The Big Parade (1925) A Guest Post by nem baj

Today’s review is a Guest Post by one of my regular visitors, nem baj. It’s a post on one of the great war movie classics. I hope you will enjoy it.

The Big Parade (1925), the mother of all war movies?

The biggest hit of american cinema until Gone With the Wind was a war movie. Its commercial success was a surprise: in 1925, so close to World War I, the subject was still considered to be doomed at the U.S. box-office. King Vidor’s The Big Parade definitely reversed the tide, and its later influence on so many filmmakers makes it a must-see for the readers of this blog (1).

The Big Parade follows Jim, a young American man from an upper-class family who, like many others of different backgrounds, enlists in the Infantry and goes fighting in Europe. He will experience military life and love in the French countryside, then the horrors and glories of the Great War. This simple storyline is a perfect vehicle for a very strong theme in the director’s work: that of the individual at grips with society, the pressure of one’s social circles and the collective passions of the time (from The Crowd to The FountainHead).

Between two ‘book-ends’ sequences about Jim’s (John Gilbert) civilian life, the story is two-fold, almost perfectly symmetrical. The first part looks like a ‘military comedy’, young troopers making buddies and flirting with French women despite the language barrier, getting into rows, coping with the oddities of service… It is nicely shot, funny like only silents can be, and full of Vidoresque traits. For instance the scene when Mélisande (Renée Adorée) watches Jim’s buddy naked under their improvised shower – this was of course pre-code – which will find its clothed replica in The FountainHead; the moment when she rubs on her skin a rose she just picked, in order to smell good, and of course the chewing-gum initiation…

At some point the first time viewer might be tempted to wonder where this is going. After all isn’t this depiction of, well, American sex tourists, while so many others were dying, outrageous? Now, if these idyllic moments got to you by their simple poetry and lust for life, you’re in for a dramatic turn right in the middle of the film. In a masterful eight minutes scene – the departure of Jim’s unit for the front, leaving Mélisande behind – your heart should be wrenched, and you’ll start to feel exactly what humans leave behind when a war starts.

Then comes the second part, with its emblematic shots. The symmetry between the column of rookies riding to the front and the column of ambulances bringing back the wounded (Monicelli’s train scene in La Grande Guerra), the claustrophobia of the shell-holes (Milestone’s All Quiet…, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory), the difference between war and murder (Kobayashi’s Human Condition), the ensemble march in the woods (Kubricks’ Full Metal Jacket final shot), the contrast between disciplined fighting and the rage when your friends are killed (too many to list), etc.

Sure, you’ve seen all this in later movies. But this is the original grammar book, and Vidor is at his best: the cinematography, the editing are amazing, constantly switching between very wide shots and intimate ones to compose a lyrical vision of… hell. For war is undoubtedly a man-made hell in this film. Yet, the tour de force of Vidor’s movie is that it is beyond the pacifist debate: « The Big Parade charts a modern progress through a crazy world. Neither picaro nor pilgrim, [Jim] drifts, marches, stumbles upon a landscape he never made »(2).

The last ‘bookend’ sequence, the return to civilian life, might seem quaint. Yet it does not depart from the lyricism of the work, torn between human despair and hopes. The flashback in the mind of Jim’s mother, the ending between Jim and Mélisande (a soft rehearsal for Duel in the Sun‘s finale?) should please any opera lover, and the ‘lost generation’ gaze of John Gilbert when he rides home with his father is probably the best introduction to Scott Fitzgerald ever filmed…

1) No DVD yet, you may watch clips here (click twice on the “play now” links on the right to avoid the ads).
2) Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simon, King Vidor, American, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Thanks, nem baj, for a great contribution. 

15 WWI Movies You Should Watch

It’s an interesting thing that while there is a huge amount of American movies on WWII, the really outstanding WWI movies mostly come from other countries. It’s no coincidence but I’m not going to elaborate on the reasons, it may suffice to say, that the leading film making countries for WWI are Australia, France and the UK. There are many movies but those below are the ones I consider to be must-sees if you want to delve into the topic. I have reviewed all of the below mentioned movies with one exception. You can find the links at the end of each entry.

While I usually arrange these lists chronologically I did split them into countries of origin in this case.

Australia

Gallipoli (1981). One of the classic WWI movies. A Peter Weir film starring the young Mel Gibbson. The focus is on two friends who enlist more in a spirit of adventure than patriotism. They will take part in one of WWI’s most futile battles, at Gallipoli, in Turkey. The end of the movie is harrowing and gives a good impression of the absurdity of the war.

