Ever since Wonder Woman stormed through No Man's Land earlier this year I've wanted to take a fresh look at World War I movies, including those I'd seen before. It had been a while since I looked at King Vidor's 1925 blockbuster, the first major film about the war made after the armistice, with no need for propaganda. It made a superstar of leading man John Gilbert, real stars of romantic lead Renee Adoree and comic relief Karl Dane, and a bankable name of Vidor himself. I didn't remember it being as hard a slog back then. More than half the film is over before we get a battle, and most of that first half is seemingly interminable service comedy stuff with Gilbert, Dane and Tom O'Brien in France. That probably reflects the sensibility of Lawrence Stallings, whose novel Plumes formed the basis of the screenplay. Roughly speaking, Hollywood gave us two kinds of World War I movie between the world wars, not counting the German-point-of-view picture All Quiet on the Western Front. John Monk Saunders, the writer of Wings and many subsequent war pictures, brought a sort of "Lost Generation" post-traumatic sensibility to his work that makes his pictures more accessible today. To be cynical about it, his 1940 suicide probably gives Saunders additional street cred in our time, though if you want to play that game take note that by little more than a decade after Big Parade was completed Gilbert, Adoree and Dane were all dead. Stallings brings a different sensibility to war literature. His major contributions were Plumes and the play he wrote with Maxwell Anderson, What Price Glory, adapted into another blockbuster movie that inspired a spinoff comedy series about its bromantic heroes, Flagg and Quirt. Judging from Big Parade (assuming it to be a faithful adaptation of Plumes) and What Price Glory, it looks like Stallings saw the war as an occasion for the loosening of inhibitions as well as a perhaps pointless slaughter. Hence the girl-chasing in Big Parade as well as the notoriously salty "dialogue," available only to lip-readers, of the What Price Glory film. Saunders covers some of that territory as well, especially in Wings, but his stories always remain more grim than Stallings'. That's not to say that Big Parade doesn't get grim. In fact, it probably came across to its original audiences as very grim, since after building up Gilbert's buddies through that long first half of the picture Vidor promptly destroys them in his one big battle scene.
To back up a bit, Gilbert plays Jim Apperson, wastrel son of a successful businessman who enlists at the spur of the moment when the U.S. declares war on Germany without really thinking about it much. His dad thinks he's become a man at last -- an older brother stays home to help run the business -- but Jim doesn't want to make a big deal of it because he realizes, on his first second thought, that his mother will be horrified. Nevertheless, he leaves home and girlfriend behind to ensure basic training and the many indignities of military life (especially stable cleaning) alongside construction worker Slim (Dane) and bartender Bull (O'Brien). In France, they all have the hots for Melisande (Adoree), but Jim's an easy winner in that contest over his grotesque pals. Finally their unit is called to the front (the intertitles get hysterical about it: "Front! FRONT!" etc.) and Melisande can't stand to see Jim go. In a melodramatic high spot, she clings to the rear fender of the truck taking the men away until she can't hang on anymore, and then lies there abjectly after everyone else has left.
There isn't really any trench warfare in Big Parade unless you count the dark night Jim and his buddies spend in a shell crater. Instead, the Americans advance on the enemy through a forest in a scene famously choreographed by Vidor to establish a rhythm of footsteps, gunshots and falling bodies. In its deliberateness this scene is far from the machine-gun pacing of Lewis Milestone's All Quiet battles or the relentless tracking shots of Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, but it's a great way to build up tension as the Americans approach their baptism of fire. At a more intimate level, the night scene with the three soldiers in the crater must have been terrifying to the original audience as the men lose each other in darkness and light can mean death. The intertitles go over the top again in their own way -- blame them on movie writer Harry Behn rather than Stallings -- as Jim loses his buddies. "GOD DAMN THEIR SOULS!" he thunders at the Germans as he realizes that they've killed Slim. He gets a bit more explicit than that later, and while I recall seeing a version in which "bastards" is spelled out on screen, the version I saw on TCM (presumably more authentic) bleeps it down to "B---!" In any event, Jim barely survives, taken away in a singular burst of color by a Red Cross truck and sent home minus a leg. He learns that his girl has Dear Johned him with his brother and promptly heads back to France -- whether to stay with Melisande or bring her home to America is unclear. My gut feeling is that he stays, and I suppose there's a message there about the war experience for many Americans. You probably need a sense of Big Parade's place in film history to fully appreciate it now, or at least forgive the patches that have grown dull over time, but it's still essential viewing if you're interested in how Hollywood presented the war supposed to end all war.