Friday 27 July 2012

The Big Parade (1925)

Den store parade
The subtitle for this movie could be ”Band of Brothers 1925”, because that is basically the formula of this movie, except that when this movie was made it was not a formula at all. I have to admit I like that formula. As much as the horrors of war is shocking and always will be, the sequence of leaving home, bonding with new friends, being thrown into battle and the optional homecoming has a lot of boyish appeal and I could mention a whole string of movies following this concept (All Quiet on the Western Front, Full Metal Jacket, Deer Hunter, Platoon just to mention a few). Sometimes I do not know if these movies are genuinely anti-war movies or if they feed on a fascination among those who make them and those who see them of war. It is a strange love/hate relationship.

In any case the First World War had recently ended and it was time to face the monster. This is a painful process and “The Big Parade” was an early attempt and a very successful attempt at that at the box office. If it was entirely as successful at facing the monster I am not entirely sure. In that sense the later “All Quiet on the Western Front” hit it more clean, but “The Big Parade” was on entirely off the mark either.

Jim Apperson, played by John Gilbert, is the idle son of a rich industrialist. When was is declared he scarcely gives it any attention, but everybody and not least his girlfriend seem bend on enrolling him so he is swept into the army. It is too easy to blame the war hungry celebration at the declaration of war on American naiveté, it was exactly the same picture in Germany and France in 1914 where the soldiers went to battle thinking they were going to a party. But it is still disconcerting to see. This is 1917 and even though there was an effective lid on the news coming out of the war something of the horrors must have seeped out by then. Oh, had they know what they were going into!

During training Jim becomes friend with Slim and Bull, a tobacco chewing construction worker and bartender. The classical buddy-bonding all the while we get singing army inter-titles. Oh, it is a happy, rowdy life to be a soldier.

In France we get a long, and in my opinion too long, romantic intermezzo. The unit is bunked at a farmhouse in a village and Jim falls in love with the daughter of the farm. She is endearing and certainly an improvement over his girlfriend at home. An interesting cross-cultural love story unfolds though it becomes so dominant that it almost steals the focus of the movie (though some might say that is the focus of the movie). When the unit moves out it is with a lot of drama as they are both aware that this could well be the last they will see of each other.

Now we are moving into real battle. It is very well made but horrible to look at. If this was how they waged war in 1917-18 (and it probably was) they ought to line up the officers and shoot them. Such a stupid waste of human life. I am not talking about wars in general which by definition is a stupid waste of human life, but the way it is presented here is just grotesque. How do you enter a forest you know is stuffed with snipers and machine guns? Covering each other, moving from shelter to shelter, spreading out, and organizing the entire affair? Nope, not here. You line up your people in nice rows and let then march into the forest, uncovered, exposed and without means to effectively get rid of opposition, while the officers are pushing on behind. Napoleonic tactics against machineguns. At least in the trenches they are running when charging and doing so under artillery coverage. It is still a carnage and futile, but here they don’t even do that. Am I supposed to take this serious? Do the people behind the movie really know what they are doing? I am afraid they do. Everything I have learned of the First World War tells me that this kind of idiocy was prevalent. The soldiers surviving this were not heroes but lucky men, though I do not know if I would call it luck to be enrolled in an army fighting world war I.

Technically it is very well done. This counts for both the battle scenes specifically and the performance in general. The acting is more real than is the norm for the silent period and the editing, except for the long love affair is also okay.

One thing the movie shows very well is how different the men are when they return from war and how little understanding they meet. This is not as pronounced as in “All Quiet on the Western Front”, but it is clear enough. There must have been many men in 1925 who recognized the feeling and who were not feeling as appreciated as they felt they deserved. I hope the rest of society learned a bit from movies like this one.

A funny detail from the movie: I kept thinking how much John Gilbert looked like Tom Hanks. I would not be surprised if someone told me they were related. Both his looks and his manners are so Tom Hanks.

This is a movie I enjoyed more than I expected the first time I saw it. It is also a movie I was happy to see a second time. I am just not entirely sure which message to take with me from the movie.


  1. Every war has its post-mortem period in the cinematic arts. This, and as you mentioned, All Quiet on the Western Front are the best representatives for WWI. The battle scenes alone make this a valuable testament to the idiocy of what took place during trench warfare. Still, perhaps one of the best representatives of this period was made many decades later with Paths of Glory.

    1. I do not remember Paths of Glory, I wonder if I even saw it. To me The Big Parade was quite a surprise. I did not expect a movie like this from 1925.

    2. I believe Paths of Glory is from 1957, so you haven't gotten that far on the list yet.