The Big Parade may be the oldest film I’ve seen that shows the horrors of war rather than the “glories” of it. It was released only seven years after the end of World War I, which many people consider to be the worst war ever fought because of the chemical weapons, especially mustard gas, which foot soldiers had to deal with. Add in the trench warfare and the introduction of attacks from the sky because of the airplane and combatants were faced with a host of horrible things that their ancestors had not had to endure. The film itself doesn’t start out showing wartime, though. In fact, it starts out as a light hearted comedy.
James Apperson (John Gilbert) is the son of a rich man. His father (Hobart Bosworth) thinks John isn’t good for much, especially compared to his hard working brother (Robert Ober). It’s 1917 and when the
World War I James’ mother (Claire McDowell) is concerned that he will try to
enlist. He assures her he has no plan to
do so, but this just disappoints his father even more. James is easily swayed, so when he finds out
some of his rich friends are joining up he impulsively joins them, thinking it
will be a lark.
Before being sent into battle James meets two working class men who also have enlisted: Bull (Tom O’Brien) and Slim (Karl Dane). It’s probably the first time James has ever been exposed to the lives of those less fortunate than him. Despite their initial differences they become fast friends. James jokes around with them as much as he did with his pals back home.
When they get sent to
France they are billeted at a farm
house. Naturally there is a pretty
daughter there. Melisande (Renee Adoree)
attracts the attention of all three of the men.
In between humorous attempts to gain her favor even though none of them
can speak French, James, Bull, and Slim also plot to liberate some wine from
the cellar of farmhouse. Eventually
James is the one she favors. Just as
they are about to declare their love for each other James finally receives
orders to go into battle.
This is where the film turns deadly serious. James, Bull, and Slim all get a quick lesson in how nasty war can be. They get strafed by an airplane before they even get to the front. When they do arrive they are immediately sent into battle. They face snipers, machine guns, artillery, mustard gas, and fighting in a forest where every tree can hide the enemy. The three eventually end up in a shell hole and it’s only been their first day. I won’t go any further, but there is much more shown on the impact the war has on all three of them, especially James. Melisande also has to deal with fallout from the conflict.
The war scenes are very effective. Originally the film had almost no images of battle, but the studio showed cuts of the film to audiences, who liked it quite a bit. Producer Irving Thalberg decided to spend more money and stage realistic war scenes to add to the impact. He was helped by the U.S. War Department who loaned the film 200 trucks, 100 planes, and 4,000 soldiers to act as extras. Nowadays the
wouldn’t so much as loan a single bullet to a film with such a strong anti-war
message as this one.
The Big Parade is sometimes known as the most successful silent film ever made. Just to show that it’s not a recent phenomenon where studios try to screw people out of their percentage of the profits, even back then the studio convinced director King Vidor to give up his 20% stake in the film’s profits because it supposedly would not make any money. He got a small, flat amount and the film, which cost about $250,000 to make, went on to gross more than 5 million dollars by 1930 and 22 million dollars world wide by 1985.
In addition to its financial success, the film made Renee Adoree a star and made John Gilbert, who was already a success, as popular as Rudolph Valentino. Strangely, neither Adoree nor Gilbert would live to see their 40th birthday. He died of a heart attack at 38, while she succumbed to tuberculosis at 35.
If you have never seen a silent film you may be worried that The Big Parade will not be able to have much impact on you. I can tell you that it gets the emotions across quite well. The humor of the earlier part of the film also is effective. If this film sounds interesting then I recommend you give it a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars