Thursday, October 25, 2018

Machine Guns Wreathed in Roses: The Greatest World War I Silent Movie

The implicit historical evidence contained in a commercial film is useful to the historian in that popular films reflect the concerns of the common man rather than intellectual elites. Because studio executives seek to hit the dead center of the mass audience in order to maximize profits, common themes in movies often reflect the fears and desires of the mass audience for whom the films were created

King Vidor’s World War I epic, The Big Parade , opened at New York City’s Astor Theater on November 19, 1925, quickly became a box office smash, and is now widely regarded as the top grossing silent movie of all time (by 1930 it had grossed $15 million on production costs of $245,000).

The Big Parade chronicles the war time experiences of Jim Apperson, the son of a wealthy family. The hitherto feckless Apperson enlists in a burst of patriotic fervor brought on by marching bands, the enthusiasm of his hometown chums and the excited gushing of his girlfriend. Apperson is thrown into the army with working class men such as his new pals Slim (a steel construction worker) and Bull (a bar tender). Army life resembles a boy’s summer camp. Deployed to France, the idyll continues as Apperson falls in love with a French peasant girl, Melisande. Called to the front, the mood now shifts as Apperson is torn away from his new lady love. Now follow scenes of the horrors of No Man’s Land, the deaths of Apperson’s pals Slim and Bull, Apperson’s wounding, and his inability to find Melisande after the shelling of her village by the Germans. The war ends and Apperson returns home, having lost a leg. Apperson’s American girlfriend has taken up with his brother and Apperson is generally embittered. At the coaxing of his mother, Apperson returns to France to search for Melisande. The two lovers are re-united as the movie ends.

The Big Parade is the story of ordinary doughboys at war, and while the film is sometimes characterized as an anti-war movie, it is in fact even handed, being neither patriotic nor pacifist.  The film did not reflect a wholesale rejection of the martial virtues, but skepticism about the outcomes of policy. Here there was no Union to preserve as in the Civil War, just vague ideals betrayed at the Versailles Peace Conference. Vidor’s even handed treatment of the war coincided with the ambiguous attitudes of veterans who tried to find nobility in their personal sacrifices while confronting the futility of modem war.

The Big Parade was widely praised for its realism, and Vidor went to considerable lengths to insure visual authenticity, viewing some 8,000 feet of footage made by the Army Signal Corps during the war. Four thousand U.S. Army soldiers were actually used in the film. “Then there were men who had fought in the Argonne who re-enacted scenes for us, and while we owe the working out of the mass effects to the officers, it was often the private who suggested a telling idea, and even the German, now an American citizen, came forward and told his former foes the correct way his compatriots made a machine gun nest” (Interview with King Vidor, New York Times, November 8, 1925, Page X 5).

The War Department indicated that the movie looked just like France. “Maj .-Gen. Hines, commanding the Eighth Corps Area, issued orders that placed the entire Second Division of the Army at Fort Sam Houston, Tex. under the control of Vidor’ s megaphone for the screening of The Big Parade. That each unit of the 10,000 men comprising the infantry, the artillery, supply trains and other operational factors might be in exact position when the cameras began to crank, Brig.-Gen Malone. - . issued regulation field orders to all tactical troops” (Los Angeles Times, November 8, 1925, Page X 5). Soldiers and military groups were outspoken in praise of the films authenticity. Critics agreed, “John Gilbert’s portrayal of the American doughboy as he really was with his slang and naughty songs and devotion to comrade.., struck home with a reality that brought tears to many masculine eyes....”; and, “. . .the entrance of the soldiers into battle. It is one of the few- possibly the only — scene that has ever depicted tellingly the menace of actual battle and its effect on men” (Chicago Daily Tribune, November 15, 1925, Page 18); and “The Big Parade is great realism done in a great way. It indulges in virtually no hokum”(Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1925, Page J 6).

While a quantum leap forward from the stereotyped World War I melodramas reflecting the war fevered propaganda of lesser directors, The Big Parade, does not stand up well in terms of war “realism”. The movie presented war in terms of dramatic conventions. Individuals stood apart from the mass and were made special through devices of romantic action. The movie could not come to full grips with the anonymity of twentieth century warfare. Iris Barry, an English film critic, wrote in 1926, “No film dares show what (the war) resembled. (The Big Parade) wreathes machine-guns in roses”. 

Sun Tzu, the Master of War, once said, “Those who are skilled in producing surprises will win. In conflict, surprise will lead to victory. ” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.
1.The Hostage, in which Abraham Lincoln is kidnapped by the rebels.
2.The German Invasion of America of 1889, in which Germany unexpectedly launches its might against the United States.
3.The Invasion of Canada 1933, in which the new American dictator launches a sneak attack on Canada.
4.Cherry Blossoms at Night: Japan Attacks the American Homeland (1942), in which Japan attacks the American homeland in a very surprising way.

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