The Big Parade (1925)
The Big Parade (1925) is director/producer King Vidor's most famous, precedent-setting war film from the silent era. It was the first realistic war drama and has served ever since as an archetypal model for all other war films. It was the first big box-office success of the newly-formed MGM Studios - and possibly the most profitable silent film of all time - it helped bring back the popularity of war films in the late 20s. Vidor, often compared to the end of the century's director Steven Spielberg, brought his own epic, sweeping style to his intimate yet massive work about love and war.
Screenwriter Harry Behn based his script on a story by author Laurence Stallings, who based his writing on his own gritty wartime experiences as a Marine serving in N. France. Made only seven years after the Great War's Armistice, the film captures the impact of the conflict on an ordinary GI. It was the first war film of its kind to tell its story from the viewpoint of the GI. Handsome matinee silent screen idol John Gilbert gave his greatest acting performance in a star-making role as one of three Americans who enlisted and was swept into the war in France.
When compared to the first anti-war film of the talkie era, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), The Big Parade is more a film of escapist entertainment rather than an anti-war treatise, although its powerful battle scenes and staging undoubtedly influenced director Lewis Milestone's later film.
The Big Parade is divided into two distinct sections:
- Section I: about 75 minutes long, is part light-hearted comedic humor and romance about the lives and experiences of three inductees (from different backgrounds - a gawky riveter, a Bowery bartender, and a son-of-privilege millionaire) upon their arrival in France, and the winning of the affection of a beautiful French-speaking village girl.
- Section II: almost equal in length, is a grim statement of the madness and futility of war, and filled with extraordinarily realistic and authentic battle scenes and vivid representations of trench warfare (peppered with graphic language in the film's inter-titles), and supplemented with a gripping and poignant love story to present the war's emotional impact.
After the credits, a title card notes that "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer gratefully acknowledges the splendid co-operation of the Second Division, United States Army and Air Service Units, Kelly Field."
The first scenes of the film quickly introduce the three main characters in a United States of 1917 with booming productivity: "In the Spring of 1917, America was a nation occupied in peaceful progression. Mills were humming with activity - Buildings climbed skyward, monuments to commerce and profession. The three men from different walks of life, who will soon be called to war, are introduced:
- "Here 'Slim' Jensen worked....just one of labor's millions, building a nation." Tobacco chewing, blue-collar steelworker/riveter Slim Jensen (Karl Dane) works high atop a steel skyscraper.
- "Along The Bowery were men of another trade. Among them was 'Bull' O'Hara." Bartender 'Bull' Michael O'Hara (Tom O'Brien) wipes a glass clean behind the bar.
- "On life's other side were rich men, chiefs of industry...and rich men's sons - such as Jim Apperson." Jim Apperson (John Gilbert), the affable son of a wealthy southern mill owner, belongs to the monied class - he is reclining and lathered up for a shave by a black servant, who asks: "Are you for sure goin' to take a job in your father's mill?" A lounger, he is unambitious and uninterested in productive work: "Me...work? I should say not!"
Sirens and steam whistles signal more than the end of the work day. The day's newspaper carries the headline that President Wilson has declared war and the troops are bound for Europe: "WAR DECLARED - Tremendous Rush For Enlistment." "In such an hour, most mothers are alike...and Jim's mother was no exception." Jim's mother (Claire McDowell) is concerned that Jim may have to enlist and go 'over there', but he laughs off the seriousness of it: "I have enough war on my hands...with Dad." "As long as Jim could remember he had been in love with Justyn Reed." His hometown, girl-next-door sweetheart Justyn (Claire Adams) is caught up in war's enthusiasm and coaxes him to enlist - attaching romance to the idea of fighting:
Justyn: Aren't you thrilled that we're going to war?
Justyn: You'll look gorgeous in an officer's uniform! I'll love you more than ever then.
"What a thing is patriotism! We go for years not knowing we have it. Suddenly - Martial music!...Native flags!...Friends cheer!...and it becomes life's greatest emotion!" Jim drives his open convertible into town - his way is blocked by a flag-waving, patriotic parade of white-uniformed nurses and marching bands, accompanying volunteers leaving his American hometown for the battlefront of World War I. Excited friends from another vehicle call over to him: "Come on! The whole gang's going over!" Impulsively, Jim taps his feet to the beat of the martial music - the militarism is contagious. One parader carries a sign: "Berlin or Bust - We'll Knock the L out of Berlin."
That evening, after Jim returns home and is dropped off by his buddies, his mother embraces him with worry. His father (Hobart Bosworth) supports the war effort: "It's come, Mother! Now we must all pitch in and do our bit!...Harry (Robert Ober) [Jim's younger brother] has already organized double shifts at the mill...and he's going to work nights!"
Jim's father sternly lectures and points at Jim in his study and demands an end to his useless idleness - comparing him to his more serious and responsible brother:
Mr. Apperson: Look here, young man! I've stood all the nonsense and idleness from you that I'm going to stand! We're in the fight now...and it's time for every man to jump in and get busy! Look at your brother! See how he's putting his shoulder to the wheel! The country's at war! There's no room in my house for idlers! You'll do something or...get out!
Jim: (perplexed) Is that all? Do you mind if I stay here tonight? (His father assents) (to his brother) Is it all right with you? (His brother agrees)
Justyn: (She enters and hugs her boyfriend) Aren't you all proud of him? (Jim's father asks: "Proud of him. For what?") Hasn't he told you? (Mr. Apperson and Harry answer "No.") Jim has enlisted!
There are surprised and mixed reactions - his mother hugs him and rests her head on his shoulder, knowing that she will soon see him depart. His father smiles and rushes over excitedly to shake his son's hand and lights up a cigar. Harry looks with pride toward his older brother.
"From avenue and alley they came...ROOKIES." The camera pans across the front row of boot camp enlistees, including the threesome of Slim, Jim, and Bull. Jim sticks out with his affluent clothing and belongings. The image of them walking behind their drill sergeant in street clothes dissolves into their full-uniformed march as infantrymen - hundreds of them - marching and singing optimistically as they proceed into France:
You're in the army now,
You're not behind a plow;
You'll never get rich,
You're in the army now!
"And so the 'laughing American' boys, a song on their lips, marched into France. One nightfall, after a march of twenty miles, they arrived in Champillon...weary and ready for sleep." French peasant girls gesture tantalizingly at the tired men as they arrive and receive "orders for billeting."
In a light-hearted sequence, where the warfront is only a backdrop for frolicking hijinks, some of the men climb up into a hayloft to sleep. But before they can retire, pushy Corporal Bull orders them to "police" the yard and shovel the manure out of the barn - their first real task: "Hey, you Bozoes! No sleep for you babies until you dress this manure pile! Come on! Take the anchors off them shovels!" He sings a revised Army song to entertain them:
You're in the army now
No use to raise a row;
Shovel and chuck
The goo and the muck,
You're in the army now!
His buddies joke with Bull about the detestable work:
Slim (complaining): Say, I joined this army to fight...not shovel!
Jim: You'll shovel and like it, dearie!
Bull (after giving Slim a bigger shovel): Now, you big stiff - SHOVEL!
Jim has his first look at a young French peasant girl named Melisande (Renee Adoree), the daughter of a farmer who doesn't speak English - she will eventually become the object of his affection. She stands back as her mother (Rosita Marstini) complains about the noise of the men outside their village home. Bull spurs on the men to work faster: "What do you birds think this is...a May party? Come on! Show me some speed!" In a flurry, they shovel the manure at him.