What MGM really wanted was to film the Maxwell Anderson-Laurence Stallings hit play What Price Glory?, but William Fox had already secured the rights to it (Fox’s film would come out in 1926). Still wanting a WWI drama of their own, they opted to secure the rights to another Laurence Stallings property about the war, which resulted in King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) — a film containing similar elements to much of What Price Glory?, but without that play’s broader comedy and rampant vulgarity. (The film of What Price Glory? is a lip-reader’s field day. In The Big Parade we only get one very obvious “son of a bitch.”) What Vidor gave us was the first great WWI movie and the one that established neearly every trope of the war movie genre — right down to the fact the hero’s buddies will not make it to the final reel. (See also Wings and the WWI section of Noah’s Ark for close approximations from the same era. The more comedic What Price Glory? settles for killing off subordinate characters, which was a boon for Fox, who milked that film’s heroes for a string of sequels.)
Seen today, The Big Parade may slightly strain the patience of some viewers, because about half the film is devoted to the set-up and to the romance Jim Apperson (John Gilbert) and French girl Melisande (Renée Adorée). It’s not that any of this is bad. The romance, in fact, is effective and the scene where Jim teaches her how to chew gum still has the charm it exuded in 1925. But all this does keep the war at bay for an awfully long time. However, once the movie gets to the war itself — commencing with the scene where Melissande tries to physically stop the truck that’s taking Jim to the front — The Big Parade proves itself worthy of its immense reputation — and then some.
The first battle scene where Jim and his company advance through a forest full of snipers is almost unbearably tense. Moreover, it’s here that we see the film pulls no punches in its depiction of war with the soldiers having to step over the bodies of their fallen comrades. This will eventually give way to the movie’s pointed anti-war stance that climaxes with Jim screaming about what the point to any of this is. (This may be the first film to address this view of WWI in those terms. It’s certainly the first I know of, if we exempt pre-war pacifist works like Thomas H. Ince’s 1916 Civilization, which was made with eye to keeping the U.S. out of the war.) But it’s not limited to Jim’s big scene. There’s no sense of glory or even victory to this section of the film — only mud and filth and waste and death. It was strong stuff in 1925 and it remains strong today. It also proved to be a huge hit — making King Vidor a major director and John Gilbert one of the biggest stars of the era.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Big Parade Sunday, May 4, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.