Viewing The Big Parade 88 years after its initial release, and 25 years following its inclusion in my upper-level course on the war film, elicited complex feelings. On the one hand, although the film still stands as a great achievement of classical Hollywood silent cinema, it, like many others, has become dated by the inclusion of elements that were once fresh but have since appeared in so many other war films. Take, for example, its use of the bildungsroman of the young man going to war and returning home more experienced, a form that so many successive films, such as The Red Badge of Courage (John Huston, 1951) and Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), have followed. The sudden change from comedy to carnage also links The Big Parade to the narrative reversal of works such as The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1968). However, other features still genuinely affected me such as the clockwork mechanical movements of the doughboys marching towards a retreating camera in the Belleau Wood sequence (1), revealing the new face of 20th century warfare as akin to an industrial machine; the anguished cries of Jim (John Gilbert) as one of his friends perishes on a deadly mission in the trenches and his touching reunion with his sweetheart at the end – all filmed in a manner free from the overtly manipulative techniques of such directors as Hitchcock and Spielberg. The Big Parade is actually complex and contradictory. Filmed seven years after the war when memories of the conflict were still fresh in the minds of its contemporary audiences, The Big Parade is definitely not a pro-war film but neither is it as anti-war as its director once thought (2).
As Michael Isenberg has pointed out, the film neither applauded the war effort nor indicted American war policy. Instead, it moulds the director’s humanistic concerns to the salesmanship techniques of Irving Thalberg – responsible for developing the hero’s family background as well as the romantic themes (3). Isenberg defined the complex structure of The Big Parade in the following fashion:
The themes of nationalism, honor, duty, and egalitarian heroism are all common to the war-adventure genre. Plots threaded with them cannot make a coherent antiwar or pacifist statement, since the focus of such themes is individualistic rather than situational…. The individualism of the film is sketched in the positive attributes of friendship and democratic solidarity. Transferred to the emotional level of the viewer, these become the admirable qualities of loyalty, devotion, and dedication to service. Here patriotic impulse overcomes the horrors of war, not vice versa. (4)
I disagree with the last sentence and argue instead that the film contains several ambivalent sequences that neither affirms a pro-war nor anti-war stance but question whether the role of agency, always ideologically promoted in a Hollywood film, can actually exist within a complex 20th century society. A choice may be made which a character thinks is due to individual choice but such choices are often socially determined. Stella Dallas may bask in the joys of a mother after seeing her daughter married but she is still an outcast removed from the society that has accepted her daughter and rejected her. Such issues concerned Vidor from the beginning to the end of his career as films like The Crowd (1928), Hallelujah (1929), Billy the Kid (1930), The Champ (1931), Our Daily Bread (1934), Stella Dallas (1937), Northwest Passage (Book I – Rogers’ Rangers) (1940), H. M. Pulham, Esq. (1941), Duel in the Sun (1946), Beyond the Forest (1949), Ruby Gentry (1952), and War and Peace (1956) show in various ways. The Big Parade is the first of his major films to confront such issues and its happy ending is as ambivalent as those concluding The Crowd, Stella Dallas, and especially War and Peace – an appropriate Vidor filmic adaptation whose seemingly positive conclusion cannot banish from the spectator’s mind those dominating historical forces that affect its Russian characters as much as its American ones, though in a different era. Certain sequences in The Big Parade reveal the early presence of telling contradictions that Vidor would later develop in his cinematic depictions of 20th century American society, contradictions not just confined to his version of the World War I combat film.
