“What a thing is patriotism! We go for years knowing we have it, suddenly- Martial music!... Native flags!... Friends cheer… and it becomes life’s greatest emotion!”
The Big Parade is a sentimental look at duty, love, and life and death during World War I. The story focuses on a young man named James Apperson (John Gilbert). James comes from a rich family. He has no aspirations to work in his father’s mill. All he wants to do is float through life without a care in the world.
Before James returns home the bells and whistles of the mill ring and scream out loudly with the news that war has been declared. James has no intention of enlisting. His girlfriend Justyn is thrilled war has been declared. She cannot wait to see him in uniform. As James is driving home he and his car are caught in a standstill as a parade of enlisted men passes him by. The excitement gets into James’s veins, he jumps out of his car and joins his friends in their car traveling the parade route. James is dropped off at his house by his friends in the car. He walks into the house with a straight face. His brother has vowed to work at the mills twice as long as normal to support the war effort. James’s father tells him it is not the time for idlers if he does not do anything he will be forced out. Justyn walks into the room and lets the news slip that James has enlisted. His father is happy and his mother is devastated.
James is sent to France along with fellow New Yorkers Slim and Bull. They march for hours to a small town. The troops settle down for the night in a barn. James open a package Justyn has sent him. The package contains a cake she has baked for him. As soon as he opened the cake Slim and Bull look at him with ravishing hunger in their eyes. James tries to cut the cake into pieces for them to share but the cake has become as hard as a rock! Finally James just breaks it over his knee. Bull, happily eating his cake, comments “This ain’t such a bad war.” So far they have yet to see action.
The following day James goes into town looking for a barrel he can bathe in. Instead of rolling the barrel he puts it on his head and walks looking out a small hole. He accidentally walks through a farm where a young girl is working. She teases James as he tries to look for the plate he has found. James takes the barrel off his head to see a sweet French maiden. She tells him her name is Melisande. Neither can speak the other’s language but they are taken with each other. James makes a shower out of the barrel by hanging it from a tree. Slim and Bull use this contraption first. From the tree James spots Melisande watching this scene. He starts yelling to her to go away and to Slim and Bull to cover up.
James and Melisande spend the rest of the day together. It is obvious they adore each other just by their looks and their body language. He tries to show her how to chew gum and how to make a string out of it by pulling a piece of it out of her mouth. They meet together that night at Melisande’s house. She takes James into her house where they watch some of her neighbors reenact some of the letters their sons have sent home. Meanwhile, outside, Slim and Bull have found Melisande’s family’s wine cellar. They raid the cellar until Melisande and James come down the stairs for another bottle. All three men get into a scuffle over the wine. The MPs show up. Slim and Bull have slipped out and left James for the blame. A brawl somehow breaks out and James manages to get away and leave Bull and Slim for the blame.
James has been enjoying his time with Melisande so much he has forgotten to write home to Justyn. She has sent him a letter pointing out his forgetfulness along with a photograph of herself. James is left numb. He does not know what to feel. Melisande finds him starring numbly into space clutching the photograph. She sees the photograph and becomes upset. At that moment a trumpet is blown for the men to report immediately to the town square. News has come that they are to set out to the front. James and Melisande try desperately to look for each other in the crush of the roaring crowd. They eventually find each other. They kiss and embrace passionately not knowing if they will ever see each other again. From the truck James throws Melisande his watch, a necklace, and even his shoe for her to keep as reminders. Devastated Melisande falls to the ground clutching her beloved items as she watches the big parade carrying away her love.
The company is set to walk through the woods looking for and shooting down snipers in the trees. The men walk and walk shooting down and blowing away any German that comes across their line of sight. They eventually make their way into No Man’s Land. The Germans bombard the Americans relentlessly with bombs and gunfire. They take shelter in trenches and holes made by the fallen bombs. James, Bull, and Slim have hunkered down in a hole together. One of their commanding officers makes their way over to the three of them with orders that one of them must leave the hole and kill the Germans who have been firing the bombs. Each one of the three men is willing to go but Slim wins out saying he is a Corporeal. Slim manages to kill the Germans but on his way back he is shot down. James desperately calls out to Slim. Slim responds back but by the time James is able to get to his friend it is too late. Running to his friend’s aid James is shot in the leg. The Americans make a huge push towards the Germans. Since he was shot in the leg James cannot join his fellow soldiers in what is hopefully their victory.
We next see James in an army hospital located inside a church. Next to him is a man who has gone out of his mind and is strapped to his bed. On the other side is a man who has been shot in the arm and has some head injuries but he is alright. The man says they are not very far from Champillon. Champillon is where Melisande is from. James jumps up from his bed at the thought of Melisande. He has made it to a window with a lone crutch, jumps out, and goes as fast as he is able to find Melisande. Unfortunately, Melisande and the people of her village have been forced to leave due to the fighting. James is late to find her. Out of exhaustion and probably pain James collapses to the ground.
The War has ended and James is sent home. He walks through the door of his home walking on crutches. He has lost his leg below the knee. As James is hugging his mother Justyn comes over and kisses him. James looks at his former girlfriend with disgust and anger. He and his mother go into another room and sit alone together. He tells her about a girl he met in France. His mother said he must find her.
Melisande is plowing in a field with another woman. They see a man walking towards them far away in the distance. At first Melisande does not realize it is James practically running towards her. When she does realize the man is James she runs furiously towards him. James and Melisande are incredibly happy to see each other again.
All the characters were absolutely flawless. They were everyday people caught up in a war. I absolutely loved John Gilbert and Renée Adorée together. They were adorable from their first scene together. I loved their little romance. At first it seems like it is just a little fling but as their scenes move along you can tell they are completely in love and smitten with each other. My favorite scene with James and Melisande was when he takes out his French language book, he points to the word for “kiss” in French, and she kisses him. Gilbert is just wonderful. He is charming and handsome and brilliant. This was the first time I have seen Adoree in a film. I will definitely be looking for more of her films. Slim and Bull were a riot together. They got into so much trouble. I liked their friendship with James because they were working class men who earned their money unlike James who mooched money off his father. It was great to see these men with different backgrounds become inseparable.
King Vidor could not have directed this film any better. Every frame of this film is just perfect. He touched on every emotion the men and women affected by war feel. I believe this is the first time I have ever seen one of Vidor’s films. I am very much looking forward to seeing more of his films.
The Big Parade is one of the best war films and one of the best films to have ever been made. As soon as the film began I thought to myself if I could teach a class on the history of film or if I was a history teacher this would be one of the films I would show my class. When The Big Parade was released it became the biggest grossing film of all time to that point and played in theaters into the following year. Unfortunately the film is hard to find since it has only been released on VHS. Hopefully one day The Big Parade will be released on DVD for more people to see and appreciate. If TCM ever airs The Big Parade absolutely take the time to watch it.