Tuesday 21 July 2009

The Big Parade (1925)

Director: King Vidor
Stars: John Gilbert and Renée Adorée

Here's one of the great war pictures of all time, according to the history books, but being English I can't help but add a second line to the first we're given in this film. 'In the Spring of 1917, America was a nation occupied in peaceful progression.' Well yeah, but that just means that they hadn't turned up to the fight. The rest of the world had been fighting since 1914, wondering about those isolationists over the pond and whether they'd ever join in to lend a hand in saving the civilised world. This film suggests what the rest of us believed all along: that the Americans really didn't care until war was declared and then they all suddenly got patriotic and caught up in the frenzy to kick the Kaiser's ass.

We're introduced to the main cast right before the declaration of war. They come from all backgrounds as characters and as actors too, but none of them would still be making films a decade later. The longest lasting is Tom O'Brien, who plays a bartender on the Bowery called Michael O'Hara, better known as Bull. This would be the biggest part O'Brien ever got and he stopped making films in 1936, but I'm not sure why given that he lived until 1947. He's a sort of cross between John Belushi and Spencer Tracy but without the character of either.

The star of the film is John Gilbert, one of the biggest idols of them all in the silent era but who would be dead at 38 the same year O'Brien made his last movie. The sound era had not treated him well, even though he had a fine voice. Depending on which you choose to believe, either his voice didn't match his image or Louis B Mayer allegedly sabotaged his career as MGM made the switch to sound. Here, a single year into that MGM contract, he plays a wealthy layabout called Jim Apperson, the son of a mill owner who wants him to follow him into the family business but seems unable to actually get him to.

At the other end of the social scale and status in Hollywood, Karl 'The Great' Dane is Slim Jensen, a rivetter on high rise buildings. He'd appeared in nine films, many of them war films it seems, but This in the film that made him a memorably goofy star. In nine years he would be dead at his own hand, having sunk all the way from starring in MGM films to selling hot dogs at the MGM gate. He couldn't make it in the sound era because of a thick Scandinavian accent. Dane was his nationality not his name, but Karl Dane was easier to say than Rasmus Gottlieb.

And as you can imagine the three of them enlist. Two of them want the fight but Jim Apperson sort of just ends up roped into it. His dad is fed up of seeing him do nothing so finally gives him an ultimatum and his girlfriend Justyn is just thrilled the country's at war and can't wait to see him in his officer's uniform. She doesn't have much of a grip on reality and so to pander to them all, he signs up and heads off to Europe. Dumb little Justyn believes all along that he's the officer in charge of a romantic company. Of course he's just a buck private like the rest.

Unlike most silent war films, we don't see anything of their training. They turn up into a field as rookies and totally look it, but promptly begin marching and keep on marching and marching and marching until as uniformed, equipped and regimented soldiers, they march into Champillon, France. And here we take a break from anything we might remotely expect. The Germans had occupied most of France in 1914 but you wouldn't guess it by watching this bunch in Champillon.

Sure, they muck out stables they've been billeted to, but there isn't much of anything military going on. They get letters from home, they flirt with the locals and they play around having a good time. Our hero, Jim Apperson, is a prize idiot. He walks around with a barrel on his head, calls Melisande, the cute young French farm girl, a froggie and introduces her to chewing gum. Talk about overpaid, oversexed and over there! We could be forgiven at this point for wondering when the war is going to show up because nobody seems to be interested in it. There's no drill or training or watching out for the enemy or anything.

And then, an hour and a quarter into the film, which is a little past halfway, they finally head for the front, and if we wondered where the war was we soon find out. The title cards call it a baptism of fire and they aren't kidding. Even before they get to the front, a German flies over to strafe the newcomers. Being a good old American film though, these rookie soldiers who apparently haven't even looked at a gun since the war begun manage to shoot him down.

Then they finally get orders and march through a wood. They shoot down their first sniper and the next bunch of Germans promptly surrender, but then all hell breaks loose. Suddenly there's smoke everywhere, explosions and people dying all around and finally we have a war in this war film. And it goes hog wild. Ten minutes after these soldiers hear their first shot fired, they're in the middle of a poison gas attack, with tanks rumbling through it and machine gun outposts firing on them from all sides. We get the works.

And what to me played like a pretty poor outing all around suddenly turns into stunning filmmaking that simply cannot be ignored. These soldiers are here to be cannon fodder, the disposable heroes who try to keep the front lineas long as they can, while the machinery of war can move up behind them. And these war scenes are powerful things. There are enough explosions to satisfy the most jaded of modern blockbuster fans but while they're devastating the landscape all around like the biggest fourth of July celebration ever, these soldiers have to march across it to get down and dirty in the enemy trenches, bayonetting or clubbing to death any German they can find.

I can only assume that that this game of two halves was intended to be that way to help highlight just what this trench war was and on that front it succeeds admirably. King Vidor knew what he was doing when it came to spectacle and the second half of this film is about as spectacular as the era got. It's amazing viewing and utterly justifies the status of this film in cinematic history. Unfortunately to get to it you have to get through the first half, which doesn't do anything of the sort. The first half begins as drama, quickly becomes melodrama and then tired comedy. It isn't consistent as any one thing and I'm surprised I made my way through it to the good stuff.

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