Big Parade, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/02/14 05:04:21
King Vidor was a filmmaker who strove to make serious films within a studio system that wanted crowd-pleasers, likely even harder in the silent era with the Academy Awards still in the future and film criticism still in its infancy. "The Big Parade" exemplifies that in a lot of ways, wrapping an earnest war movie up in something that wants to make the audience smile.It opens in 1918, just as the United States is about to enter the Great War. We're quickly introduced to three young men in and around New York City - "Slim" Johnson (Karl Dane), a construction worker building skyscrapers; "Bull" O'Hara (Tom O'Brien), who tends bar in an establishment with a suspicious clientele; and James Apperson (John Gilbert), the layabout son of a mill owner. All three enlist, with James's fiancee Justyn (Claire Adams) expecting he'll look so smart in an officer's uniform, but he winds up a private (Bull makes sergeant). The three become fast friends as they wait for action in Champillon, even if all three do find their eyes drawn to farmer's daughter Melisande (Renée Adorée).
Given how the opening makes no small effort to give this trio very different backgrounds, it's interesting how quickly the filmmakers apparently decide that it isn't important. The idea, perhaps, might be that war flattens social classes, but if that's the case, it's not something the filmmakers go into specifically. This doesn't make the cast of characters completely interchangeable - Bull is going to tend toward the wiseacre and Slim is quite the well-meaning lunkhead, though James becomes much more of an a average Joe than an upper-class twit fairly quickly - but it's odd to see something that appeared to be set up with intent set aside without even an "all men are brothers on the front line". The cast works fairly well together - John Gilbert slides into the leading man's space without making James too square-jawed or noble, while Karl Dane contributes a very good yokel sidekick - so it mostly works out all right.
The somewhat odd thing is that for much of the movie, what they're doing well is comedy. The characters arrive in rural France and face wacky language barriers, uncomfortable but not truly miserable sleeping accommodations, mix-ups with the mail, and a shared interest in Melisande that never exactly scream that war is hell. This material is light enough and occupies a large enough portion of a long movie (as projected at this screening, The Big Parade was about two and a half hours long) that a contemporary viewer may wonder if they are in the right place. Even in 1925, audiences may still have been thrown by how quickly the flirtation of James and Melisande becomes heart-clutching melodrama when he is sent to the front.
(Or not; many in the audience were likely young veterans who had been through something like that.)
That sequence may seem a little drawn-out or overwrought, but there's no question that, from that point on, this is a pretty serious war movie, and a good one. Vidor and company pull out to show the massive march of the title, and suddenly the the film not only has gravity but scale, and when it soon returns its focus to the main trio, the audience's familiarity with them does make sequences that are already fairly intense even more so. It's not exactly the trench warfare that has come to represent World War I in the years since but it's still tense and gets across just how terrifying and horrific the new method of warfare is.There's even time given to the postwar experience, although the urge to make the something more easily digestible results in an epilogue that seems overlong and tacked-on. To be fair, this is an early film, so the elements that seem drawn out and out of balance here would be refined and pared-down to this very day (I would see some of the elements of this movie in "Fury" a few days later). So, while "The Big Parade" may be imperfect and frustrating to a modern audience, it's also foundational.
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