling the silent movie fence or avoiding it entirely for some strange reason, The Big Parade is a great movie to get them into appreciating a great many important films they’re missing out on. Director King Vidor’s absolutely brilliant and hugely influential 1925 film benefits from stellar performances all around, and a half comedic/half dramatic structure that introduces its cast of characters with vigor and plenty of humor in that first half before pulling no punches in its latter half’s battle scenes.
The great and handsome as heck John Gilbert along with the beautiful Renée Adorée give what would have been Academy Award-winning performances had the Academy existed at that point in time and for me, this is one of the more stirring pre-sound epics worth rounding up friends and/or family to watch this classic with. You’ll need a kettle of popcorn, a barrel of root beer (that barrel will come in handy later) and perhaps a box of tissues to go ’round the room, as this is 141 minutes of fantastic film making that’s truly stood the test of time
Gilbert’s James “Jim” Apperson is the layabout second son of a wealthy mill owner who finally ends up volunteering for service in the first World War after initially refusing to go. Between some pointed urging by his friends and later, his fiancée, Justyn (Claire Adams) who thinks he’ll look just snazzy and fit in his nice Army uniform (eek!), Jim zips into boot camp thinking it’ll be easy-peasy and he’ll get in and out of any combat (if he makes it that far) without a scratch. One has to keep his uniform neat for one’s intended, right? Anyway, the first half of the film is a breezy, blast of rapid-fire patter (silent style) as Jim meets fellow recruits Slim (Karl Dane) and Bull (Tom O’Brien) Bull (characters who amusingly LOOK like their nicknames). The three men bond during boot camp and after their training is up they set sail for and eventually land in France, temporarily holding up in a small village waiting to be sent into action. In the midst of all this is a hilarious scene where Jim unpacks a rock hard cake sent to him by Justyn, the men sort of adjust to life in a foreign land and there’s Adorée’s pretty farm girl Melisande, to distract them from duty for a bit.
Actually, Jim ends up the the lucky draw by means of an unlucky draw. He’s picked unfairly to go into the small village to get a big barrel the men can turn into a DIY shower and as he’s coming back from a wine merchant with the barrel over his upper body (how else does one carry a barrel without rolling it?), an amused Melisande tries to figure out who’s the monkey in the barrel as the encumbered Jim tries to get a look at who’s stopping his progress. Once he sees her face through a hole in his wooden jacket, it’s pretty much a given that the two will fall for each other in that wartime sweetie manner and more. Language barrier aside (Jim speaks not a word of French and Melisande’s English is equally terrible), that courtship process is itself ridiculously cute and gets wrapped up in a sweet, wonderful scene where Jim introduces Melisande to chewing gum with comical results. On a side note, the first time I saw this film, the scene of Jim stretching his gum and trying to get Melisande to follow suit made me look up the history of bubble gum, which wasn’t officially as a successful product invented until 1928. A-ha…
As their romance continues, Melsiande finds out through a letter he shows her that Jim is engaged and the lovers are torn by this revelation. Jim loves his faithful Justyn, but she’s so far away and with Melisande being so close and receptive, he’s basically forced himself into a trap of his own design. As both are lamenting away, there’s a sudden call to battle that leads to another stirring sequence where Jim and Melisande go looking for each other in the crush of men forming up and heading out to battle. They find each other and get in some emotional farewells that close the first half of the movie out perfectly. The second half starts out equally powerful and it’s all war from this section for most of the movie as the tone shifts to a more and mostly dramatic series of set pieces.
Men! Guns! Men! Men! Guns!
To the front! To the front! To the front…Front!…FRONT!
In no short order, the men are strafed by a German biplane, have a frightening encounter with snipers while traversing a thick forest and eventually make they way to the front lines and No Man’s Land as a whittled down, but still formidable fighting force. Of course, between the mustard gas, barbed wire, shelling and withering machine gun fire, not to mention brutal hand to hand fighting, the amount of man on both sides is far less than it was when the fighting begun. Spoiler: not all of the trio make it through this section (war is indeed hell), but those who die go out in heroic fashion. The battle sequences are amazing because of their ferocity, the terrific beauty of the cinematography and yes, how quickly how men are cut down pretty much from the moment they enter harm’s way. It’s clear that while not an anti-war film, Vidor and company are showing the cost of mass brutality cuts deep and it’s the survivors who often suffer more than the dead.
After the big battle a recuperating, but desperate and not fit for travel Jim breaks out of his convalescence when he finds out Melisande’s village has been bombed. He’s saved in dramatic fashion and is sent back to recover, but it’s clear where his heart now lies. Will Justyn understand when he gets back to her or will there be some silent heartbreak and perhaps Jim getting the big boot despite his injuries? Oh, you can figure THAT out pretty easily, as the film telegraphs a bit at times yet manages to be so engrossing that you’ll still be kept guessing. There are actually a few Big Parades in the film: the one on the way to France, the one in France on the way to battle and the final one that sends the survivors back home to their loved ones. Jim eventually makes it back worse for the wear and with the need to make a decision for a few futures.
What makes the film work in addition to the above noted performances are the snappy editing and excellent use of rewritten versions of “You’re In The Army Now” that convey the proper humor and drama to scenes as they open or conclude. As there’s no speech in the film both the great title cards and superb score (at least in the version I saw recently on TCM) help carry the emotional weight and enhance the actors’ performances all the more. This is a a film where you feel the performances practically leap off the screen and one that should get those former silent nay-sayers speaking up themselves and wanting more.
Just writing up this post makes me want to see this again, so I guess that’s what I’ll be doing once I get some free time. The mark of a great film is one you want to see more than once, and The Big Parade is one that’s well worth seeing multiple times because it’s got the same power to entertain and thrill that it had 89 years ago. Then again, war itself never really changes and neither does the need for well-told tales about it. And, hey! This post is part of the World War I in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Movies, Silently and Silent-ology.