I'll forgive you if you haven't heard of director King Vidor, even though he's one of the greatest American filmmakers of the '20s and '30s - some of his best work remains unavailable on DVD, including today's subject, and his best-known work is the Kansas scenes from The Wizard of Oz, a film for which he received no onscreen credit. Like Frank Borzage or Rouben Mamoulian, Vidor was a genius who somehow hasn't remained very much alive in the public mind compared to someone like F.W. Murnau, and although he is still well-known to scholars and historians, it is sadly true that the vast majority of modern cinephiles have never seen movies such as The Crowd, Our Daily Bread or Duel in the Sun, even if they've heard of them.
The movie that made Vidor's reputation, and remains perhaps one of his best-known (though alas! surely not one of his most-seen) works is 1925's The Big Parade, one of the most successful box office smashes of the silent era, taking in a then-unbelievable $22 million world wide, $6.4 million of that in the United States. It's one of history's best examples of popular acclaim accruing to a work of distinct and undeniable high quality, back in the days before our modern division between "good films" and "profitable films" was entrenched so firmly; I wouldn't hesitate to call The Big Parade the best silent film ever made about the First World War. It's not flawless, I suppose, but few things are, and even though a virtually uncountable number of war films in the intervening 84 years have trodden upon much the same ground, few of them indeed have been able to equal its achievements, let alone surpass it. The film was written by Laurence Stallings from his own story, and as Stallings was a veteran of the war who'd experienced its deprativities enough that he lost a leg in the process, he brought a certain verismo to the thing.
The opening of the film is in the big city, early in 1917 - theoretically New York, but there's a distinct Everywhere in America feel to the settings. It was a similar New York as Everytown setting that Vidor used in crafting his masterpiece, The Crowd, and it's hard not to see his earlier film as the dry run, of sorts, of that film: he presents the city in much the same way, a maze of lines and grids and vertical angles, with masses of bustling people interrupting the neat geometry of the locations. But that's all as may be. The city isn't terribly important to The Big Parade, except that our three main characters all live and work there: Slim (Karl Dane) spends his days high atop the city helping to build one of those new skyscrapers, Bull (Tom O'Brien) is a bartender, and Jim Apperson (John Gilbert, one of the biggest stars of the silent era whose personal life and insufficiently rich voice left him unable to find much work after 1929) doesn't do much of anything but sit around and enjoy the fruits of being the son of one of New York's most successful businessmen. Especially the gorgeous young lady his wealth has helped him to find, Miss Justyn Reed (Claire Adams).
When America finds itself embroiled in war, Slim and Bull rush to sign up, as do most of Jim's friends - but he, himself, thinks it's all beneath his dignity. That is, until Justyn praises his bravery (not assuming that he might possibly have ignored the call to duty), and a recruitment parade marches down the main street of his neighborhood, bringing out the patriotic fervor in every man, woman, and child, even a layabout like Jim. The parade is one of the most dynamically-filmed moments in the whole movie, a collision of extras with waving flags and column after column of soldiers: it's not hard to see why everyone is so excited, and why a young man looking to prove himself to his ladylove would rush right out to join up after seeing the glorious pageantry of war. At the same time, it's all very hectic and busy, as well, and it becomes hard after a time to keep track of space; Vidor uses many random inserts here that suggest the content of the parade while also keeping us off-balance, since none of those shots seem motivated by any particular point-of-view. With the help of hindsight from knowing where the movie ends up going, it seems clear that this sequence is meant to illustrate the danger of blind, enthusiastic patriotism, that keeps you from seeing things clearly and judging things rationally. The Big Parade isn't an especially pacifist movie, but it is fervently dedicated to puncturing the idea that life in the military is all glory, and the treatment of the parade here is the first visual inkling of what's coming.
Jim, Bull and Slim all end up together in the picturesque French village of Champillon, and there they wait. For weeks, it seems. More than half of the film takes place in this holding pattern, as the soldiers just stand around flirting with the locals, eating good food, goofing around, and so on. Jim strikes up a relationship with a lovely young woman named Melisande (Renée Adorée), feeling more annoyed than guilty by the occasional reminders that he has a fiancée back home. He has developed a completely different life for himself in the army, we quickly deduce, having more or less abandoned his old personality in favor of this magical new world the armed forces have provided. Throughout this portion of the movie, there are many title cards quoting army marching songs, "You're in the Army Now" especially, with its litany of all the ways that military life is a fundamentally different thing than civilian life. There are so many quotes from marches that The Big Parade starts to seem almost like a musical; as much a musical as any silent film could possibly be.
This lengthy interlude does three things; it demonstrates how the military changes a man; it shows how good a peaceful life is, and justifies the need to fight to preserve that peace; and it lulls the characters and audience into a calm state. This is the most important of all, this last one. After what must be a very long time, the soldiers are given their marching orders, and they're all very enthusiastic: this is it, the Big Parade, fighting for glory and honor. All the pomp they saw in the parade, all the lovely goofing off on the army's dime, that's all just laying the groundwork for becoming Real Soldiers and proving how altogether manly they are. With that boy's own tale idea of combat to guide them, our three heroes march straight into hell.
Compared to some films made not that much later (All Quiet on the Western Front and the French Wooden Crosses leap to mind), The Big Parade is not the most terrifying war movie imaginable. In part, we can likely blame the weird way that combat scenes were added to the movie, with MGM having first Vidor and then George W. Hill shoot extra sequences to plug into the fairly battle-light first cut. I don't know that I can pick out Hill's contributions from Vidor's, but there are portions of the battles that don't really mesh with the rest of the movie, and often have the distinct tang of the soundstage. But at other moments, the battle scenes are revelatory and not at all exhilarating: this is one hell of a muddy vision of cinematic warfare, with actors flailing about and getting filty; and it is a very chaotic vision, with flashing lights from every corner freaking us out almost as much as the characters; and it is a violent, angry, and adult vision, more than I'd expected from a 1925 film: "god damn" and "hell" are shouted freely (that is, written out on cards freely - yet somehow, "bastards" has to be rendered as dashes), one character dies in a shockingly bloody way, and so forth. If it's not as apocalyptic as some of the best later combat movies, it's still very visceral, earthy, wearying.
After that burst of violence, all that's left is for the film to move back to the peaceful world of New York, with a much rattled Jim realising for the first time the artifice and "staginess" of his former life that we already saw, when Vidor filmed the interiors of the Apperson manse with an eye to making them as hollow and empty as possible. That's not life, the horribly traumatised Jim knows now - life is something that he had pulled away in the French mud. It's a fine, terrible sober lesson to learn, and it more than survives the film's unfortunate and contrived happy ending. In the future, anti-war films would approach their topic with more bombast and scale, but not many of them could turn all that to a finale as resolutely appalled at the viciousness of combat and the idiocy of people who think that words like "duty" and "honor" are enough to make that viciousness bearable. It is bearable because it must be borne, not because it is a good thing. Few films have ever captured that moral so adroitly.