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King Vidor's The Big Parade (1925) was an astounding and in many ways unprecedented film, that captured the human dimension behind war from a grunt's point of view and offered a masterful picture of the psychological devastation of battle.
Vidor's emotional epic opens as three young men from different walks of life are thrown together as soldiers and fast buddies during World War I: a son of privilege James Apperson (John Gilbert), a Bowery bartender Bull (Tom O'Brien) and a gawky ironworker Slim (Karl Dane).
The trio's experiences billeting in France are initially light-hearted and charming. James woos a beautiful village girl Melisande (Renee Adoree) who looks just like his fiance back home. In the meantime, Bull and Slim try to horn in on Melisande, who doesn't speak a word of English and seems overwhelmed by all of the romantic attention. The sequences between James and Melisande, as he shyly flirts and she shyly retreats, made the most of Gilbert's remarkable flair for understated acting, as well as the pairing of the two charming, well-matched actors (the duo teamed up one more time in 1930 for Redemption). The scene where consummate American James teaches Melisande to chew gum captured the wonderfully light and subtle touch both actors had with comedy. Vidor has noted that the scene was entirely improvised after he watched his cameraman chewing gum and decided to use it to embellish an otherwise vague love scene.
The pairing of these two romantic leads boosted Gilbert's popularity and allowed Adoree, a veteran of the circus and the Folies-Bergere, to rise from a respected actress in the MGM stable to star status. Gilbert broke out of his more typical romantic leads to movingly portray the doughboy James Apperson, who goes from naive kid to a painfully wizened man over the course of the film. That image-change only solidified Gilbert's fame and transformed him into a superstar.
As James, Bull and Slim experience more and more of the war, their youthful enthusiasm is chipped away. In an absolutely devastating battle scene in Belleau Wood, the men line up with bayonets ready and gradually march into the fire of German snipers hidden in the forest. Shot from high angles to capture the number of men involved, and also straight-on to capture the terrified expressions of individual men, the sequence has a nightmare immediacy enhanced by John Arnold's cinematography and Gilbert's effective acting. One by one, snipers hidden in the treetops and Germans manning machine guns pick off the American soldiers as they continue to march relentlessly forward. Vidor created the chilling effect of men marching to their death by using a bass drum during the shooting to force the actors to keep time to the beat as they marched. "Everybody was instructed that no matter what they did, they must do it in time to the beat. It's all so relentless," said Vidor. Sound was also used to emotional effect during the film's remarkably successful run at the Astor Theatre on Broadway, where eighteen men with bugles and wagons filled with iron created sound effects to replicate the experience of actual battle.
As the story progresses the bond between the trio grows tighter and they take enormous risks to protect one another, including a risk that proves fatal and ends in a heartbreaking expression of fraternal love. According to a Variety review of the time, that scene of one friend dying while the other cradles him in his arms, "had the majority of the audience in tears."
It was the success of Laurence Stallings' and Maxwell Anderson's stage play What Price Glory? that inspired MGM's adaptation of Stallings' The Big Parade. Vidor stuck close to the gritty realism of Stallings' wartime recollections when he worked with the writer on adapting the film. The Big Parade included scenes of unfiltered violence, like a wounded soldier with blood running down his head and graphic language in the film's intertitles, to reflect the realism of Stallings' own wartime experience in WWI where he lost a leg in Belleau Wood.
"War had not been explored yet from the realistic GI viewpoint," Vidor noted, "It was more based on songs like 'Over There' and songs of that sort."
That The Big Parade was the first war film told from the doughboy, rather than the officer's perspective, helped explain its enormous popularity. As testament to its power, The Big Parade was commended again and again by veterans of WWI for its accuracy.
To convey that wartime authenticity, Vidor relied heavily on Signal Corps footage of battle and troop movements to help in choreographing his film, and also incorporated some of that footage into the film itself.
The Big Parade established Vidor as one of the top directors of the age. The film made MGM a mint, but while it raised his status in Hollywood significantly, Vidor unfortunately signed away his percentage share and was thus unable to capitalize on the film's enormous financial success. Vidor would continue his unique combination of humanism and technical virtuosity in films to come like The Crowd (1928) and Our Daily Bread (1934).
Producer: Irving G. Thalberg
Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Harry Behn, based on the play by Joseph Farnham and the story "Plumes" by Laurence Stallings
Art Direction: James Basevi, Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: John Arnold
Costume Design: Ethel P. Chaffin
Film Editing: Hugh Wynn
Original Music: Dr. William Axt, Maurice Baron, David Mendoza
Principal Cast: John Gilbert (James Apperson), Renee Adoree (Melisande), Hobart Bosworth (Mr. Apperson), Claire McDowell (Mrs. Apperson), Claire Adams (Justyn Reed), Robert Ober (Harry).
by Felicia Feaster