A Good Time for An Anti-War Film: "The Big Parade"

Submitted by Evelyn Kiefer on Tue, 08/22/2006 - 23:12.

Only a few film buffs I know have seen “The Big Parade” a 1925 silent film by King Vidor. It was the second highest grossing silent film in history (“Birth of A Nation” released in 1915 was the highest grossing silent film ever). Adapted from a play by Joseph Farnham and a novel, Plumes, by Lawrence Stallings, it is the story of a handsome, innocent young rich boy, caught up in a wave of patriotism, who enlists to fight in World War I. He experiences true love with a beautiful young French girl and the horrors of trench warfare before returning home a damaged war hero and a mature man. “The Big Parade” has it all: comedy, romance, battles and beautiful landscapes. It has been called the first anti-war film because it broke with tradition portraying war realistically rather than glorifying it.

I saw “The Big Parade” for the first time recently because the painter Andrew Wyeth called it “the only truly great” film ever made. He would know, he has watched it hundreds of times ( and this before the convenience of video and DVD players). Rarely have I watched a movie more than once. Though I can't relate to such obsession, it does intrigue me. It occurred to me, before watching “The Big Parade” that maybe Wyeth just needed to see more films. I am not sure how many other films he has seen or how many times he has seen them. I have seen a few silent films, most at the Cinematheque, but the ones I have seen were not all that memorable. I tended to think of silent film as an obsolete media, incapable of communicating the complex ideas that 21st century films convey. “The Big Parade” shattered my misconceptions. The battle scenes were particularly great -- very realistic, even frightening. The cinematography was beautiful; reminiscent of the work of some of the best early 20th-century American still photographers; Stieglitz, Strand, and Weston came to mind. The human relationships the actors created, especially the leads (John Gilbert and Renee Adoree) were surprisingly natural and complex. I found myself forgetting that it was a silent film and that I wasn't hearing the dialog. I was nearly moved to tears by the end. Most importantly, it kept me awake in a dark room for the 2 hour and 20 minute running time (this alone is a great feat, I'm notorious for falling asleep during movies). Eighty-one years after its Hollywood premiere “The Big Parade” is still a very powerful artistic statement!

How does “The Big Parade” compare to war films that came later? Watching “The Big Parade” must be a prerequisite for any director making a war film. I really have not seen that many war films, but I can recognize influences from the “The Big Parade” in other war films I have seen: “Apocalypse Now”, “Three Kings”, “Saving Private Ryan”, “The Thin Red Line". Do any films glorify war any more? All the ones I have seen seem to be decidedly anti-war. The scenes in “Saving Private Ryan” that convey the grotesque numbers of dead and wounded during the D-Day invasion at Normandy remind me of Vidor's scenes that convey the vast number of young men traveling to the front. The camera panning the foliage and the crocodile in beginning of “The Thin Red Line” reminds me of the scene where the camera focuses on the frog in “The Big Parade.” David O. Russell's 2000 film “Three Kings” uses Vidor's model of three unlikely friends from different backgrounds brought together as soldiers during a war. Some of Vidor's most memorable scenes, for me, are the endless lines of men and trucks traveling through the landscape toward the front and the chaotic scene when Jimmie and the other soldiers leave the village for the front, when Melisande frantically follows the truck. It is an amazing feat of choreography. It looked dangerous. I wondered if Renee Adoree had a stunt double. One of the last scenes, the scene with Jimmie hobbling down the hill toward Melisande after he returns to France to find her after the war is particularly haunting.

Perhaps for Wyeth, the appeal of “The Big Parade” is the similarities that silent film and painting share. Both attempt to convey ideas and emotions without words or sounds. They must rely on composition, gesture, light and dark (though painters can use color). Vidor's scenes are carefully composed – like paintings. The movie poster is an example of how Vidor used forms carefully to make scenes more visually effective and memorable. Windows and doors, as I recall, are used repeatedly to frame characters. Light and darkness are used very effectively to convey mood and emotion. When Jimmie returns to his family home after the war has ended the darkened room helps to convey his family's guilt. When Wyeth first saw “The Big Parade” at eight years old he was probably most impressed by the exciting battle scene – nail biting suspense as soldiers are picked off one by one by enemy snipers, grenades blasting the earth apart in clouds of dust and rockets lighting up the night sky. Though 21st-century viewer can easily forget, for Americans in the 1920s “The Big Parade” presented the use of modern technology for warfare. In 1925 few Americans owned cars, the trucks and automobiles seen in the movie would have been exciting to a young boy. The use of poison gas, gas masks and trench warfare would have been new and frightening concepts to viewers (though it is still frightening today). Later as he became a mature artist Wyeth probably recognized the power of the more abstract artistic qualities of the film.

    It is interesting to note that Wyeth's paintings have proved very influential to some contemporary directors. Tom Duffield, the production designer for the American remake of “The Ring” drew inspiration from Wyeth's paintings for the look of the his very popular horror film and M. Night Shyamalan based his entire film “The Village” on paintings by Andrew Wyeth. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Wyeth. In “The Ring”, the lonely and isolated island in New England where the evil little girl Samara and her mother lived seem to have been borrowed from Wyeth's paintings of Maine. The main character in “The Village,” a handicapped girl seems to be M. Night Shyamalan's incarnation of Christina from Christina's World. Shyamalan's unlikely romantic lead, makes more sense to those who know Wyeth's Christina and find her strangely beautiful and heroic.

Despite the time that he has spent watching at least one film and the antisocial characteristics that seems to imply (to me at least), the messages that the film conveys about human relationships seems similar to the message in Wyeth's paintings. “The Big Parade,” though a essentially a war film is almost entirely about the way in which a person is defined by intimate human relationships; true love, friendship, and family. Jimmie enlists in the army to impress his fiance. When he acts most heroically it is out of loyalty to a friend rather than patriotism. At the end of the film, after all Jimmie's experiences the most lasting and powerful is love – for Melisande.

So if “The Big Parade” is an anti-war film, are Wyeth's works anti-war paintings? While King Vidor's influences on other filmmakers seems more clear and obvious his influence on his biggest fan is more enigmatic.

 wonderful post, thanks! It

 wonderful post, thanks!

It will give me some things to think about as I prepare my own "Big Parade" post (as part of my complete tour of King Vidor's films!) 



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