The Big Parade tells the story of a rich American boy, Jim Apperson, who goes to war. Or does it? The opening goes to some lengths to make clear that he is both rich and idle. It also introduces two other men - who will become his buddies - one a bartender and the other a gangly construction worker. The class distinctions here are obvious, so it's noteworthy that the film does nothing further with them. You might expect some sort of friction to be caused, at least at first, whether dramatic or comical, but there's nothing. Once they're all packed into their uniforms and sent to France (this is WWI of course), they're all the same. Which I'm sure is the point.
The structure of the movie is simply to follow Jim's experience, which begins as innocent, exuberant "patriotism" (he enlists in order to impress a pretty girl). The Big Parade is filled with many big parades, the first an actual parade full of American "can do!" spirit as Jim heads to the recruitment office. His enlistment wins the heart of his father, and terrifies his mother, and then segues into another parade of marching doughboys as they arrive in France (the editing rather implies that they marched all the way there from New York, which, in spirit, I suppose they did).
And after all that marching and rah-rah excitement? Waiting. Holing up in a barn, and shoveling manure, and waiting.
It's not so bad after all, this whole war thing. His buddies entertain themselves by stealing wine and getting into other trouble, while Jim spends most of his time falling in love with the French girl who lives in the farmhouse, Melisande. They try to communicate, badly, through his little phrase book, and he attempts to introduce her to chewing gum (how cuuuuute!). This section - the longest part of the film - is surprisingly carefree and comedic. Almost slapstick, even. There's a particular part with a barrel that was so over the top it... well it should have been insulting, except it was so funny I couldn't hate it no matter how hard I tried. Another highlight is when Jim receives a cake in the mail from his mother, and, well, and it's the thought that counts, right?
Another parade. Finally Jim's unit is called to the front, and again the soldiers gather for a triumphant, patriotic march. Only this time, Jim is not quite in tune with the others. The parade is infected with panic as Jim and Melisande attempt to find each other in the chaos. The patriotic fervor is like the rapids of a swift river-- a lot of fun... when it's carrying you in the direction you want to go.
Another parade, more solemn this time, as a single file line of tanks and troop carriers stretches literally to the horizon. This is one of the film's most famous shots, involving (according to IMDb) over 100 airplanes, 200 trucks, and 4000 soldiers, all on loan from the Army.
Another parade? Of sorts. As the GIs advance to the front they are now in long, horizontal ranks, no joy left in their faces. It isn't a mad rush, but steady, measured paces. It becomes a tempo. Slow. Grim. Steady. In their steps, and in the editing and the music. (The score isn't original; this was the 1988 score by Carl Davis, which is magnificent, especially during this sequence. Understated but powerful in a way composers didn't understand yet in 1925.) A soldier falls here. Another there. Let me remind you this is a silent film - there is no crackling of gunfire, and no screams. They just fall. There is only the steady push of the music and grim faces as they step over bodies. Increasingly smoke begins to drift in. The silence brings a strange, unique quality to the sequence, which elevates it, I think. The practical distractions of combat are removed, leaving only emotion. It's almost dream-like.
The battle sequence is carefully constructed. The tempo slowly rises as the three friends approach the front, and fewer and fewer stand beside them, until there is a final dash for the foxholes. Then a long period of helpless waiting. The friends squabble restlessly. They don't seem terribly frightened - instead each is searching anxiously for a moment of heroism. A piece of the glory of war they were promised when they enlisted. There is none to be found, and a late night mission ends in tragedy, moral confusion, and finally just plain exhaustion. With the final push the tempo rises again; the cutting and explosions getting faster and faster until they almost flicker so fast it becomes a single, solid light. A vicious orgasm of war. And then black.
"Another Big Parade" reads the inter-title, and the long column of troops is seen again, this time heading back. Jim is rescued by the medics, though with a badly injured leg (which will later be amputated).
I've seen some describe The Big Parade as an anti-war movie, but I think that's going too far. It certainly isn't a relentlessly bitter condemnation like All Quiet on the Western Front. There's no suggestion that The Great War was, in and of itself, vain or dishonorable. But it's definitely an anti-romanticization of war movie. The whole thing is built around the stripping away of illusions. One by one they fall, until Jim is left literally in the dark in a hole in the mud next to a corpse, in a world without glory or justice. The reality of war is not something you have a parade about.
"Waiting! Orders! Mud! Blood! Stinking stiffs! What the hell do we get out of this war anyway!
Cheers when we left and when we get back! But who the hell cares...after this?"
I may be reading too much into this, but the best times for Jim are those on the farm in France, when they are waiting. As in, not going anywhere - as in, not moving. The opposite of what happens in a parade. Both of the real truths Jim finds - his true love on the farm, and the real truth of war in the foxhole - come to him in moments of stillness, out of the rapid waters of surrounding events. After the war he returns to the farm, and finds peace and quiet, and love.
NEXT WEEK: Buster Keaton. The General. 'Nuff said.