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. 

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10 thoughts on “The Big Parade (1925) A Guest Post by nem baj

  1. I realize that to some extent, if one is really interested in a genre, it would make sense to watch the classics early one.
    I must admit I’ve never seen The Big Parade but would certainly like to watch it after having read your review.
    It’s really surprising a war movie was one of the earliest box office hits.
    I never seem to remember which was the very first war movie though. The Birth of a Nation? I think I remember some very early German movies

  2. the war movie buff says:

    Excellent review. Very well written. Nice references to other movies.

    • I thought so as well. It is on your list, right? Did you review it already?

    • nem baj says:

      Thanks to you both. Btw Kevin, I read your great review and although we don’t agree on several aspects, I’m glad you liked it as well.

      I find interesting to note that it was only a moderate success in Europe: at the time, the mainstream opinion was very pacifistic (when it came to war on the continent, the colonies being another matter entirely). Retrospectively, I do not think The Big Parade is that anti-war, but it is clearly not treating war as an heroic adventure like the films of Raoul Walsh or Howard Hawks.

      Goebbels noted in his diary in 1927 about The Big Parade: « Pazifistisch. (…) Sonst fabelhaft gemacht. Solche Filme für und nicht gegen Deutschland. » which micht be translated as ‘Pacifistic. Yet fabulously made. Such films should be for and not against Germany.’ which, apart from a middle sentence about Jews which I did not quote, looks, like a praise.

      • the war movie buff says:

        Thanks for the shoutout. You picked up on some elements that I did not see. I tend to take movies at their face value. I love that Goebbels quote.

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