Okay, so maybe it’s a tiny bit of a stretch, but I think there’s a lot to be gleaned from the juxtaposition of Renée Adorée (as The Big Parade‘s Melissande) and Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty” (“Leading the People”)
I’ve been calling King Vidor a “Romantic” and a “Transcendentalist”–and this exercise might help to clarify what I mean by those terms. The Delacroix painting, of course, is one of the quintessential products of European Romanticism–a multifarious movement which exalted human “spirit” (and/or “Nature”) over the dead letter of conformity, legalism and (in its extreme form) “culture”. Perhaps the most important corollary of Romanticism’s quarrel with the school of thought that had preceded it upon the intellectual stage was a tendency to celebrate “the particular” at the expense of that sine qua non of Enlightenment Rationalism–“the universal”. I’m sure that sounds quite radical, and in a few cases (Shelley, Victor Hugo) it actually was–however, as the 19th century progressed, mainline Romanticism definitely hardened into the aesthetic fist of Old World reactionary politics (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Chateaubriand, Hegel and derivatives–except for Marx, of course). This occurred because the particular “particular” that most of these folks latched onto was a Frankenstein Monster of “national character” defined by language, scientistic theories about “blood” and pre-Enlightenment Myth. And so in the above painting, “Liberty” rises from the collective breast of the “people” and spurs them to some triumphant realization of the ideal French state.
There was no shortage of this type of Romantic in the “New World” either–especially in the South, where people like William Gilmore Simms hearkened back to a fantasy of Medieval Order that they believed had been “perfected” by that region’s “peculiar institution”. Proslavery romanticism invented a nation (of “whiteness”) within the nation, and gloried in its unique destiny. The really interesting thing, though, is that (with the disturbing exception of Edgar Allan Poe–an anti-democratic departure unto himself) the most vital products of American Romanticism depart markedly from the European pattern. My undergraduate thesis (written more than 10 years ago now!) speculated upon the sources of this divergence. The short answer? If you want to celebrate the distinctiveness of a nation that was brought into being by Enlightenment theory, you wind up clinging to a belief in universal human rights AS the leading “characteristic” of your “particular” heritage. Hence the paradoxical title of the piece: “Enlightened Romantics”. So what are you saying Fiore? America=”good”; Europe=”bad”. Certainly not! However, I do think it’s important to acknowledge this divergence–and to take its implications as seriously as possible. Each intellectual tradition offers its own strikingly different network of roads to (imagined) Utopia and (very real) Hell (and to a whole lot of places in between). As a weird latter-day Gramscian (hence the goofy non-anagrammatic title of my blog), I believe that leftist thinkers who cherish any minuscule hope of steering the ship in the direction of social justice must engage popular culture head on (Adorno is my bête noire; well, Adorno and Ronald McDonald).
Enter King Vidor (and his version of “liberty”–who must remain on the sidelines, while “the people”–exemplified by an American doughboy–clash senselessly). The King is dead (and therefore not making movies any more)–but I would argue that his oeuvre embodies the paradoxical Hollywood/Transcendental zeitgeist (which lives on–for good or for ill) better than anyone else’s. Moreover, his career stretches across such a wildly oscillating chunk of the 20th century–and was thus susceptible to such an extreme range of societal influences–that his auteur‘s progress toward the blinkered paradise that is Truth and Illusion provides a unique laboratory for the student of American cultural history.
I’m bringing this stuff into play with The Big Parade because this is where the King ascended to the vacant throne of D.W. Griffith and assumed the mantle of “America’s Auteur” (long before the term was invented, of course). By 1925, Vidor was tired of making movies that played one week stands and disappeared forever (until the advent of TCM, that is) and he made this fact known to his new boss (MGM’s Irving Thalberg). As most of you reading this will know, The Big Parade changed all of that, becoming the biggest moneymaker of the 1920s, creating the template for every anti-war film that followed it (without ever being explicitly “anti-war” in the way that, say, Milestone’s All Quiet is), initiating the meteoric rise and fall of star John Gilbert and giving Vidor the “prestige capital” to get away with making the inherently unprofitable The Crowd 3 years later.
