Filmsite Movie Review
The Big Parade (1925)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

At that very moment, a bugle is blown and the men are summoned to the battlefront:

Fall in! Company street! Full packs and tin hats! Ten minutes! We're moving up!!

Jim stands and freezes, touches his throat, and realizes the crucial moment of decision is upon him. The men hurriedly gather their belongings in the hayloft: "Step on it, Lightning! WE'RE MOVING UP!"

The scene of the parting of the troops is one of the film's most famous and memorable. In his haste, Jim calls out for Melisande but cannot locate her. She too hears the bugle call and sees the dust of the trucks, the horse-drawn caissons, and the running men assembling for the pull-out. Her distress and desperation rises with the suddenness of their leaving. Suddenly, she decides that she is desperately in love with the American doughboy.

She pushes her way through the massed ranks of soldiers - looking and calling out for him in the ensuing chaos and rising dust. Her frenzied search becomes more frantic and emotional as Melisande searches for a glimpse of him to bid him a lasting farewell. Two other passing soldiers grab at her - one touches her breast, the other tries to steal a kiss. Jim climbs into the back of a transport truck, one in a long line of battle trucks. When he finally catches sight of her, he jumps off the truck and races back - they wildly embrace and pepper each other with kisses - framed in close-up. Earnestly, he vows to return to her in the touching scene:

I'm coming back! - Remember - - - I'm coming back!

An officer pulls on Jim, and then rips them apart. The agonized, feisty French village girl hits back at anyone who would tear them from each other. As Jim is dragged into the tail end of a truck, Melisande holds on firmly to his left leg - refusing to let go. She runs along for a moment as the truck pulls away - she desperately hangs onto a chain dangling off the vehicle, trying to halt the inevitable and defy both time and fate. When she won't let go, she is dragged alongside the procession until she can't hold on any longer. He tosses her mementos to remember him by: his wristwatch, his dogtags, and one shoe, and then sprays her with two-handed kisses. She stands and watches the truck disappear - holding his shoe to her bosom. The passing vehicles and clouds of dust envelope her - and then subside. In the middle of the road, she sinks to her knees with her head bowed.

Section II:

In a spectacular shot, a long, single-file line of military trucks stretches from the foreground to the far-distant horizon along an endlessly straight road: "Men! Men! Men! Moving up! Up! UP! MEN!!" Bi-planes gather in the sky overhead during the massive mobilization. The camera fades to black on the sole figure of Melisande in the middle of the road.

Men! Guns! Men! Men! Guns!
To the front! To the front! To the front...Front!...FRONT!

"An endless column surging forward over roads that never were retraced." The "Eyes of the Army!" are the warplanes in the sky. "And when Jim's outfit reached the fighting zone, motor trucks were left behind and the remaining miles made a-foot." The men complain about the tough times:

Bull: We're ridden far enough and walked far enough to be in China!
Slim: Nix! If this was China you'd see a lot of Chop Suey joints around!

"Whenever there were new arrivals near the front, 'Flying Fritzie' usually sneaked across the line to give them their first welcome." From an aerial view, the German airman (the Flying Fritzie) zeroes in on the marching troops, swoops down on top of them, and sprays them with machine-gun fire - a few of the men are hit or killed. Jim grimly tells Slim that war has come: "Well, we're in it now, Buddy!" Return fire from ground weapons blasts the plane out of the sky in a fiery ball of flames. "To the front! To the front! To the front...Front!...FRONT!" The men rest - in close-frame shots, Slim, Jim, and Bull lie next to each other - with Jim in-between:

Slim (to Bull): Gimme a cigarette, Bull.
Bull: I don't mind givin' you cigarettes...but I hate carryin' 'em all 'round France for you. (Jim passes a cigarette from Bull to Slim)
Slim: Gimme a match.
Bull: What am I...Santy Claus? (Jim passes Bull's non-functioning lighter back and forth)

The men, sprawled along the sides of a winding road, are prepared to be sent into the Belleau Wood battle area. It is a chilling funeral march into sure death through sniper-filled woods:

Commander: Well, they say the woods ahead are alive with machine guns and snipers. What do you say, Captain?
Captain: We're ready for orders, sir. (The men are assembled into ranks) Fix...bayonets! (Jim registers shock on his expressive face.) ATTACK FORMATION!

Two waves of soldiers are sent into the area in a beautifully-choreographed battle sequence - the men advance in their battle line through a seemingly empty woods area, except for scattered corpses from an earlier skirmish. The steady, eerie slowness with which they rhythmically march through the ominous daylight (to the relentless beat of a bass drum on the soundtrack) is filmed in a long, straight-on tracking shot - it is harrowing, suspenseful and frightening. Sporadically, the first man falls to sniper fire in the distance behind Slim and Jim - and then another, and another. A group of enemy soldiers surrenders - holding their hands up high in the air. The front wave of American soldiers, that has successfully cleared part of the forest, continues their march. Further on, German sniper fire from camouflaged nests indiscriminately mows down more of the men. Fighting back, the doughboys throw hand grenades toward the hidden enemy.

