King Vidor’s Big Parade holds the title for most financially successful silent film ever made. When MGM discovered Vidor was entitled to 20% of the net profit, which would turn out to be 22 million dollars, they quickly persuaded him to sell his stake for a small sum. The Director is quoted as saying – ‘I thus spared myself from becoming a millionaire instead of a struggling young director trying to do something interesting and better with a camera’. King Vidor is an artist with passion for the ‘art that encompasses all other art’.
The Big Parade is the story of an aristocratic Yankee (John Gilbert) who joins the army to fight in World War One. He is sent to France and sheds his silver spooned upbringing as he mixes with working class men and falls for a poorer French woman (Renee Adorée). This film was born out of the desire by Vidor to create a realistic war film. Legendary Production Chief Iriving Thalberg was thrilled by the idea and attempted to buy the play What Price Glory? but the rights were already snapped up. So they did the next best thing.
Laurence Stallings, the co-writer of the play, was brought on board. As an ex-marine, Stallings had a unique insight into the worldwide confrontation and created an anti-war film which jettisoned the traditional concepts of heroism and embraced the humanistic aspect. No battle occurs until well towards the end of the picture and even these sequences were added after as Thalberg realised the potential and extended the scope. Instead, this is a picture desiring to explore the men behind the uniforms. In a genius opening sequence, the main three men are introduced as a siren of war blares- the welder is instantly spurred on, the bartender answers the call and John Appleseed laughs at the idea of enlisting and returns to his pampering.
Stallings’ writing investigates the problems of patriotism as an attribute laying dormant beneath the surface of a country which ignites and spreads from the smallest ember. John Apperson resists his father’s intentions and fiancee’s romantic vision of John in uniform, but watching his school friends in the heart of a parade cheering for brave young men, he finally succumbs to enlistment. Vidor and Stallings do not approach the subject cynically, but honestly – young men were spurred by promises of glory before facing a harsh and senseless reality of a magnitude unseen before.
Despite Vidor’s grand and sweeping eye, The Big Parade is an intimate tale of a handful of soldiers set in a small peasant town. Vidor does not waste time spoon feeding us that war is atrocious, we know this, and the cataclysmic events were recent memories to audiences. Instead, it is a refreshing portrait; the men enjoy their time drinking in wine cellars, chasing foreign beauties and playing about because they remain blissfully unaware of what lays beyond the smoking horizon. Without the heroic mythos, they become relatable human beings.
Vidor’s grandest achievement is creating perhaps one of the greatest screen romances. The chemistry between Gilbert and Adorée is intense and absorbing because both are well rounded characters. Apperson is a handsome playboy used to getting what he wants whilst
Melisande (Adorée) is a feisty and intelligent character, not an object of desire. Melisande is not plastered in make-up or doing chores in sumptuous dresses, she is a working woman, possessing a playful lightness as she laughs at the soldiers showering or Apperson wearing a wine barrel to camp.
It is a hard-earned romance ignoring traditional instant adoration. The couple walking by a dreamy lake is an ideal location for an orchestra raising kiss, but Melisande bats away Apperson’s advances and finally punches him flat on his back for his trouble. But through tender moments, as Melisande kisses the wound or teaching her to chew gum, the romance flowers naturally. The language barrier is a source for their greatest obstacle and sweetest interactions. The couple flick quickly through a translation book to express themselves and Apperson attempts to explain his fiancee by pointing to his heart, but no words are needed as the two lovers are torn apart by the march to the front.
The charge to battle was re-staged with hundreds of planes flying over thousands of trucks and extras stretching to a vanishing point. Yet, this harrowing rendition of war needed no grand spectacle. The men trudge slowly in unison towards a barrage of bullets. The camera focusses on the faces of the trio as they survive second by second purely on chance and soldiers drop dead around them. The parade continues on. In the final climatic confrontation, the men march in an inspired cinematic choice across the Front – they advance leftward. This movement is counter to Western reading and subconsciously enforces a struggle – a technique used by Stanley Kubrick in his World War One masterpiece Paths of Glory.
War is a topic forever to be captured on film. Vidor offers a wonderful piece to the collection without explicitly philosophising or preaching. His own words best evaluate this masterpiece – ‘A simple story filmed with limited sets can often be more effective than a costly extravaganza. Provided it has depth and allows audiences to identify with the character’. This film proves his point: The Big Parade is at its most inspiring, harrowing and uplifting in the intimate moments of a World War.
The exodus to the Front has finally arrived. Apperson desperately scans for Melisande as he exits the town in a swarm of soldiers and crying lovers. Melisande too searches for her love but it seems hopeless. Apperson boards the truck and it seems as if the lovers will never meet, then they spot one another. Apperson struggles against the tide of people and the two embrace – perhaps for the final time.