The Lighthorsemen (1987) This is one of the very rare cavalry combat movies. It has a nice “band of brothers” feel. Highly watchable. The Lighthorsemen were fighting in Africa and their achievement is legendary. Something the Australians are still proud of. Review

Beneath Hill 60 (2010).  Another movie which shows an outstanding and truly amazing Australian victory. The movie is set in the trenches and beneath them and shows how much the miners contributed to the war. Review

France

La Grande Illusion – Grand Illusion (1937) This is a classic. One of Jean Renoir’s great movies starring the unforgettable Jean Gabin. It has a very surreal touch which should emphasize the absurdity of war. It’s a prisoner of war movie. Review

La vie et rien d’autre – Life and Nothing But (1989). Beautiful movie focussing on the time after the war. So many men were lost on the battle fields, so many dead soldiers not identified. One woman is looking for her husband in this bleak but beautiful Tavernier movie. Review

La Chambre des officiers – The Officer’s Ward (2001). WWI is notorious for the facial wounds. No other war has scarred men like this one (due to the specific explosives). This is a movie which focuses on these wounds. Of all the war movies I have seen (many), this was one of the best but also one of the hardest to watch. I had nightmares. Review

UK

The Blue Max (1966). An air combat movie with a German POV. Themes are class and the arrogance and sporting mind of the combat pilots. Most pilots in WWI were aristocrats, not so Lt Stachel. Review

Aces High (1976). An air combat movie, not one of the best but not bad either. Less character driven than the last one. Review

Regeneration – Behind the Lines (1997). Based on Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy it looks into shell shock, the war experience of some famous poets and the birth of a medical discipline, namely psychiatry. Review

All the King’s Men (1999). The movie tells the story of a company who seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. As if they had been swallowed. It illustrates how badly prepared some of the troops were, especially at the beginning of the war. The English had a hard time in some terrain, notably Africa. The story begins like a ghost story but you will find out what happened to the company. It’s all too real. Review

My Boy Jack (2007). The movie tells the true story of Rudyard Kipling’s son Jack. The story is exemplary. Misguided patriotism makes Kipling push his only son who is very illfitted and as visually impiared as a mole to join. At first I had a problem with Daniel Radcliffe as Jack but other than that this is an excellent and very emotional movie. And so heartbreaking. Tissues might be needed. Review

US

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). One of the first war movies ever. Quite ground breaking. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s eponymous novel. It has one of the best scenes I’ve seen in a war movie. Review

Paths of Glory (1957). Kubricks’ classic look at the short comings of French high command and the horror of trench warfare. Review

Germany/France/UK

Joyeux Noël – Merry Christmas (2005). This is one of my personal favourites for more than one reason. It shows an incredible true story, the story of the little peace during the great war. During the first Christmas the troops stopped fighting and got together to play football in no mans’ land. The actors are all great and chosen from their respective countries. Review

The Red Baron (2008). This is one of those guilty pleasure movies. It was criticized in Germany because it didn’t emphasize the “hunting and sport” spirit that drove the aristocratic pilots like von Richthofen, called the Red Baron, to join up. He is shown like a hero. The negative side is not touched. Funny enough this is only true for the German version, the English got it better. Review

Birdsong (2012) Part II of the WWI Drama

This is just a very quick post, an update really. I watched Part II of Birdsong, the BBC One TV drama based on Sebastian Faulk’s novel, on the weekend.

Here is what I wrote at the end of post I.

I didn’t mind watching it, I even liked it, but it isn’t great, it’s just very watchable. I’ll tell you my final impressions once I have watched part II.

Well, here are my final impressions. While part one was heavy on the romance element of the story, part two is much more about the war. The story is still told alternating flashbacks and episodes in 1919. Stephen has been at war for the whole duration of the war. Part II managed to change my view of the whole series completely and I have to say, I liked it a lot. I even thought that Eddie Redmayne was after all the perfect choice for this role of a heartbroken man trying to survive the horrors of the trenches.

Don’t miss it if you get the chance to watch it.

Birdsong (2012) Part I of the WWI Love and War Drama

I finally managed to watch Part I of Birdsong, the BBC One TV drama based on Sebastian Faulk’s excellent eponymous novel. They chose to tell the story moving back and forth between 1910 and 1916.

Stephen is fighting in the trenches and thinking back on how he meet Isabelle, in France, in 1910. He stayed at her house and helped her husband, a factory owner, develop new machines. Those machines were going to make a lot of the workers lose their jobs.  The marriage is an odd one. The children are from a former wife, Isabelle and her husband have no children together. At night Stephen hears her cry, during the day he watches her sneak around. She tells him later that she brings bread to the worker’s families.

Isabelle is clearly what the French call a “mal-mariée” – a woman unhappy in her marriage. Stephen is much younger than her husband. He is kind, caring and very attentive. We can’t blame her for falling in love.

All this is shown in flashbacks while Stephen is fighting in the trenches. He is a Lieutenant and has the reputation of being very quiet and superstitious. He seems to have no family, friends or a sweetheart. The trench they are in is above a tunnel system dug out to lead under the German trenches where they could be blown up. The diggers hear that the Germans are digging on the other side as well and are quickly approaching. Usually miners were sent down, not infantry men, but the commanding officer decides that Stephen and his men have to go down as well. Stephen had a problem with one of the miners before and now he is sent down with him.

