Starring: John Gilbert
Plot: The idle son of a rich businessman joins the army when the U.S. enters World War One. He is sent to France, where he becomes friends with two working-class soldiers and falls in love with a Frenchwoman, but has to leave her to move to the front line.
King Vidor directs this amazing film, one of the best war films ever made, with touches of humor and irony, but never losing sight of the horrors and stupidity of war.
This silent classic has held up to the test of time very well. It has a nice blend of drama, action, and lighter moments, with plenty of good photography and settings. The characters are simple, believable, and unpretentious, and they are brought to life well by the cast. Its commentary on the war is to the point, yet in a thoughtful way, without the heavy-handed cinematic ranting that mars so many films about war.
The early scenes work very well in introducing some of the characters and themes. Its portrayal of the USA’s entry into the war is intelligently done, while holding nothing back in its perspective. By not assigning blame or responsibility to any specific persons or countries, it enhances its portrayal of the kind of mentality that so often prevails in such situations. It is a believable, and sometimes subtle, sequence that works quite well.
Once the movie gets into the main story, it uses the “parade” imagery well, and combines it effectively with the personal development of the characters.
John Gilbert and RenÃ©e AdorÃ©e work quite well together, and Gilbert’s army pals are both used effectively. There are quite a few memorable scenes as it depicts a full variety of wartime experiences. The lighter sequences are used particularly well, not as raucous humor but as moments of the more sensitive side of human nature that is still there somewhere amidst all of the turmoil.
The movie is neither an action-heavy war film nor a superficial, easily understood movie contrived to prove a particular point; it’s something much better that fully repays careful attention and appreciation.
Trivia: Vidor complained to MGM production chief Irving Thalberg that he was tired of shooting pictures that played in theaters for just one week, he told Thalberg about a new kind of realistic war movie he had envisioned. Thalberg was enthusiastic about Vidor’s vision, and tried to buy the rights to the hit Broadway play “What Price Glory?” co-written by Maxwell Anderson and World War I Marine veteran Laurence Stallings. Since the rights to the popular anti-war play had already been acquired, Thalberg hired Stallings to come to Hollywood and write a screenplay for the new, realistic war picture that Vidor had dreamed about making. Stallings came up with “The Big Parade”, an anti-war story that dispensed with traditional concepts of heroism, focusing instead on a love story between a Yank soldier and a French girl. After Vidor completed principal photography (at a cost of $200,000, approximately $2.1 million in 2003 dollars), Thalberg took the rough cut and previewed it before live audiences in Colorado. The audiences responded favorably, and Thalberg decided to expand the scope of the picture, as Vidor had created a war picture without many scenes of war. He had Vidor restage the famous marching army column sequence with 3000 extras, 200 trucks and 100 airplanes. After Vidor moved on to another project, Thalberg had other battle scenes shot by director George W. Hill. The result was a major hit that proved to be MGM’s most profitable silent picture.