It’s a major leap from the chamber melodramatics of Wild Oranges (which had 5 cast members) to BP”s grand canvas–and there are casualties along the way to the battlefield. Stylistically, this is pure Vidor–except for the numerous digressions into knockabout “comedy” that came from the Laurence Stallings original. However, thematically, The Big Parade is a real oddity among Vidor’s films–giving us a protagonist who generally seems content to be carried along by the whims of fate (having no vision of his own to oppose to the reality in which he finds himself). Actually, James Apperson (Gilbert’s character) reminds me a great deal of our old pal Reggie, from Bud’s Recruit:
With the exception of The Crowd, I’m more interested in Vidor’s “minor” films–but that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to talk about in The Big Parade. For one thing, there’s the title itself, which sounds festive, but which is actually synonymous with these funeral processions:
Talk about marching to the beat of the same ol’ drummer! Henry David Thoreau would be appalled! And, so, clearly, is Vidor. If The Big Parade is an anti-war film, it’s not because it’s a pacifist film, it’s because, in good Transcendentalist fashion, it deplores the regimentation of army life. Sure, there’s brutality galore on the screen, but the extended battle sequence actually hinges upon Gilbert’s trenchbound interrogative epiphany: “Orders? Who’s fighting this war? Men or Orders?” The film is pretty clear about the answer–“Orders” all the way. As soon as the people we’ve spent the first hour with leave their camp, they almost cease to be “men” at all–they become merely the undead agents of the inscrutable metronome of “foreign policy”. (And you’ll notice that we never, ever get a sense that anyone knows WHY they are fighting in France… no “make the world safe for democracy” nonsense in this script! These people are there to march at machine guns and hope–not even TRY–to survive. That’s it.) Vidor is the great prophet of subjectivity in the cinema–and the film’s most carefully planned out scenes give us hundreds/thousands of human beings drained of every trace of that quality; the reified elements of a Busby Berkeley spectacle:
None of this would have anything like the impact that it does if we hadn’t just spent a reel or two watching Gilbert (literally) barrel into something like a sense of self, thanks to this encounter French peasant girl Adorée:
Their courtship begins as something that is played for laughs, but gradually progresses into an almost-Borzagean fortress against the cosmos. Gilbert’s romance-awakened personhood becomes synonymous with the candle that Adorée holds in the fourth still below (and which Slim extinguishes with spit, when the troops are sent to participate in the big show-stopper on the front):
After the call-up, Adorée becomes the sole keeper of this flame of subjectivity. The “only light in the world”, as the American exceptionalists used to like to say, during the darkest days of the next World War. If you accept this interpretation, then nothing which happens in Belleau Wood actually matters. All of that celebrated battle footage–the reach for the flower (a jauntier precursor of the reach for the buttlerfly in All Quiet)–the deaths of Slim and Bull–the scene in the trench with the dying German (which also has its analogue in Milestone’s film)–Gilbert’s pointless act of “heroism” (which is presented as pure vengeance)–and even the nonsense with Gilbert’s “cheering family” and the New York end of another (equally dead) “big parade”–ALL of it is just a subjective flatline between this goodbye:
And this hello…. “Liberty reunited with the (man of the) people”… And not “leading” him anywhere but to bed, if my guess is correct!
Here again, this actually seems more like Borzage than Vidor, with two strong visionaries bringing an improbable dream to life by catching reality in a passionate crossfire. (Generally, in Vidor, you only get ONE visionary–often paired with an unworthy romantic partner who becomes aligned with a fate that must be resisted at all costs). All in all, I find The Big Parade less compelling–as an example of what this director is all about–than something like Beyond the Forest or Ruby Gentry…but we’ll get to them, in due course…
As Charles Silver notes:
For Marxist critics, The Big Parade was anathema, since Vidor “centered his comment upon the war in an absurd love affair between a French peasant girl and an American doughboy while men were being blown to bits.” What this writer for Experimental Cinema didn’t seem to realize was that war for Vidor, as for most human beings, is precisely about love affairs and their impossibility under conditions of combat. The tragedy of war is the interruption not of dialectic, but of love and of life.
Absolutely. That’s the director’s position here. Implicit in that position is a characteristic horror of any kind of collective undertaking (which the huge number of Americans who keep voting against health care will certainly understand). This is something that will come up quite a lot (as you might expect from the director of The Fountainhead!) However, it is worth noting that, somewhere between this film and the Rand adaptation, Vidor will also give us perhaps the most astonishing example of subjectivized spectacle ever filmed–in Our Daily Bread. The Vidor oeuvre–and the principles of transcendental melodrama which animate it–contains…well, if not multitudes, then, at least, an unexpected range of attitudes toward the relationship between the radical subject, shared “reality” and the possibility of justice.
That’s why I can’t stop thinking about it.