Director: King Vidor
By Roderick Heath
King Vidor deserves to be held high in the pantheon of American directors, and yet he’s never quite gained the stature he deserved in comparison with the likes of Ford, Hawks, and Wyler. Perhaps this is because his best work was more intermittent and mainly done as a young man, during the silent era. He spent much of the late 1940s and ’50s taking shoddy work for hire, ending his feature film career with his uneven adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1956) and the truly awful Solomon and Sheba (1959). The colossal project that was The Big Parade reputedly sprang from Vidor and his desire to create movies with a longer life span than the almost instantly disposable general cinema product.
His idea was shepherded to realisation by Irving Thalberg at a time when films about the Great War were largely considered box office poison. The risk paid off: The Big Parade was an event movies of the 1920s, and is still officially recorded as the highest grossing silent film ever made, making more than $22 million in its worldwide release, a colossal sum for the time. The Big Parade holds up mightily, obviously superior in terms of cinematic construction and dexterity of expression, and a testament to silent-era Hollywood’s sweeping force and openness to innovation in style and story. The film could well have helped invent the basic structure of the modern war movie, and tonal disparities aside, echoes can be seen even in a film like Full Metal Jacket (1987), particularly in the finale in which a wounded soldiers’ buddies are driven to irrational actions in the face of an unseen threat.
Vidor’s inventive filmmaking is evident from the get-go, depicting various strata of American life called to action by cutting between construction riveter Slim (Karl Dane), bartender Bull O’Brien (Tom O’Brien), and rich layabout James Apperson (John Gilbert) at the fateful moment the U.S. declared war, announced by hooting sirens and marching revellers. Even Gilbert falls for the hypnotic spell of patriotism, which, as a title card puts it, can awaken in a heart in which it has never stirred, and joins several of his pals in the march to the recruiting office. Gilbert returns home to his plutocrat father (Hobart Bosworth), loving mother (Claire McDowell), and ludicrous brother Harry (Robert Ober). Mr. Apperson is proud of Harry, who’s putting his shoulder to the wheel by organising double shifts at their factory, and demands of his other shiftless son that he either pledge some effort to the war or get out of his house. Jim sarcastically asks if he can stay the night before clearing out. But his girlfriend Justyn (Claire Adams) excitedly lets slip the news, which he wants to keep from his worried mother, that he’s already joined up. In basic training, he’s thrust into a unit that includes Slim and Bull, and learns the ropes of soldiering alongside them.
The first half of The Big Parade is generally played as a romantic comedy laced with serviceman humour, predicting the likes of MASH (1970) in the sardonic contrast of dutiful patriotism and filthy reality. It observes the tawdry and amusing proliferation of petty irritants, deprivations, and perils of military service, and the awakened native guile of the khaki-clad wayfarers in coping with the alienation of distance, language, and an unfamiliar and dangerous situation. Thalberg’s original hope had been to film What Price Glory?, the hit Broadway comedy-drama by Maxwell Anderson and military veteran Laurence Stallings, but the rights to that had already been purchased, so Thalberg had Stallings write a new scenario for The Big Parade with some strong resemblance to What Price Glory? Vidor brilliantly employs Irving Berlin’s sarcastic anthem “You’re in the Army Now” as a motif for tying the early segments together; it becomes an integral part of building their esprit de corps as the recruits sing it when they march, and then its lyrics are quoted repeatedly as the company contends with a filthy bivouac in France that lacks showers and other conveniences.
Jim soon devises a way to wash—converting an empty wine barrel into a showerhead suspended in a treetop, with the unexpected result of drawing mademoiselle Melisande (Renée Adorée), whom Apperson ran into when transporting the barrel, to entertain herself with the sight of their naked backsides. Soon, Jim’s efforts to strike up a relationship with Melisande—assigning himself to “skirt detail” as the title cards put it—draw him into her farming family’s circle of friends who gather to read letters from relations at the front. In a comic piece, Slim and Bull raid the wine cellar while Jim sits with Melisande and her friends, causing a ruckus that nearly gets Jim arrested by some MPs. Recognising that they got him into trouble they save his hide been starting an even bigger ruckus. Such hijinks could have been buffoonish if not for the intricately observed, nuanced behaviour that is one of the great pleasures of silent films, building hilarious bits of business: for example, Jim’s efforts to break apart a rock-hard cake Justyn has sent him so he can share it with his fellows or introducing Melisande to the pleasures of chewing gum.