The film begins by introducing its three main characters separated from each other by cinematic space and class barriers in an America “occupied in peaceful progression”, an ideologically loaded phrase as any reader of American history and Kevin Brownlow’s cinematic study of this era well knows (5). Slim (Karl Dane) may be a yeoman of industry who puts aside his rivet gun to pick up another weapon when the war siren summons – as Bull will stop wiping his glass in a Bowery bar – but like the character of Jim, he heeds his country’s call to arms like a clock wound up to beat a new time sequence by the invisible hand of ideology. Even slacker Jim, who resembles George Minafer in The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942), responds to the call of duty stimulated first by his upper-class sweetheart, who will never see him in the officer’s uniform she desires, as well as his chums in the first of the film’s various big parades. As the band plays on, Jim taps his left foot responding to the rhythm on a leg he will later lose, before rushing to join his peer group “over there”. Notably, no attention is given either to the actuality of the war or its causes: only mindless conformist pressure. Jim acts one-dimensionally because he is an American (though not necessarily motivated patriotically). A touching family sequence before Jim will do his “bit” (as expressed by his father played by Hobart Bosworth) concludes with a mid-shot of the father beaming with pride on the left-hand-side of the screen as Jim and his mother embrace on the centre and right. When the non-prodigal son returns minus his left leg, the father will be on the right-hand-side of the screen with a mournful expression on his face. Jim, again, has not really matched his expectations. The Big Parade is full of such meaningful resonances, and it is important to recognise them when they appear. Vidor may have later disliked such scenes but Brownlow is correct in stating that the director underestimates them and is actually “reaching his emotional high point here” (6). Jim’s sweetheart Justyn (Claire Adams) eventually reveals that gentlewomen prefer deferred slacker brothers and not returning veterans who are neither officers nor gentlemen (“You’ll look gorgeous in an officer’s uniform. I’ll love you all the more then.”) Jim’s mother may want to spare her household later outbursts like that of Tom Cruise’s Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989), diplomatically performing her own form of anger management by sending him back to France despite what she says: “Then you must find her. Nothing else matters.” Was Vidor satirically sentimentalising the “Dear John” syndrome for an unaware MGM?
If no atheists supposedly exist in foxholes neither do class barriers in many war movies. Slim and Bull welcome Jim as one of their own as they march and perform chores to the “titled” musical accompaniment of the perennial “You’re in the Army now”, a song that will also feature on the soundtrack of The Dirty Dozen before things get really serious over forty years later. Humour abounds as Slim and Bull perform their own version of a Quirt and Flagg routine from What Price Glory (Raoul Walsh, 1926), and Jim finds a more pure version of Charmaine in Melisande. But all good things will come to an end – especially in a war film – as Jim leaves Melisande alone in that famous desolate long shot after tossing her his dog tags, watch and extra boot, an object that Isenberg correctly sees as “a symbol of [Jim] Apperson’s forthcoming injury” (7). Never underestimate the power of Hollywood symbolism nor the fact that the boot will soon never again be on Jim’s “left foot”. Captions state in bold type – “IT HAD BEGUN. THE BIG PARADE. TO THE FRONT TO THE FRONT. TO THE FRONT” – as soldiers march to a different drummer in contrast to the first big parade of the film. The next big parade will be slow and deadly as the doughboys march slowly to encounter machine gun fire in Belleau Wood where writer Lawrence Stallings lost his own leg.
When Slim is ambushed on his night mission, Jim begins shouting and waving his arms in non-military despair: “I want to fight, not to wait and rot in a lousy hole while they murder my pal”. This parallels the What Price Glory? (1924) moment in Stallings’ original theatrical version: “Orders! Who the hell is fighting this war? Men or orders?” War is no longer a laughing matter for Vidor’s “soldiers three”, nor can Jim engage in any more “skirt” duty. While Bull attempts to calm him down, Jim waves his bayonet in the direction of the officers, an obvious recognition by Vidor of his hero’s desire to frag those in the rear with the gear. He soon loses Bull in a battle scene giving the lie to his earlier comment, “This ain’t such a bad war”. Wounded in his leg and discovering that a more seriously wounded German soldier is as much a victim as himself, Jim cheers doughboys on in the penultimate big parade of the film, one he cannot join in. The last big parade is the procession of ambulances removing the survivors to hospitals. When Jim awakes he sees a traumatised soldier strapped to his bed suffering badly from what was then called “shell shock”, a condition that John Huston attempted to depict in his later war documentary Let There be Light (1946) before it was banned from public display by the authorities. Obviously, that soldier represents Jim’s real condition, one that the film suppresses by contrasting it with the figure of the lucid soldier near Jim’s own bed. Vidor may need to repress the implications of Jim’s real condition but allows the repressed to return in this doubled figure (8). MGM thus supplies a “happy ending” for Jim and the spectator. He supposedly finds peace in Vidor’s version of “the stuff that dreams are made of”, the dialogue featured on a titlecard that foreshadows the final ironic line of The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941). But like the black bird of that later film it is not the real thing and no substitute for the grim actuality of postwar trauma.