The battle becomes fiercer the farther the flanks of American military men march forward - explosions kick up mounds of dirt and smoke as the ranks of men are thinned. Larger, wagon-mounted cannons find their targets. The foot soldiers reach no-man's land, a desolate, sterile area where the trees are stripped of branches and leaves and the fighting is done from open trenches:

Jim: They're not going to send us out in that open field, are they?
Slim: Sure! We're gonna keep goin' till we can't go no farther!

Poisonous fumes from a gas attack forces them to hurriedly don gas-masks - their goggle-eyed headgear makes them appear like strange elephants. They are commanded to cross open territory. Sniper fire from repeating machine guns in the trenches becomes more intense - tractor tanks dot the bare landscape during their approach. It is a devastating scene of hellish proportions - dirt flying, and men crawling and jumping over crater pits.

"Outnumbered by the second line of German defense, they took refuge in shell holes." Slim, Jim, and Bull are together and still unharmed in one of the foxholes:

Bull: This dump is lousy with Heinies! I could chuck my hat across to where they are.
Slim: Quit squawkin'! You don't want to live forever, do you?

"That was how they received their baptism of fire...and while they held the line, the machine of war moved up behind them. Dusk - - Silence...Mud...the whine of a shell...Mud...silence." Nighttime falls and the men face an interminable wait - cornered close to a German machine-gun post. The silence is broken by a plane that flies overhead - Bull ducks his head into a muddy crevice like an ostrich. Jim plucks one of the few remaining flowers from the top of his trench - boldly daring the enemy to shoot him. After one furious explosion, a wide-eyed Slim looks around and asks: "Am I dead yet?" Bull peels open a metal can of Corned Beef - their rations for the day.

The company commander orders one of them to clean out the machine-gun nest ahead of them: "The skipper says for one of you guys to go get that Fritzie with the toy cannon." Although Slim readily volunteers himself, Jim rejects the notion until a more equitable method of choice is determined:

Jim: Why should you take the chance to be picked off? You're no better than we are!
Slim: We'll settle gentlemen! (He draws a simple target in the dirt) The guy what spits closest...goes! And splashes don't count.
Jim: But you're the champion spitter of the whole army.
Slim: No arguin' with a Corporal! What I orders!

All of them spit for the honor: Bull's splash misses the circle and Jim's hits the perimeter. Slim - a champion tobacco chewer and spitter - hits the target squarely. He smiles at his pals: "!" Before leaving the relative safety of the trench, he turns back: "Out there's no place for little boys like you."

"Slowly, inch by inch, Slim wriggled his way...until full darkness came." The night battle sequence captures the nightmarish quality of the war - explosions light up the sky momentarily as he crawls along, seeking shelter in each crater or behind dead bodies. Jim and Bull wait feverishly:

Jim: Do you think he'll make it all right?
Bull: Sure! Slim'll come back wearin' the Kaiser's moustache!

A huge silhouette of Slim's gun and bayonet, illuminated by hellish bursts of shellfire, casts a giant shadow above the German trench lines - he jumps one German and engages in hand-to-hand combat with another in the nest. Bull advises a restless Jim to calm his fear: "For the love of Mike, be me!" Slim emerges from the trench with two German helmets - trophies that he has gathered like scalps. While crawling on his way back, he is wounded on the battlefield. Jim is thrown into agony and tortured pain when he realizes that his friend may be the next victim:

Jim and Bull: (They call out over the lip of the trench) Yo...Slim!
Another soldier: Say, you hyenas...pipe down!
Jim: You can't make us shut up! Slim's out there alone!

Moaning for help, Slim repeatedly calls out to be rescued. Jim hears more machine gun fire and again screams over the top of the trench: "Hey...Slim!" Once more, Jim is told to keep quiet by company orders: "Cut that out. You got orders!"

Jim: God, Bull...I can hear Slim moaning out there.

With resolute fearlessness, Jim shrieks madly at the insanity of war:

Jim: Orders! Orders! Who the hell is fighting this war - men or orders? I came to fight - not to wait and rot in a lousy hole while they murder my pal! Waiting! Orders! Mud! Blood! Stinking stiffs! What the hell do we get out of this war anyway! - cheers when we left and when we get back! But who the hell cares...after this?
Bull: Don't let it get you, kid...don't let it get you!

As blood gushes from a wound under Slim's helmet and he gasps for help for his last time, he perishes under more gunfire. Resolute, Jim grabs his firearm and vows: "I'm goin' to bring Slim back!" At first resistant, Bull joins him to rescue Slim. Both crawl as low as they can get through the dark - illuminated by flashes of explosions. Jim turns his pal over and when he can't revive him, he screams out at the heavens for the futile waste of life: "Slim, can't you just try to say...good-bye? They got him! They got him! GOD DAMN THEIR SOULS!" He stands and turns toward the German enemy:

You got my Buddy, you b---------s! Now...COME ON!

