The Big Parade
THE BIG PARADE
Director: King Vidor
Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Corp.; originally black and white with tinted sequences, 35mm, silent with music score; running time: about 125 minutes; length: originally 13 reels at 12,550 feet, later 12 reels at 11,519 feet. Released selectively November 1925, released generally 1927. Re-released 1931 with synchronized music and sound effects.
Producer: Irving G. Thalberg; scenario: Harry Behn; story: Laurence Stallings; titles: Joseph W. Farnham, from the play by Farnham, and the novel Plumes by Stallings; photography: John Arnold; editor: Hugh Wynn; art directors: Cedric Gibbons, James Basevi; music: William Axt, David Mendoza.
Cast: John Gilbert (James Apperson); Renée Adorée (Mélisande); Hobart Bosworth (Mr. Apperson); Claire McDowell (Mrs. Apperson); Claire Adams (Justyn Reed); Robert Ober (Harry); Tom O'Brien (Bull); Karl Dane (Slim); Rosita Marstini (French Mother).
Vidor, King, A Tree Is a Tree, New York, 1953; reprinted 1977.
Brownlow, Kevin, The Parade's Gone By . . . , London and New York, 1969.
Baxter, John, King Vidor, New York, 1976.
Everson, William K., American Silent Film, New York, 1978.
O'Connor, John E., and Martin A. Jackson, editors, American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, New York, 1979.
Comuzio, Ermanno, King Vidor, Florence, 1986.
Vidor, King, with contributions by Nancy Dowd and David Shepard, King Vidor (Directors Guild of America Oral History Series), Lanham, Maryland, 1988.
Durgnat, Raymond, and Scott Simmon, King Vidor—American, Berkeley, 1989.
Smith, F. J., "Tells How The Big Parade Was Made," in Motion Picture Classic (New York), May 1926.
Tully, Jim, "Interview," in Vanity Fair (New York), June 1926.
Quirk, Lawrence J., "John Gilbert," in Films in Review (New York), March 1956.
Davis, Henry, "A John Gilbert Index," in Films in Review (New York), October 1962.
Brownlow, Kevin, "King Vidor," in Film (London), Winter 1962.
Higham, Charles, "King Vidor," in Film Heritage (Dayton, Ohio), Summer 1966.
"King Vidor at NYU," in Cineaste (New York), Spring 1968.
Uselton, Roi A., "Renée Adorée," in Films in Review (New York), June-July 1968.
Greenberg, Joel, "War, Wheat, and Steel," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1968.
Barr, Charles, "King Vidor," in Brighton (London), March 1970.
Luft, Herbert G., "King Vidor: A Career That Spans Half a Century," in Film Journal (Dayton, Ohio), Summer 1971.
Durgnat, Raymond, in Film Comment (New York), July-August 1973.
"Vidor Issue" of Positif (Paris), September 1974.
Amengual, Barthélemy, "Entre l'horizon d'un seul et l'horizon de tous," in Positif (Paris), September 1974.
Edwards, R., "The Big Parade," in Films of the Golden Age (Muscatine, Iowa), no. 5, Summer 1996.
* * *
The Big Parade propelled director King Vidor to the top as MGM's wunderkind, the Steven Spielberg of his day, who could do no wrong when it came to sensing what the public would or would not embrace in film entertainment.
The end of World War I was not even a decade in the past when the Texas-born filmmaker, who had established himself as a skillful purveyor of comedies and sentimental slices of rural American life, persuaded production chief Irving Thalberg to let him make an epic film about the war—a subject conventional wisdom said audiences would prefer to forget. Vidor countered that the huge success of the Laurence Stallings-Maxwell Anderson WWI play What Price Glory? on Broadway the previous year suggested otherwise. MGM gave him the green light to make The Big Parade.
The script by Harry Behn was based upon an outline Vidor had solicited from Stallings himself. It deals with three men from an unnamed American town who are swept up in the wave of patriotic fervor following America's entrance into the war and enlist. One, Tom O'Brien, is a salty bartender; another, Karl Dane, is a gawky, tobacco chewing blue collar type; the third, played by matinee idol John Gilbert, is the lay-about son of a wealthy mill owner. Despite their disparate backgrounds, the three become fast chums when they meet at boot camp and sustain their comradeship through the ferocious battle of Belleau Wood where they undergo their baptism of fire.
Along the way, Gilbert meets and falls in love with a French farm girl, delightfully and movingly played by Renée Adorée. The scene where he introduces her to American chewing gum is one of the most famous in silent films. It is both funny and touching, and wonderfully pantomimed by the two actors under the scrutiny of Vidor's camera, which captures the moment in an uninterrupted single take. A follow-up scene where the lovers are separated is equally memorable. As Gilbert is spirited to the front in one of a long line of battle trucks, he vows to return, tossing her mementos until she is left alone in a trail of dust.
Gilbert's buddies are killed during a nighttime assault on the German trenches, and Gilbert himself suffers a severely wounded leg that subsequently must be amputated; he returns home a cripple. The glamour studio balked at the downbeat fate visited upon the film's leading man—an incident drawn from the experience of author Stallings, who had lost a leg in the war. In his quest for realism, Vidor held his ground, however, and got his way. The scene where Gilbert's mutilation is revealed to his mother and the viewer for the first time at his homecoming is arguably the most powerful in the movie.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his affliction and hellish wartime experience, the Gilbert character has now grown and matured—in contrast to his brother (Robert Oder), previously viewed as the more serious and responsible sibling, but now as the real nothing in the family. Having stayed behind to attend to the family business, he's even stolen Gilbert's hometown sweetheart (Claire Adams)! No matter. At his mother's urging, Gilbert returns to France to find the love of his life Adorée as he'd promised.
The Big Parade is really two films. The first hour and twenty minutes are standard (though at the time prototypical) service comedy stuff dealing with Gilbert's, O'Brien's, and Dane's escapades in France prior to going into action. Part two, which runs approximately the same length, is all war—and the battle scenes remain frighteningly realistic and impressive to this day. The march through Belleau Wood, timed by Vidor to the inexorable beat of a metronome, as the troops are mowed down by snipers and machine gun fire is still a stunner. The trench warfare scenes are equally vivid. Many critics have noted the influence Vidor's staging of these scenes had on Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). There is even a small moment when Gilbert plucks a lone flower from atop his trench that mirrors the finale of All Quiet when Lew Ayres is killed reaching for a butterfly, and which may have served as the latter's inspiration.
Where The Big Parade departs significantly from All Quiet is the clarity of its anti-war theme. All Quiet is uncompromisingly focused in this regard. The Big Parade, despite the stark believability of its warfare scenes, is, in overall aim, more of an escapist entertainment. In his later years, Vidor all but disowned the film for that reason. "At the time, I really believed it was an anti-war movie," he said. "Today, I don't encourage people to see it."
Vidor's reassessment is too harsh. The Big Parade is one of the great silent films—and the model for just about every war movie that has come our way since. It should be seen for those reasons alone. While the escapist boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl sub-plot may stray the focus away from Vidor's anti-war message at times, it eloquently engages the emotions. And the theme that war is hell, while perhaps not what the film is entirely about, is nevertheless both present and potent.