Moreover, The Big Parade is cunningly structured. Except for the bookend scenes stateside, the bulk of the film takes place in the course of two or three days, and the comedy and romance gives way soon enough to the grimmer tasks at hand. The film was reportedly expanded after test audiences responded enthusiastically to its fresh, romantic, antiheroic style, but no seams are apparent. The sequence in which the troops are ordered to the front, setting off a storm of frantic activity in the eye of which Jim and Melisande make their despairing goodbyes, was so instantaneously iconic that Vidor lampooned it four years later in his comedy Show People. It’s both vintage Hollywood schmaltz and a startling piece of filmmaking, alive with motion and drama in the smallest details, leaving Melisande finally alone on a desolate road, the big parade having surely gone by. Jim, Bull, and Slim ride off amongst an armada of trucks and tanks to meet their baptism of fire, first in a sniper-riddled forest, and then in a crater-riddled wasteland.
The way the sequences build is all the more extraordinary for possessing both spectacle and gut-grabbing mystery and threat, in a vividly coherent vision of men in the midst of war. After the grandiose vision of the “big parade” itself, they march first into teeming, shadowy threat in the forest, and then into the midst of a colossal campaign, and finally, finish up lost, alone, isolated, surrounded by darkness, as if they’ve stepped off the end of the earth and ended up in hell. If Stendhal’s vision of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma has a clear cinematic counterpoint in a movie, it’s here. Pinned down by machine gunners, Slim, Bull, and Jim to draw lots to see who will go out and try to knock out one of the enemy emplacements. Slim “wins,” ventures out, and succeeds, but is riddled with bullets on his return and is left to die without a rescue attempt. Jim explodes in outrage when he and Bull are ordered to stay put, demanding “Who’s fighting this war, men or orders?” He goes to find Slim, and Bull pursues. Bull is quickly killed. Jim is wounded in the leg when he finds Slim, also already dead. Jim, flushed with hysteria and adrenalin, takes out another machine gun nest on his own, allowing the rest of the unit to spring from their foxholes and advance.
Jim awakens in hospital and hearing that Melisande’s farmhouse has been the centre of fighting, rises from his bed, sneaks out the window, dragging his crippled leg in search of her. But she’s already been shipped out with her family and other refugees, and all Jim accomplishes—revealed when he returns home—is having his leg amputated. This shocks his mother, and Vidor evokes the sprawl of her thoughts with a montage of her memories of him from infancy to manhood. This brilliant flourish underlines Vidor’s recurring fascination for cycles of mortality and internal struggles between transcendence and nihilism, essayed in works like The Crowd (1928) and Hallelujah! (1929). Vidor could also make a film as idealistic as The Citadel (1938) and as ornery as Beyond the Forest (1949) fit into this fascination, swinging from poles of mystically charged births to ignominious deaths.
In the end, Jim’ larger quandary at home is that he’s still in love with and haunted by Melisande. But his mother knows that Justyn has fallen in love with Harry, and soon enough Jim is free to return to France and track down Melisande, who is labouring in the fields. The storyline no longer has any glint of originality, but The Big Parade retains force and vivacity for a great many reasons, not the least because of its uncluttered simplicity, eye-level humanism, likeable characters, and an unruly mix of then-fresh elements makes it more ambiguous in tone and meaning and less ponderously grave than All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). This contrast is acute in a scene very similar to the one in which All Quiet’s hero was stranded in a foxhole with a dying enemy soldier: where the later film goes all out to establish the common humanity, The Big Parade evokes the idea without declaration, and with a dark sense of the unimportance of that humanity in such a ferocious situation.
Gilbert, who had been a top matinee star already for several years but for whom this was surely the peak of his career, is a poised and restrained screen presence whose charisma is nonetheless effortless (although he does give into that worst habit of silent actors, waving his arms around in declarative fashion in his climactic foxhole speech). The fate of The Big Parade’s heroes reflects the connivance of classic Hollywood’s bosses, as MGM’s conniving executives went on to help wreck Gilbert’s career and cheat Vidor out of the small fortune that would have come his way—having as he did a percentage of the profits in his contract—by talking him into taking a smaller compensation. As Vidor himself put it, “I thus spared myself from becoming a millionaire instead of a struggling young director trying to do something interesting and better with a camera.” C’est la guerre.