Friday, July 22, 2011

The Big Parade: A War Film to End All War Films?

The other night, I treated myself to a screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Right now the Academy is featuring silent films, and as always it is generous in giving patrons their money’s worth. The evening kicked off with a real rarity, the family comedy short “Brownie’s Little Venus,” starring a moppet called Baby Peggy and an extraordinarily well-trained pooch. (Baby Peggy, now known as Diana Serra Cary, was in attendance: she’s over ninety, still charming, still feisty. Brownie, alas, has gone to that big dog house in the sky.)

But it was the main attraction I was there to see. The Big Parade (1925) is King Vidor’s take on the War to End All Wars. It was introduced by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, who told us that the war movie clichés we know all too well were brand-new ideas when The Big Parade was shot. I believe he was talking about the comrades-in-arms whose differences in social background don’t keep them from bonding; the dramatic shots of long columns of marching men; the brief moment of communion between two soldiers on opposite sides of the fray; a GI desperately searching for the buddy who’s beyond help.

Though The Big Parade is saddled with a romantic story that makes for a sappy ending, I found its battlefield scenes remarkably fresh. What surprised me most of all was the film’s fundamentally anti-war attitude. Less than a decade after the American side emerged victorious over Germany and its allies, Vidor’s cast brings home to the viewer the horrors of armed conflict. True, in the film’s early scenes, the United States’ entry into World War I is treated as an exciting adventure. Leading man John Gilbert starts out as an idle rich boy who enlists because his fiancée thinks he’ll look handsome in a uniform, and because a patriotic parade down Main Street stirs his blood. But the film’s second half makes clear that war means dirt and pain and death. For me, Gilbert’s most memorable speech comes in the thick of battle, when he says (on title-cards, of course), “What the hell do we get out of this war anyway! Cheers when we left and when we get back! But who the hell cares . . . after this?

I found this approach striking because Hollywood’s later World War II films (such as Sands of Iwo Jima) were traditionally dominated by actors like John Wayne, men who made self-sacrifice in battle seem glorious. Though Wayne himself never served in the military, his brand of on-screen patriotism made a deep impression on the men of his era, and on their sons too. A young man named Ron from Massapequa, New York grew up at the movies, watching war films and sobbing when the Marine Hymn came on the soundtrack. Later he wrote, “I loved the song so much, and every time I heard it I would think of John Wayne and the brave men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima that day.” Ron's passion for Wayne helped propel him into the Marine Corps right out high school, in 1964. That’s when Ron Kovic discovered that war is not beautiful. He returned from Vietnam paralyzed from the chest down, and later wrote, “I gave my dead dick for John Wayne . . . .”

Ron Kovic's memoir, a powerful one, is called Born on the Fourth of July. In 1989, it was made into a movie.


  1. Another fascinating, if overly somber piece, Beverly. I was just thinking about BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY a couple of days ago. I revisited CASUALTIES OF WAR and PLATOON and realized BORN was one of, if the only Vietnam themed film from the 80s I hadn't yet seen. I'll make a note to look for that memoir, too.

  2. Ron Kovic's book is well worth reading for its movie references, as is a fascinating book by David Harris, entitled "Our War: What We Did in Vietnam and What It Did to Us." You may remember Harris as the leader of the draft resistance movement and the former husband of Joan Baez. He went to prison rather than shipping out to Vietnam. He's an excellent writer, and a practicing Buddhist. He and I talked movies at some length a few years back -- his love for the film "Bonnie and Clyde" is a story in itself.

  3. Mr. Harris and I share that love for Bonnie and Clyde.