The Big Parade (1925)

One of the first war movies and also one of the first popular movies ever, "The Big Parade" proves that sentimentality and cliches have been hanging around since people started making films; and they are powerful weapons. A war movie made just a few years after the first World War, "The Big Parade" is as much celebrating the valor of the men as it is gently shaking its head at the complexity of the subject without making any real commentary. It's a very safe work, but a very emotional one too.
The movie begins right as the reach of WWI reaches America. A difference in the classes is shown by three men: Bull, Slim, and James. Slim (Karl Dane) is the lowest on this social ladder. He's a tobacco-spitting-fight-ready construction worker who eagerly signs up for the war because he's itching for action. Then there's Bull (Tom O'Brien) who was a bartender and manages to enter into the war and quickly ascend to a commanding officer position. Lastly, we have James (John Gilbert) who is the socialite of the group. He has a mother who is worried senseless about the war and she tries to convince her son that he should have no place alongside other soldiers. Ah, but there's love in the picture.
Justyn (Claire Adams) the girl next door has been the object of attraction for James' eye for a long time. He and she have been practically engaged for years, though neither of them seem terribly serious about it. Upon hearing of the war, Justyn cozies up to James' side and asks him—pretty please—if he'll enlist because that means he'll get to wear a uniform and the ladies love those.
Not solely because of his love interest, James enlists and is sent off to the war.
But we don't see war for a long time in this movie. It's at least an hour into the movie before we even get a hit of it. For almost hitting three hours, "The Big Parade" also firmly solidifies the base for many Hollywood epics that would follow it, right down to some of the eye-rolling moments.
"The Big Parade" is too cute for its own good. It doesn't know when to be serious and when to throw humor in. Much of the war effort is viewed as a carnival for the first half of the movie—a brilliant and shining example of patriotism at its finest. The men fart and shower and do manly things and women are only objects to fall to their whims.
"The Big Parade" gives us a magnificent snapshot of sexism in early movies, while still grounding strong female characters. These two opposing forces can make for some uncomfortable scenes, particularly one where three soldiers molest a local French girl while she strongly objects. They get a punch in the face for their efforts, but not after the girl has already fallen for one of them.
James is the lucky man who falls for the French girl and she for him. The two have a lot of fun on screen together breaking language barriers while still remaining true to the silent era of acting. It's amazing what director King Vidor is able to do with the simple scenarios...then again, I would argue that he does too much because the movie is far too long for its own good.
The script plays out like it was written as a comedy and then someone realized that war actually had to be included in the film.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the war scenes are the best of the movie. They do have moments of head-scratching humor included; but for the most part they are well-executed and tightly constructed around suspense.
"The Big Parade" is a tribute to the power of melodrama. As James, Slim, and Bull get moved to the front lines, James has to say goodbye to his French girlfriend, Melisande (Renée Adorée). Now there is a conflict of interest where love is concerned; but thankfully "The Big Parade" manages to tip-toe around a lot of stereotypes that others would have fallen into.
It's a movie with a very emotional ending and the last few scenes remain some of the most romantic ever created. It's glorious and faulted.

Score: ★★★

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