It has been a while for this series and we now enter 1925 where two big releases jostled for the top spot. Ben Hur missed out by a few million to King Vidor’s trailblazing WWI film The Big Parade, which grossed a quite astonishing $22 million at the box office. This is even more special when you consider a ticket back then was $0.25. Adjusted for inflation The Big Parade grossed $327 million.
We follow Jimmy Apperson (John Gilbert) a spoilt son of a steel miller who enlists to the American army for WWI his father, wanting to be rid of him so his other son can take over the mill is nonplussed, while of course, Jimmy’s mother is desperate for him to stay and live a comfortable danger free life. There he meets Slim (Karl Kane) and future Sergeant, Bull (Tom O’Brien), two down on their luck guys. The trio gets along and has a whale of a time in France until they are called to the frontlines where their fates are thrown up in the air.
The sheer scale of the film cannot be put to the side, this is an epic production with the titled Big Parade of trucks carrying soldiers an astonishing shot, even for today’s standards. This carries on with all of the battle scenes. Yet Vidor enjoyed focusing on the relationship between our trio. He provides a lot of comic relief here, unwittingly setting the audience up for what is to come later on in the film. These scenes are most enjoyable as it does set us up for some of the characters fates as we want to make sure that all three of these soldiers make it home and can stay friends by the end.
It would have been a unique experience for audiences to enjoy the comrade before being sharply sent to war. It is an effective switch as when we do reach the battlefront it is the exact opposite of what we have experienced thus far and it is here we begin to doubt on who will survive if anyone at all. We know from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that Hollywood and filmmakers were not afraid of wiping out our lead cast if the story called for it. The war wages chaos on our trio and it is haunting to see how their demeanours and personalities change when the events of the war become very real on that first day.
Disappointingly the romance subplot with Hill and Melisandre (the brilliantly named Renee Adoree) takes up far too much of the film’s runtime. Though it is not unexpected due to the era the film was released in and in truth, you can see a fair few war films for some reason have a romance angle thrown into the film to appease some of the audience. It is a shame it is included here as it really isn’t needed and that it affects the final act is surprising as well. It would have probably helped the film for modern audiences if this plotline was shortened a tad, but it isn’t too jarring to distract.
Upon research, it was interesting to find that Vidor did not shoot everything himself and the war scenes were filmed by MGM trusted hand George Hill who utilised a different method from Victor to show the chaos of the battles. Where Vidor wanted to show the beauty of the world and contrast it with grim death. Hill shows his scenes with shadows to hide what he can and when needed shows the soldiers being gunned down. Studio head Irving Thalberg after seeing how great the film was, paid for more scenes to be added (it is assumed these are Hills scenes) to make the war scenes more realistic and manic to audiences.
When watching the film it is striking to see how many war films have relied on this style of direction in the trenches for almost a decade. You can see a lot of The Big Parade in 1917, this is the enduring style that Vidor and Hill created here. The way the soldiers for either side just wildly went into battle is haunting. With no real plan to fight their enemy we just see man after man gets gunned down. It is as powerful as a war scene could get for the time and it is still very effective to this day.
Vidor brilliantly shots the homecoming scenes at a specific angle and only when necessary does he change the angle of the shot to reveal the true trauma of war. It is a scathing message to the audience that WWI was not one to be celebrated, it was one to mourn and his early decision to fill the first act with humour is even more pointed.
For fans of war films, this is a must-watch and if you are wanting a double bill of silent war films that pack a serious punch, then you wouldn’t go wrong with The Big Parade and The Four Horseman. This is a film that lulls the audience into a false sense of security before rigorously pulling the rug from underneath us.