With a surge of fearless strength and energy, he charges toward the German trench, removes a grenade from his jacket, takes the pin out with his teeth, and hurls it forward. Jim and Bull both launch an attack into the trench, stabbing the stunned soldiers in the nest with their bayonets. They continue charging and throwing more grenades further ahead - but Bull is hit and calls out as he dies: "I'll meet you in Berlin." Jim is wounded in the left knee and lies crippled on the ground.

Crazed and enraged by the death of his two friends, Jim aims his rifle from his downed position and wounds a German sniper who is about to attack him. When his gun jams, Jim removes his bayonet and painfully drags his body toward the equally-crippled German to vengefully finish him off. In a long, uninterrupted take, Jim pursues the wounded, dying German youth back into a shell hole with the bayonet in his fist - but face to face, he is unable to finish him off with the blade poised at the enemy's neck. When his victim gestures for a cigarette, Jim compassionately gives him one from his stash under his helmet and lights it. Then disgusted by him, Jim pushes the teenaged German's face away and then cowers as the man dies next to him - the cigarette falls limply from the corpse's lips. The agony, fear, filth and inhumanity of war - and the intimate proximity of death itself - change Jim forever. He retrieves the cigarette stub and smokes it himself.

From behind, the American commander orders a charge with reinforcements in an intensified attack. Support troops swarm by Jim's shellhole as he tries to attract someone's attention. The Americans surround and overtake a house where the few remaining Germans are hiding, moving further into No Man's Land and claiming land for themselves. The battlefield becomes an inferno of fiery explosions, cannon fire, and hellish bursts of smoke, flame, and dirt. Jim is rescued from death - a Red Cross truck picks him up.

"Another Big Parade," a single file line of trucks, retraces its way back along the road. In a makeshift Army field hospital with beds lined up in a cavernous stone cathedral, Jim lies recuperating between two other wounded GIs - one is hysterical and roped into his bed, the other one's head is bandaged:

One of the soldiers: Where did you get yours?...They nicked me as we were going through Champillon.
Jim: (his eyes widen) Champillon? CHAMPILLON?
Soldier: Say, that farmhouse has changed hands four times since yesterday.
Jim: (distraught) How far is Champillon from here?
Soldier: Six kilometers north.

After hearing that Melisande's town has been bombed and is in the middle of the heated battle zone, Jim struggles out of bed, uses a crutch to hobble away on his one good leg, falls through an open window to the outside, and hitches a ride to the village. The assault on Champillon has created many exiled refugees of its villagers - Melisande and her mother, with their belongings wrapped in cloth bundles thrown over their shoulders, trudge along a country road. Painfully, Jim maneuvers himself out of the truck in the deserted, devastated town of Champillon. In front of Melisande's home, he finds a ransacked shell of a building as he desperately calls out for his missing sweetheart: "Melisande!"

He is caught in the middle of further conflict and shellfire in the town - again he is hit in the leg - loaded onto a stretcher and stashed into the back of a Red Cross truck. His eyes communicate his suffering and the realization that war is a murderous hell.

The last gun had thundered! The fields of France were stilled in peace. The Apperson home knew its greatest hour! Jim was coming back!

Jim is brought back to America and is driven home with his father: "Well,'ll soon be home. I guess you'll be glad to see your old sweetheart again?" However, in the meantime, Jim's younger brother (who remained home to take care of family business) has stolen Justyn's heart from him - Mrs. Apperson glimpses them secretly kissing each other while waiting for Jim's home-coming:

Harry: I can't give you up, Justyn -
Justyn: We mustn't forget what Jim has been through.

As Jim walks with two crutches through the front door of the Apperson home, it is revealed for the first time that his left leg has been amputated at the knee. In one of the film's most powerful moments, his mother (flanked by Harry and Justyn) sees her son's mutilation for the first time. As they hug, the scene momentarily dissolves into the retrospective memories of his mother imagining her young son frolicking on two legs at various stages during his healthy youth. Justyn approaches with tears in her eyes - truly touched by Jim's sacrifice. His brother, on the other hand, is callous and insensitive:

Harry: You look great, Jim, old man!
Jim: Don't try to kid me! I know what I look like!
Mr. Apperson: Jim boy, mother and I are proud of you...and we thank God you've been spared.

In their living room, Jim lies in his mother's arms, reveals his love for a French woman, and is urged to return to France and find her:

Jim: Mother?
Mrs. Apperson: Yes, Jim.
Jim: There's a girl in France - -
Mrs. Apperson: Then you must find her...nothing else matters.

Life is difficult in France for Melisande and her mother. They plow in a field full of dirt clods, although the young girl still pines for her American soldier boy - she stretches chewing gum from her mouth. Way in the distance, a tiny, dark figure appears on the top of a rolling French hillside - walking with a halting limp. Intuitively sensing something unusual, Melisande's eyes open wide and she begins running toward the figure - she crosses the field, slides down an embankment, and traverses another field. It is Jim coming down the road in a traveling suit - hobbling on a wooden leg and steadied with a cane, returning to the girl of his dreams as he promised. In the gripping, moving finale, he tries feverishly to quicken his pace and run into her arms:


They are finally reunited and overjoyed as they embrace and hug each other once more.

The End.

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