John Gilbert stars in King Vidor's powerful WWI epic THE BIG PARADE, a landmark of the silent cinema that's big in every sense of the word, from its battle scenes and emotional impact to its huge box-office success.
When WWI breaks out, wealthy Southerner James ("Jim") Apperson (John Gilbert), is coaxed by his girlfriend Justyn (Claire Adams) and bullied by his industrialist father (Hobart Bosworth) into enlisting. In the Army, Jim becomes friends with Bull (Tom O'Brien) and Slim (Karl Dane) and their unit is
sent to France, where they're billeted at a farmhouse. Jim and the farmer's daughter Melisande (Renee Adoree) fall in love, but after a few days of romance, she's heartbroken when his company is sent to the front.
After their first taste of battle action, Jim, Bull, and Slim spend the night in a foxhole, but Slim is killed attempting to capture a German cannon and Bull is slain trying to save him. A vengeful Jim single-handedly assaults a German foxhole, but is unable to kill an enemy soldier when he sees
that he's only a boy. The Allies then launch a massive attack on the Germans and Jim is wounded. He awakens in a hospital, but sneaks out on crutches to find Melisande. When he gets to her village, however, her farmhouse is destroyed and the town is empty. He's picked up by an ambulance and is
taken back to America. When he returns home, he discovers that his girlfriend Justyn is having an affair with his brother. Jim then returns to France, where he's reunited with Melisande.
Reportedly the highest-grossing silent film of all time, THE BIG PARADE did much to establish MGM as a major studio as well as helping to legitimize the American film industry in general. Its influence on the "antiwar" genre was also enormous, as it was the first of its kind to attack phony
patriotism and show the violence and horror of war for what it really is in contrast to the romanticized notions of how it's portrayed in so-called "inspirational" songs which are sung by the film's characters.
The film also introduced the genre's basic archetypes, particularly the format of having disparate characters from different social strata become friends in the Army and then live and die together (Bull the tough Bowery bartender; Slim the carefree construction worker, and Jim the spoiled rich kid
who grows up and becomes a man). The film was also quite daring for its time, having MGM's romantic leading man John Gilbert screaming "God damn your souls" during the realistic battle scenes and showing him with his leg amputated at the end.
The first half of the film is devoted to standard comic camaraderie among the soldiers and the romance between Jim and Melisande, but King Vidor's leisurely pace allows us to get to know and care about the characters as people, not just cardboard figures. Vidor creates honest emotion through the
simplest of means, such as the famous scene where Jim teaches Melisande how to chew bubble gum, while the scene where he leaves for the front is one of the great, tearful, long good-byes in screen history. As his truck is pulling out, the two of them become separated and desperately search for
each other. When Jim finds her, he kisses her all over the face, and is then forced back onto the truck. Melisande grabs his leg and is dragged by the truck; he throws her his watch and necklace, and then his shoe, which she lovingly caresses.
After this, Vidor emphasizes the epic aspects of the film superbly, filling the screen with panoramic shots of endless columns of men and trucks marching off into the distance while planes buzz the sky. The legendary "Death March" sequence depicting the soldiers marching relentlessly though the
woods is still quite eerie (which Vidor accomplished by having the men march in step to the beat of a drum.) Even though they're being hit by machine guns and dropping on all sides, the rest of the troops just keep walking inexorably forward. The other great scene is the emotionally overwhelming
finale, where Jim returns home and his mother is devastated to see that he has lost a leg. She hugs him and there is a double exposure as she thinks back to Jim being born, taking his first steps, falling down, etc. It's a beautiful touch that exemplifies Vidor's greatness as a filmmaker--never
losing sight of the human element of a story, and being able to find exactly the right image to visually symbolize a particular feeling, so that what might be corny and sentimental is actually quite poignant and moving. (Violence, adult situations.)
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- Review: John Gilbert stars in King Vidor's powerful WWI epic THE BIG PARADE, a landmark of the silent cinema that's big in every sense of the word, from its battle scenes and emotional impact to its huge box-office success. When WWI breaks out, wealthy Southerner… (more)