February 13, 2011

The Big Parade (1925)

Those of you who read this blog faithfully most likely noticed that I did not post a review last week for "The Thief of Bagdad".  I wish I had a more noble excuse for this, but the truth is that I fell asleep numerous times during the film from sheer boredom and consequently felt awkward trying to write a review or response to something I mostly slept through.  :P

The same cannot be said for last night's film, "The Big Parade".  I will admit that this movie was not at all what I expected from the title.  Call me naive, but I rather figured the movie would be about...a parade.  War didn't even enter my imagination.  I knew this was the highest grossing film of the 20s, so I was expected a light-hearted, feel good movie about a parade complete with floats, marching bands, and excited crowds.  Upon further reflection though, there's really not much plot to be had with that kind of setting, is there?

So, "The Big Parade" is about war.  The Great War.  What struck me as most interesting was how this movie showed both sides of the war experience.  First we see the patriotic excitement of going to war, complete with the titular big parade and exuberance over enlisting.  Suddenly the useless rich boy has a Purpose, and his father can now be proud of him. Then we see the "hurry up and wait" phenomenon as the soldiers get to France and basically do nothing for an undetermined amount of time.  Next we see actual battle, and it's horrific.  At least as horrific as filmmakers in the 20s could be.  There is some blood shown (this is after all before the Hays Code of movie censorship that lasted from 1930 to 1968 and prohibited such unpleasant things like bleeding, drinking, miscegenation, and sex outside of marriage).  Lastly we see our hero return to the now peaceful part of France (sans one of his legs; a sacrifice to the War) where he is reunited with his love and they presumably live happily ever after.

I liked this method because it came off as a more fair and balanced view of war.  It was neither overly positive and pro-war nor bitter, depressing, and anti-war.  No judgments were passed or blame laid about the causes of this particular war, and nobody was painted as a clear villain to be hated.  I thought it was very realistic in its depiction of the home front excitement vs. the reality of spending most of the time waiting around, but still showing us the brutal horrors of actual fighting.  I felt a better understanding of war from this film than I've felt from other war movies (particularly ones that were trying to advance a specific ideology).  This film's quiet presentation with no Message being hammered into our heads ended up leaving a bigger impact than most movies with a Message do.  Lesson to the filmmakers: don't overdo it.  Let the film speak for itself.  You might be surprised what your audience walks away with.

All that said, I can see why this movie was so popular.  There are elements that are hysterically funny, such as the barrel incident Robin recapped and the cake.  I was impressed here because the film was showing that even during times of war, life goes on and humorous things do happen.  I think we sometimes get caught up in the drama of war and tell ourselves that simple pleasures such as laughing at something silly are somehow Wrong during wartime.  During times of war we're all supposed to suddenly become dour and humorless because of the atrocities happening elsewhere on the planet.  I say bravo to King Vidor for reminding us that humor is as much a part of human nature as the brutality of war.  Both can and do coexist in people.

But the movie isn't all fun and games.  As I said earlier there are segments of battle and we do see people die, including one of the main characters.  There is one scene that I found particularly moving that Robin sort of glossed over.  It's towards the end of the film, just after our main character has been killed.  Jim, the main-main character (if you'll pardon the clumsy distinction) has ventured out into no-man's land to claim his friend's body.  He's full of rage and wants his revenge on the bastard that killed his friend.  He gets shot in the knee but his rage is so strong that he continues to crawl through no-man's land in pursuit of the German soldier who shot him (who is also injured, presumably by Jim).  Jim slides into the German's foxhole, grabs him roughly, and is about to finish him off with a bayonet when he pauses and really looks at his foe.  The soldier is just a kid (well, a teenager, but younger than Jim).  After a long, tense pause, Jim lets the kid go, and gives him a cigarette.  The kid is terrified but says nothing.  Not long after, he dies, and Jim is left in this "enemy" foxhole, with the corpse of a kid who was only following orders.  I sensed an attitude shift in Jim at this moment, as he realizes that war isn't so simple as "good guys vs. bad guys".  This was a powerful moment.

The end of the film moves rather quickly, almost like the filmmakers just wanted to wrap it all up and be done with it.  It's not badly done, but given the amount of time they spent on other aspects of the film it felt rushed.  Jim comes home with his leg amputated (a stunning bit of movie magic - we figure they must have used a body double for these particular shots because the technology didn't exist yet to fake an amputation realistically). His father is very proud of him and can't wait to show him off like a prize marlin he caught while deep-sea fishing.  His mother is relieved he's home and spends their entire reunion hugging and kissing him while crying.  His brother is less than thrilled to have him back though as we learn that while he was gone this paragon of society has taken up with Jim's fiancee Justyn.  But it's all okay because we know that Jim is in love with the French maiden Melisande.  His mother tells him that he must return to her, and so he does.  This is why I feel the ending was rushed - he's just returned home after at least a year of being away, missing a leg, and his mother is okay with letting him return to France for a girl and never return?  I don't really buy that.  But anyway, Jim returns, finds Melisande, and they kiss and hug and the movie ends on this happy note.

Overall it was a very good movie.  The acting was not overblown melodrama such as we saw in the "Thief of Bagdad", for which I was grateful.  The score, as Robin pointed out, was very well done.  I confess I tend not to listen to scores as carefully as Robin does - for me it's all part of the whole experience and I can't analyze a score the way he can.  But it was effective - happy and patriotic in some places, tense and dramatic in others, and all exactly as it should be to help us feel the "right" emotions.  If I were to grade the movie I'd give it an A- because I do feel the ending suffered a bit and could have been better by not rushing it quite so much.

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