‘The Big Parade’

This is just a note to recommend King Vidor’s 1925 film The Big Parade (DVDs of which are available very reasonably on Ebay).

It’s a big-budget film whose object was obviously to sum up the war experience for Americans, and it nods towards many standard tropes and themes.

We begin by meeting three young men on the day war is delared. A riveter on a skyscraper, a Bronx barman, and James, a rich idler. The idler at first dismisses thoughts of the war, but enlists, partly to impress his girl, who imagines him as a gallant officer.

He is thrown into training with the other two, and finally goes to France. The tone of this long section of the film is comic, with plenty of rough horseplay between the soldiers, of the sort that would later be typical of John Ford’s  military films.

James meets Melisande, a French girl, and there is a tender-comic romance between them, though at first he does not let it go too far, because of the girl he left behind him. Gradually the relationship deepens, however, and the film’s first truly stunning scene comes when he is leaving for the front and she comes to see him off – their emotion expressed in virtuoso camerawork.

Then come the battle scenes – an advance through a wood that is brilliantly done (though the wood looks a little undamaged for the Western Front) and then a long, pretty realistic, sequence in No-Man’s Land, among the shell-holes, where the characters we have been encouraged to think of as comic show their quality. Big money has obviously been spent on these sequences, and to spectacular effect.

Wounded and hospitalized, James hears that Melisande’s village is in German hands, and rushes off to save her, despite his leg being in plaster. After the realism of the battle scenes, this is pure melodrama, and shows the betwixt-and-between nature of the film. It uses themes from the standard Great-war stock collection – the wastrel made into a man by war, the bonding of buddies, the heroic rescue of a French maiden, but the battle sequences look forward to All Quiet and Journey’s End.

It’s a brilliantly made film, and strongly recommended.

One small point – I was struck with this film by something that I also noted in D.W.Griffith’s  enjoyable  The Girl Who Stayed at Home (1919), which I also saw recently. These American films show the Yanks going off to save France, and succeeding, but in neither of them is there any sign mention or hint  of the British troops who also played some part in the enterprise.

3 Comments

  1. Roger
    Posted February 25, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    ‘These American films show the Yanks going off to save France, and succeeding, but in neither of them is there any sign mention or hint of the British troops who also played some part in the enterprise.’

    If I remember rightly, there’s no mention of the French troops either in The Big Parade.

    • Posted February 25, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      True. (Except where a French family gather together to read out letters from the front.)

  2. anonymous
    Posted February 25, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    I believe Neville Lytton in “The Press and the General Staff” credits the successes of the final months of the war to the genius of Haig et.al, with little mention of any American contribution.

    Interestingly, he also mentions how well-provisioned the defeated Germsns were — he notes the abundance and quality of the food found in the German trenches. So well-fed, worthy adversaries…


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