The story follows Jim Apperson (Gilbert), an idle rich boy with a pretty girlfriend who drives a fancy car. His life takes an unexpected turn when the United States declares war on Germany in 1917 and Jim, somewhat to his own surprise, finds himself enlisting. He joins the U.S. Army's Rainbow Division in 1917 and is sent to France. He becomes friends with two working-class men, Slim the construction worker (Karl Dane) and Bull the bartender (Tom O'Brien). When their unit is billeted in a farm house, Jim winds up falling in love with a beautiful French farmgirl, Melisande (Renee Adoree). Their romance, however, is interrupted when Jim's unit is called up to the front and he experiences the terrors of war.
Adapted from Laurence Stallings' autobiographical 1924 novel Plumes, the film is considered ground-breaking for presenting an unflinching look at the horror of war. It won the Photoplay Medal of Honor Award (a precursor to the Oscars) in 1925. It is believed to be the highest-grossing film of The Roaring '20s, having grossed something like twenty million dollars in an era where one could get a movie ticket for a quarter. It was a milestone in the early history of MGM. In 1992 The Big Parade was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Tropes associated with this work:
- Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: For both parties. Jim has a girlfriend back home, but that doesn't stop him from wooing Melisande. The end of the film reveals that while Jim was away, his girlfriend fell in love with his brother.
- An Arm and a Leg: Jim loses his left leg below the knee after getting shot in no man's land.
- Chekhov's Skill: Slim chews tobacco and is constantly spitting. Later, when the three buddies have to decide who will go over the top and attempt to silence a German machine gun nest, Slim decrees that they will decide by means of a spitting contest.
- Down on the Farm: Melisande and her family are peasant farmers.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: After all the suffering and death, the film ends with Jim returning to France and reuniting with Melisande.
- Everyone Looks Sexier If French: Though rather mild.
- Gentlemen Rankers: Jim lives in a mansion and drives a fancy car. His family owns a factory. Yet he gets swept up in the patriotic fervor of a parade and enlists to fight World War I as a soldier in the ranks.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: The intertitles contain a peculiar variant of lyrics for "You're in the Army Now":You're in the army now,
You're not behind a plow;
You'll never get rich,
You're in the army now!
- Idle Rich: Jim, pre-war. ("Me, work? I should say not.")
- Insignia Rip-Off Ritual: Or the aftermath thereof. Bull administers a Literal Ass-Kicking to someone who turns out to be an officer. Cut to Bull mournfully fingering the place where his corporal's insignia used to be, while Slim wanders into the scene and shows off his new corporal's stripes.
- Low-Speed Chase: Played for drama. Jim, having been shot in the leg, shoots a German soldier in the chest. The German falls and starts to crawl back towards German lines. Jim takes his bayonet off his rifle and crawls after him. They tumble into the same shell crater, and Jim raises his knife before realizing he can't bring himself to stab the German.
- Match Cut: Doubles as a Time Skip. Jim's unit is shown in civilian gear, lined up and marching with their newly issued rifles. Cut to Jim's unit in uniform, marching through France.
- Meadow Run: Played pretty much straight at the end of the film, and to great dramatic effect. Melisande's attention is drawn by the figure of a man walking with an odd gait at the top of the hill. She runs across the field she's been tilling and across a sunken road before she realizes that it is in fact Jim, having returned for her, limping along on his artificial leg.
- Meet Cute: Jim first notices Melisande when his unit is bivouacked at their farm. They meet properly a bit later, when Jim is stumbling through the muddy courtyard of Melisande's farmhouse with a barrel that he obtained to use in a "shower bath".
- Montage: When Jim's mother sees him with a missing leg, there's a quick montage in which she remembers him as a little baby and a child running and playing.
- Mood Whiplash: Light romantic comedy and soldier hijinx turn to a grim, harrowing battle sequence. This happens almost exactly halfway through the film.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Barkeeping: Well, how else are you going to let the audience know that Bull was a bartender before the war?
- Outdoor Bath Peeping: Gender-reversed. Melisande catches Slim and Bull showering under the rain barrel shower that Jim rigs up.
- Patriotic Fervor: A parade at the beginning inspires Jim to sign up. It's not The Big Parade, though...
- Plunder: Jim's buddies raid a wine cellar.
- Precision F-Strike: "They got him! They got him! GOD DAMN THEIR SOULS!" Quite daring for 1925.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: The guy screaming in delirium in the hospital. He's been tied to his bed.
- Significant Background Event: As Jim, Slim, and Bull advance through the forest, men behind them start dropping, picked off by snipers.
- Splash of Color: In the close-up of the ambulance stuck in the mud, the Red Cross insignia is colored red.
- Stranger in a Familiar Land: Jim when he comes home.
- Title Drop: "The Big Parade" is the endless line of soldiers headed towards the front. "Another big parade" is the line of ambulances carrying casualties away.
- Two-Act Structure: In the first half, Jim goes off to France, acquires two goofy buddies, and falls in love in what is basically a romantic comedy. In the second half, he goes off to the front line and suffers in war.
- Train-Station Goodbye: Or rather, a troop transport goodbye, but the dynamic is the same. The scene where Melisande chases after Jim's transport while he throws keepsakes to her, finally throwing a shoe, is one of the most dramatic in the film.
- War Is Hell: Losing your leg and having your buddies shot to death is no fun.