These notes accompany King Vidor’sThe Big Parade, which screens on February 24, 25, and 26 in Theater 3.
In his autobiography A Tree Is a Tree, King Vidor recounts the origins of The Big Parade. Having made some good but ephemeral films for the fledgling M-G-M, Vidor told Irving Thalberg, “If I were to work on something that…had a chance at long runs…, I would put much more effort, and love, into its creation.”
If there is anything wrong with The Big Parade, it is that Vidor put too much into it. The film is at once a grand epic, an intimate romance, a comedy of camaraderie, and a savage polemic. Somehow, Vidor managed to hold all this together, and seemingly overnight became the leading “serious” director in America, assuming at age thirty-one the mantle which had fallen from D. W. Griffith’s shoulders when the Master was forced to sign a contract with Paramount earlier in 1925. Eighty-five years later, The Big Parade still dwarfs virtually every film made about World War I, and it is arguably Vidor’s finest achievement.
For Marxist critics, The Big Parade was anathema, since Vidor “centered his comment upon the war in an absurd love affair between a French peasant girl and an American doughboy while men were being blown to bits.” What this writer for Experimental Cinema didn’t seem to realize was that war for Vidor, as for most human beings, is precisely about love affairs and their impossibility under conditions of combat. The tragedy of war is the interruption not of dialectic, but of love and of life.
The greatness of The Big Parade lies in its manic romanticism, its total commitment to absurd peasant girls and doughboys, to individual happiness above all other values. As Vidor once said, “War has always been a very human thing.” He reduces war to its human level, to the trivialities that constitute life, to cigarettes and chewing gum. Only through the director’s painstaking efforts at verisimilitude on this level are we able to fully appreciate the implications of his magnificently painted broader canvas—the grotesquely tiny men caught under a surreal bombardment in the nighttime battle scenes; the funereal march through Belleau Wood with the understated falling of bodies in cadence; and the Big Parade itself, which climaxes with Melisande’s refusal to let go of Jim’s left leg, as if she knew he was soon to lose it for a cause neither of them understood. The Big Parade may not have the ideological simplemindedness of the classic Soviet films, or even the philosophical consistency of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Man I Killed, but Jim does cry out with a question as relevant today as it was in 1918: “What the hell do we get out of this war anyway?”
Vidor wrote, “I wanted it to be the story of a young American who was neither overpatriotic or a pacifist, but who went to war and reacted normally to all the things that happened to him. It would be the story of the average guy…He simply goes along for the ride and tries to make the most of each situation as it happens. Thalberg was immediately interested.” It was Thalberg’s idea to have Vidor collaborate with Laurence Stallings, then enjoying the great success of What Price Glory? on Broadway. Certainly, some of the Quirk/Flagg relationship from the play (later a film by Raoul Walsh) carried over to the trio of seriocomic compatriots in The Big Parade. Most of the scenario was written by Vidor, Stallings (who had himself lost a leg at Belleau Wood), and Harry Behn in a Pullman car travelling across the U.S. Vidor’s book gives a rich account of his experiments with “silent music” in his efforts to choreograph the Belleau Wood march as a “ballet of death.” Similarly, the move toward the front was shot with great care. Each unit of the army was given an individual tempo in an attempt to create a “total symphonic effect.” The result is like nothing else in American silent film, save perhaps the rhythmic climaxes of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.
Yet, in the midst of Vidor’s vast, superbly orchestrated panorama, the images one retains longest are those of tender moments between John Gilbert and Renee Adoree, whose star-crossed careers and lives reached their pinnacle in this film. In the penultimate sequence, when Jim tells his mother that he loves a girl in France, she replies, “Then you must find her…nothing else matters.” And one can’t quite help feeling that for King Vidor nothing mattered quite so much in The Big Parade as these two little people and their absurd love affair. His mind may have been on his metronome, but Vidor’s heart was surely with Jim and Melisande.
I want to call your attention to a special An Auteurist History of Film event on Wednesday, March 3, at 6:00 in Titus Theater 1. Mark Griffin, author of the brand-new book A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli, will give an introductory lecture to a screening of Minnelli’s Madame Bovary. I think you will find it informative and entertaining.