Monday, January 9, 2017

Before I Die #593: The Big Parade (1925)

This is the 593rd movie I've watched out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" lists that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: King Vidor

For its time, a surprisingly hard look at the horrors of war, though one that would hold up better if not for an overly long and farcical first half.

The movie focuses on James Apperson, a layabout son of a wealthy industrial capitalist based in New York City. After seeing a parade for troops heading to Europe to fight in World War I, Apperson is swept up in patriotic fervor and enlists in the army. In service, he befriends a couple of working class New Yorkers in his platoon- the bartender "Bull" and the riveter "Slim." The platoon is sent to France, but they spend their first several weeks away from the front lines and instead kill time and boredom in a small French village. Apperson takes a fancy to a local French woman, who returns his affection. Soon, however, Apperson's platoon is sent to actually fight. At the front, Apperson's platoon meets strong resistance from German snipers and heavy artillery, which mow down a large number of Apperson's comrades in arms, including Slim. Apperson heroically charges towards the German lines, taking out several soldiers and an artillery setup, but he loses his leg in the process. Upon returning home, Apperson finds that while his parents are proud of him, the horrors of war have left their mark on his psyche as well as his body. To find solace, he returns to France and finds the young lady with whom he fell in love.

The second half of this movie is clearly the standout feature of it, as it is the earliest example of a well-done, hard look at war that I've seen. From the chilling opening moments of the fighting, with Apperson's platoon slowly walking through sniper-infested woods and getting picked off one by one, to the outright chaos of the nighttime artillery bombardment, the terrors of armed warfare are made far clearer than audiences would have seen in motion pictures at the time. There is an appropriate sense of loss and misery conveyed through much of these latter parts of the movie, and I feel that this is what sets it apart and makes it a classic.

The sequence with the snipers in the forest is far quieter than
the later scenes of the nighttime bombings, but I found them
actually more harrowing. It is the actual battle scenes that
keep this movie firmly among the important films in history.
The first half of the film, though, can drag. Far more of it is dedicated to lighthearted sight gags and a dash of slapstick, more in keeping with the free and easy fare of a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin movie. I think that a small dose of these things would have been fine, but the movie spends over an hour in this tone. It took patience for me to get through this first half, but the payoff of the second half was worth it.

Apparently, this was the highest grossing movie of all time in the United States, until Gone With the Wind came out 14 years later. It's not hard to see why, as it made an early and profound statement against warfare, during a period when the country was most certainly still dealing with the psychological fallout of losing so many people to its horrors. Fans of historical war movies and silent movies in general will want to see this one, as it was a clear prototype for later war movies like All Quiet on the Western Front, The Best Years of Our Lives, Paths of Glory, and many others.

That's 593 movies down. Only 594 to go before I can die.