When did I last see The Big Parade? I can’t remember where or when? On a big screen, I think, and at least twenty years ago. My memory of it, apart from its huge emotional impact, chiefly centred on the soldiers marching slowly through woods in the face of gunfire. I saw the film again this evening, the new Blu-Ray release from Warners of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s Thames Television restoration, and I was surprised at how much I had forgotten. The march through the woods is as much of a cinematic coup as ever it was, but so much of the film was as if new to me – which, though it makes me worry about my memory, made it in all other respects a great pleasure because it was as though watching a film classic for the first time.
The film tells a story now so familiar that you have to make a special effort to remind yourself that nothing like it had ever been seen on the screen before, and that it was shown to an audience for whom the First World War was but a few years ago, with its impact and consequences still being digested. Directed by King Vidor in 1925, it tells of Jim, a young American playboy (John Gilbert) who enlists when America joins the war and becomes close friends with two men from humbler working backgrounds, Bull and Slim, played by Tom O’Brien and Karl Dane. They train for war, travel over to France, and while stationed at a French village waiting for the fighting to begin, Gilbert falls in love with French girl, Melisande, played by Renée Adorée, despite neither being able to speak a word of the other’s language. Gilbert has left a fiancée back in America, so the romance is touched with doubts if not guilt.
The chewing gum scene from The Big Parade, with John Gilbert and Renée Adorée
The soldiers go to the front. Having been strafed by a German airplane as they march down a road, they meet proper action at Belleau Woods. This sequence has been much praised for its realism, as the soldiers proceed slowly through the trees in the bright light of day, one by one falling as they are picked off by sniper fire and machine guns. It comes as a huge shock after the arcadian interlude in the French village, but what struck me was how stylised the whole sequence it, so that realism is a quite misleading concept. In its gentle rhythm, in its play of light and shadow, in its intercutting between propulsive and repulsive elements, it seems a very formalised, almost balletic sequence – a dream of war with the reality of death.
The fighting continues at night on open ground, where the trio find themselves in a fox hole. Slim goes out on a doomed solo mission and is killed. Jim goes out to try and rescue him, and in another of the film’s heart-stopping sequences, he shoots a German soldier and then pursues him, both dragging themselves through the mud. Coming together, Jim is unable to bayonet the man but instead gives him a cigarette, before his young enemy dies. It is the kind of sequence advocates of the silent film hold up as being quintessence of the medium. Nothing is said, everything is only felt and read through the eyes until it becomes a scene that could only have been told silently. Its power is the very model of what was lost when cinema found sound.
Jim returns home after the war, where we and his family learn for the first time that he has lost a leg. Again, one has to think back to how it must have come across in 1925 to see a star of Gilbert’s romantic appeal so disfigured. His family – and conveniently his fiancée – seem repulsed by him, even as his mother has a sweet vision of the different stages of her child growing up, but this is a part of Jim’s new maturity. He has to reject his inherited comforts and discover his true self back in France, where Melisane toils the fields dreaming that he might return one day. But who is that figure she seems hobbling on the brow of a hill, coming toward her? It is no less powerful for being the only ending that the audience would ever have allowed the filmmakers to make.
The Big Parade has its occasional lapses and absurdities (Karl Dane’s eye-rolling comedy; Melisande clinging onto the truck that is taking Jim away from her raises more of a smile than a tear), but no more than must inevitably occur with the passing of time. It rings true in both narrative and performance. Watching, however, I kept thinking of how what was hugely popular once becomes the reserve of the specialist. The cinephiles laud The Big Parade as the peak of silent film craft, with performances, technique and theme that could hardly be bettered. I myself have just said how it rings true. Yet for the general audience these things are not true. It is quaint. It is false. It has been rendered implausible and unpersuasive by the passing of time and by the many films that have adapted its template for the tastes of their own times. Some in that general audience would fall for it, or at least appreciate its lasting values with a bit of context, but ultimately The Big Parade is much like any other film, in that its relevance is fundamentally tied to its popularity, and that is measured in a small number of years before tastes move on.
When is dramatic art ever eternal? Art on a wall achieves this, perhaps because it is static and not so dependent for its meaning upon an audience – it is constructed to stand out of time. Of course dramatic plays have lasted down the centuries, but their performances do not, as any vintage filmed or televised Shakespeare play will demonstrate. It all changes, from what was generally understood to what is selectively understood and requires apologetics. What is past is lost, or is in an ever-increasing process of being lost. As John Gilbert’s embittered face towards the end of The Big Parade suggests, film’s great hopes never last.