The 12 Classics for 2016/ Blind Spot project is aimed at getting movie bloggers to broaden viewing horizons and catch up with well-regarded essentials of cinema.
This month I finally watched King Vidor’s epic WWI drama The Big Parade, a beautiful and engrossing picture showing some hardships and tragedies of war while avoiding graphic antiwar shock and balanced with heroics and sentimentality. Caught up in the patriotic excitement and the potential glamour of military service, idle young heir Tom (John Gilbert) enlists, and in boot camp meets blue-collar men Slim (Karl Dane) and Bull (Tom O’Brien). The film focuses on his journey from aimless playboy to noble survivor.
A very long portion of the film is spent getting to know the men, mostly while they wait at a French farmhouse near the fighting, and it’s all time well-constructed and well-spent to build the characters and their bonds, while chipping away at the notion, communicated from back home, that war is marching boldly through picturesque, fragrant fields. Here, set to clever twists on “You’re in the Army Now,” it’s as glam as shovelling manure, being overjoyed at stale, rock-hard cake, and other examples of discomfort, deprivation, monotony and anxious anticipation. But it’s also light moments of flirting with the farm girl Melisande (Renee Adoree), getting mixed up in comical diversions and taking on projects to kill time or create homey conveniences like a barrel shower. All those adventures and vignettes establish the personalities of the three soldier buddies, but once they march among multitudes in endless columns, the individual becomes universal–they all have the same families, bonds, feelings, dreams, and value, and it’s all irrelevant to their chances of survival.
After the sweet and careful buildup, the troops’ grim march into muck and machine-gun fire is all the more startling and disconcerting, and a crucial emotional break and outburst more believable. The gruelling and inventively choreographed battle section escalates to a furious push and breakthrough sparked and led by Jim’s righteous anger at the waiting and dying, the senselessness of it all. Even in the height of the action, things are brought down to individuals again, in a private encounter and moment of mercy between Jim and a dying enemy soldier. Jim returns, a changed man in every sense, to a grateful family and girl who’s moved on. He’s traumatized and testy about platitudes offered by those who can’t understand. But this hero’s reward, and a comfort for the viewer, is not the parade or any cheers but a touching reunion with his Melisande. Such delicate and heartfelt images, often imitated but no less memorable: Melisande’s attempt to hold back the truck that carries Jim off to war, his desperate search of her bombed-out village, her realization that he’s returned even though she’s just seeing a tiny figure on the hilltop, and his fast hobble down the hill toward his love, in the land where he lost and gained so much.