The events of World War I catalyzed certain technological advances in combat. What humanity now calls weapons of mass destruction first appeared in the form of chlorine gas, concocted by Fritz Haber, head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physical Chemistry, who after using himself as a test subject witnessed from a distance its use on the Western Front, specifically near Ypres in Belgium. In this battle alone as many as 1,200 were killed with 3,000 wounded. Throughout the war, pilots fought in the skies, and soldiers went over the top from trenches into clouds of Haber’s mustard gas, as well as into the bayonets, gunfire, and ordnance of the other side. In his WWI: Technology and the Weapons of War, historian A. Torrey McLean concludes:
One of the saddest facts about World War I is that millions died needlessly because military and civilian leaders were slow to adapt their old-fashioned strategies and tactics to the new weapons of 1914. New technology made war more horrible and more complex than ever before. The United States and other countries felt the effects of the war for years afterwards.
The eventual death tally reached an estimated 9 million, as compared to 14 million for all wars that occurred during the previous century, arguably the greatest toll resonated in the minds of survivors, which inspired studies into shell shock, now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). On the one hand, commanders considered soldiers showing early signs of this condition to be cowards or malingerers, sentencing many to face firing squads. On the other hand, psychiatrists – for example, Robert Gaupp, E. Regis, and Charles Myers — would pioneer efforts toward increasingly more effective treatments for the psychological effects of war. So, yes, this enormous conflagration netted enormous technological advances for humankind, but the terrors birthed from these “leaps forward” seem to overshadow the blessings.
As with previous conflicts, former soldiers penned first-person and artistic accounts, but never in such numbers. Robert Graves, Ernst Junger, and Henri Barbusse all published war autobiographies, and the British poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen crafted nightmares into frightening but elegant verse. Novelists also provided creative perspectives, with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms still thriving as exemplars of the genre. But before these novels were released, director King Vidor initiated the “war is hell” trend in film with The Big Parade (1925), starring John Gilbert and Renée Adorée. If like me your first viewing of this silent classic generates a strong sense of déjà vu then you too appreciate its influence on many later movies, among them the cinematic version of A Farewell to Arms, The Best Years of Our Lives, and more recently Apocalypse Now and Platoon.
The story isn’t complicated. Gilbert plays Jim Apperson, the scion of a wealthy family living easily until patriotic friends convince him to enlist and fight in Europe. Leaving behind his father, his mother, his elder brother, and his long-time girlfriend, Apperson enters basic training and then travels to France with his unit, including Slim, a construction worker, and Bull, a bartender. The first part of the film outlines the growing love between Jim and Melisande, a farm girl in Champillon, the village in which his unit waits until deployed to the front.
The second half involves Jim’s ordeal at the front. Here Vidor displays the full horrors of war on screen for the first time. Viewers see the gas, the trenches, and soldiers dying in the mud. Jim loses track of Melisande, since Champillon has been destroyed and its inhabitants displaced. After the war, he returns home older, wiser, wounded, and confronted with changes that have occurred during his time away.
One doesn’t despair in the end, however, as Jim strives to ensure that love wins out. Love conquers all, and only love will propel Jim through his worst days and nights, the film seems to say. I’m reminded of Homer Parrish in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), who returns from World War II without his arms. What eventually integrates him back into society and life is the continued love of his fiancée, who will not abandon him despite his condition. We imagine that Jim Apperson will receive similar spiritual healing after reuniting with Melisande. More to the point, he’ll fight for his love, as Homer’s fiancée fights for hers. He’ll receive something for what the war has cost him, even if it means reliving the agonies of France.
The filmmaker never openly questions the causes of World War I, but the battle scenes spare us nothing. No shots of heroes enjoying ticker-tape parades ever touch the screen. Jim Apperson is a GI, not the officer his girlfriend back home romantically dreamt he would be. Wounded soldiers sit in trenches with blood running out of helmets. We feel the fear of Apperson, Slim, and Bull when they draw to decide who will crawl out of the trench, across barbed wire and gunfire, to confront the enemy. If you seek propaganda, go elsewhere. Here you’ll not find brave souls standing resolutely for God and Country. Vidor examined actual combat footage for realism, hoping to represent the grunt’s perspective. Laurence Stallings’s script based on his wartime recollections only adds to the gritty verisimilitude. The final product, then, more resembles Graves, Hemingway, Remarque, and Sassoon rather than the peppy war songs spawned in that era. In spite of all this, audiences reacted positively, making The Big Parade a record-breaking hit that filled MGM’s coffers and catapulted King Vidor and John Gilbert to legendary status. Success happened, because the film’s themes mirrored how Americans felt about World War I: they wanted it to remain the war that ends all wars.
Obviously, this hasn’t been the case. Historians have defined the Twentieth Century as a century of enhanced conflict – World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the as of yet unsettled issue of global terrorism, all seeding exponential growth in mass-killing methodology. Although extremely realistic, The Big Parade never displays the cynicism of later war films, like those set in Vietnam: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. Who could blame anyone for such cynicism? Surely, the Second World War was necessary to halt fascism, but the world has moved far beyond the moment that was supposed to have ended all wars. Weren’t mustard gas and trenches enough? Nuclear deterrents, ICBMs, napalm, and now drones have entered the arena. We’re no longer saying, “These nightmares will put an end to this.” Instead we’re asking, “When will the nightmare end?” At least commanders have stopped condemning psychologically wounded soldiers to firing squads, but then again, we now expect that all who survive battlefields will suffer at least a moderate level of PTSD. I only hope they will fight for love like Jim Apperson and thus reap benefits from their sacrifices.
In summary, The Big Parade begins a journey through which filmmakers question the costs of war, reflect on history, and provide catharsis for viewers. As I’ve stated earlier, a sense of déjà vu only highlights the effect this movie has had on all others since, whether they agree with Vidor’s vision or speak against it. World War I accelerated not only certain technologies and our understanding of the human mind, but also the means through which our species communicates realistically about the shared predicament of war. Honor The Big Parade for illustrating that war is hell, but also honor it for instructing on what should inspire us to fight – love. Definitely the rewards are greater.