I’m looking forward to part II as I have forgotten the rest of the story. Or at least the rest of the love story. When I read the book I was much more impressed with the parts on WWI. Although the movie starts in the trenches, it still is much more of a love than a war movie and can’t even be called a war romance as I would only call a movie “war romance” when the romance is set during the war.

I didn’t mind watching it, I even liked it, but it isn’t great, it’s just very watchable. I’ll tell you my final impressions once I have watched part II.

The African Queen (1951)

The African Queen is one of those classics that many people like. Surprisingly I’ve never even seen it on TV although Hollywood classics are regularly shown on Sunday afternoons. I didn’t expect anything because other than that it’s set in Africa during WWI I knew nothing about it. After having seen it, I know that it is rather a screwball comedy than a war movie as such. Nevertheless I enjoyed watching it. It is entertaining and the actors are excellent. Being a bit of a Humphrey Bogart fan I had to watch it sooner or later.

September 1914, German Eastern Africa. Missionary Reverend Samuel Sayer and his prudish sister Rose (Katharine Hepburn) live on a farm isolated from any other colonists. They are regularly visited by Charlie Allnut who owns a crummy boat, the “African Queen” and travels up and down the river, bringing the mail and other things. He is boorish and has very obviously an alcohol problem.

When the war in Europe breaks out, the colonies are drawn into it as well. German troops burn down the mission and the Reverend dies soon afterwards. Allnut passes by on his boat and helps Rose to bury her brother and takes her with him on the African Queen. They face a very long, difficult and dangerous journey down the river and on top of that Rose is determined to help the war effort. She suggests, Allnut should construct a torpedo and that they should then attempt to sink a German warship, the Luisa.

As is to be expected their trip down the river is more than adventurous. Torrential rains, rapids, mosquitoes and German posts make the journey very daunting. What is worse for Allnut is the fact that Rose supervises him and throws away his brandy. She wants him to behave and at first they bicker and quarrel constantly. After several days on the boat and many dangerous adventures they get closer and end up falling in love.

What an unlikely couple they make. What I liked is the fact that Rose is the inventive and courageous one. Although she doesn’t exactly look like an adventurer, in her long skirts, hat and with her prissy little manners, she is quite gutsy after all. Something else that makes this movie memorable is the fact that it reminds us that the Germans used to have a few colonies as well. One tends to forget that as they lost them all during WWI.

It’s an adventure story and a very amusing tale in which two very different people on a shabby little boat, fall in love and successfully fight a whole crew of a warship. It certainly is an early version of adventure romances like Romancing the Stone.

Birdsong (2012) BBC Adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s Masterful WWI Novel

Finally the long-awaited BBC TV adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s WWI novel Birdsong is shown on British TV. It’s a two-part adaptation that got a lot of rave preview reviews.

I’m sure all those who loved the novel, would want to watch this and all those who are interested in WWI as well.

I missed part I but they will air it again shortly. As soon as I’ve seen part I and II will post my review.

War Horse (2011)

I find it much harder to watch anything depicting cruelty to animals than to humans. I can’t help it. And despite the fact that Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is decidedly tacky at times, it really upset me. Not so much the movie – things are toned down to make it suitable for all ages, I guess, – as to think about what those horses went through in WWI.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s eponymous novel, War Horse tells of the friendship of a farm boy with a horse. It’s very Black Beauty in the beginning. Out of sheer folly Albert’s father buys an expensive race horse that he can neither afford nor use. Albert manages to save his father’s farm and the horse and trains the animal until it is able to perform the duties of a workhorse. He also teaches him to come when he whistles and many other tricks.

When the war breaks out, Albert’s father sells Joey to a British officer who takes the horse to France. This almost breaks Albert’s heart but the officer, a kind man, promises to take care of Joey. Sadly he is killed in a reckless cavalry attack that goes very wrong. The horse, one of the rare that survives, can escape but is captured by the Germans. After this an odessey begins in which Joey changes hands more than once and more than once faces death.

Albert who has sworn to find his horse wherever it is (a bit of a Last of the Mohicans moment), has heard of the death of the officer and signed up. Soon he finds himself in the trenches in France.

The movie isn’t too graphic, we don’t see wounds and atrocities that you would normally see in a war movie, still it manages to convey the horror. It just does it by focussing on other elements. We see how many horses died in cavalry attacks and how thousands were overworked until they died from exhaustion.

The parts related to the war were, in my opinion, well done. Without being too graphic they illustrated a lot that was typical for WWI like the trenches, the mud, the gas. What was tacky was how the story was told at times and the end which didn’t seem very realistic. On the other hand the scene of Joey who runs down No Man’s Land and gets caught in barbed wire, manages to convey a better anti-war statement than many other movies.

The acting is quite good and in the case of Benedict Cumberbatch, in a very short but effective role as British Major, and Emily Watson, as the mother of Albert, even excellent.

Apart from showing the harrowing destinies of horses in WWI the movie captures the beauty of the bond that can exist between a human being and an animal.