However, Timothy Barnard notes that Jim’s return is also rhythmically different from that earlier metronomic bloody ballet of death in Belleau Wood since it may act as a counterpoint to that deterministic patriotic motion that eventually led to destruction. A veteran’s disabled body becomes “tied to new postwar hopes represented as individualistic, transcendentally different and ultimately redeemed” (9). I would add that Jim also returns to an agrarian France bearing no resemblance to the urban America of the opening scenes of skyscrapers and “mills humming away”. As Doc Boone says in Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), he is “saved from the blessings of civilization” – at least temporarily.
The Big Parade is a film of ambivalence and contradiction. Touching in its narrative of an individual caught in circumstances beyond his control and trapped by conventional ideology that cannot allow an alternative picture of World War I, it is nevertheless an accomplished film. Veterans and later audiences may be fully aware of the conventions used and deeper implications existing within a narrative whose postwar American sequences contains the seeds of The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) (10). Isenberg may be formally correct in his assertion that “None of its ingredients were new; they were only packaged differently”, but parts of the film gained significant responses from the veterans who saw it at the time, as Brownlow reports (11). They did not see the film as mindless entertainment. Neither should we.
- See King Vidor, A Tree is a Tree, Harcourt, New York, 1953, pp. 156-157. Vidor describes the effect of the rhythmic pattern of soldier movement in Signal Corps war footage and his use of a metronome and bass drum to direct the actors movements, as well as the evocative use of a solitary muffled bass drum in the orchestral score written for the contemporary theatrical release.
- See Vidor’s second thoughts in John Baxter, King Vidor, Monarch, New York, 1976, p. 21.
- See Michael T. Isenberg, “The Great War Viewed From the 1920s: The Big Parade”, Why We Fought: America’s Wars in Film and History, ed. Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2008, pp. 146, 148. See also Kevin Brownlow, The War, The West and the Wilderness, Secker and Warburg, London, 1979, p. 192.
- Isenberg, p. 148.
- See Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1990.
- Brownlow, The War, The West and the Wilderness, p. 194. Although Laurence Stallings did not collaborate on the screenplay one wonders whether Vidor subtly inserted some of the irony contained in the veteran’s 1925 novel Plumes in these scenes under the nose of MGM.
- Isenberg, p. 144.
- Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon describe this character as “like his doppelganger” in King Vidor, American, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988, p. 68.
- Timothy Barnard, “‘The Whole Art of a Wooden Leg’: King Vidor’s Picturization of Laurence Stallings’s ‘Great Story’”, The Problem Body: Projecting Disability on Film, ed. Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotic, The Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 2010, p. 34. Jim’s return home also echoes many of the cynical feelings of the returning veteran described by Stallings in Plumes. Although Stallings never worked on the screenplay, Vidor must have read this novel.
- For a superb reading of this film see Christopher Sharrett, “The Best Years of Our Lives: A Revaluation”, Film International 17 May 2013: http://filmint.nu/?p=7868.
- Isenberg, p. 149; Brownlow, The War, The West and the Wilderness, pp. 193-194.
The Big Parade (1925 USA 142 mins)
Prod Co: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Dir: King Vidor Scr: Harry Behn, from a story by Laurence Stallings Phot: John Arnold Ed: Hugh Wynn Art Dir: Cedric Gibbons, James Basevi
Cast: John Gilbert, Renee Adoree, Hobart Bosworth, Claire McDowell, Karl Dane, Tom O’Brien, Claire Adams