The Big Parade (1925) Director: King Vidor
Unlike its offspring All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), The Big Parade is not an explicitly anti-war film. It tells the story of three young men in America in 1917 on the eve of the American entrance into World War I. They are: Slim, a blue-collar steelworker; Bull O’Hara, a bartender; and Jim Apperson (played by John Gilbert), the son of a wealthy merchant. The latter is the main character of the film. The setting of Section I is as follows: Jim is a spoiled son, preferring not to work, however when the war is announced in the newspapers, his home-town love interest expresses how much more she will love him in his army suit. Thus, amid a grand parade for the soldiers, Jim joins the army and is united with Bull and Slim as they march into France. They are put on patrol in a small French village, and Jim falls in love with a young peasant woman there, Melisande. Their budding romance is cut short when the American soldiers are called to the front line.
In Section II: the plot is less rosy. The men march to the frontline through an elaborately staged set – through the woods, they march in formation amidst sniper fire and cannon fire at the front. Somehow the three men survive together in a bombed-out foxhole, but when Slim gets injured outside the foxhole, Jim tries to rescue him but it is too late. Both Jim and Bull get injured – and both Bull and Slim wind up dead. Jim’s leg is injured, and though he tries, he is unable to bring himself to kill an enemy German in his foxhole who is also dying, so he gives the young man a cigarette. Jim is rescued by the red cross and is taken to a disgusting hospital in a church, but when he finds out the small French town where Melisande lives is being bombed, he attempts to flee the church on a crutch, but he cannot find her. He is taken home, and his father greets him, reminding him of his love back home, but Jim’s mother witnesses Jim’s brother his old girlfriend kissing. She has now fallen in love with his brother. Jim returns home on crutches with his leg amputated. After being home for a period, he departs for France in the hopes of finding Melisande.
The film was made only seven years after the Great War’s armistice was reached, a ceasefire which was fresh in the minds of viewers. It was the first war film to tell the story from the perspective of a soldier. It was the first smash-hit box office success for the newly formed MGM studios, and it may well have been the most commercially successful silent film of all-time (though perhaps this title best rests with Birth of a Nation in 1915). The Big Parade was MGM’s biggest hit until Gone With The Wind (1939). It established Director, King Vidor as one of the top directors in Hollywood for the rest of his life. The screenplay for the film was adopted by a semi-autobiographical novel by Laurence Stallings called Plumes.
King Vidor: some of his most well-regarded films today include The Big Parade (1925), and The Crowd (1928). He also famously directed the Kansas sequences of The Wizard of Oz (1939). He was raised in Texas and started a career as a freelance projectionist. He was a lifelong Republican, and a staunch anti-communist. He had one of the longest spanning careers as a director in Hollywood. He married three times, and died at age 88 of a heart attack at his ranch in Paso Robles, CA, in 1982 where the present-day olive oil business PasoLivo resides. He was a devoted Christian Scientist.
The Big Parade is a powerful film – emotional, violent, romantic, and even funny. It is an epic that forever changed the landscape of cinema and is a joy to watch. The playful scene of gum chewing in Section I counteracts the majestic battle sequences in Section II which are still as potent as when the film was released.