The Big Parade
Great films X
The Big Parade (1925) is director/producer King Vidor’s most famous, precedent-setting war film from the silent era. It was the first realistic war drama and has served ever since as an archetypal model for all other war films. It was the first big box-office success of the newly-formed MGM Studios – and possibly the most profitable silent film of all time – it helped bring back the popularity of war films in the late 20s. Vidor, often compared to the end of the century’s director Steven Spielberg, brought his own epic, sweeping style to his intimate yet massive work about love and war.
Screenwriter Harry Behn based his script on a story by author Laurence Stallings, who based his writing on his own gritty wartime experiences as a Marine serving in N. France. Made only seven years after the Great War’s Armistice, the film captures the impact of the conflict on an ordinary GI. It was the first war film of its kind to tell its story from the viewpoint of the GI. Handsome matinee silent screen idol John Gilbert gave his greatest acting performance in a star-making role as one of three Americans who enlisted and was swept into the war in France.
When compared to the first anti-war film of the talkie era, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), The Big Parade is more a film of escapist entertainment rather than an anti-war treatise, although its powerful battle scenes and staging undoubtedly influenced director Lewis Milestone’s later film. The Big Parade is divided into two distinct sections:
- Section I: about 75 minutes long, is part light-hearted comedic humor and romance about the lives and experiences of three inductees (from different backgrounds – a gawky riveter, a Bowery bartender, and a son-of-privilege millionaire) upon their arrival in France, and the winning of the affection of a beautiful French-speaking village girl.
- Section II: almost equal in length, is a grim statement of the madness and futility of war, and filled with extraordinarily realistic and authentic battle scenes and vivid representations of trench warfare (peppered with graphic language in the film’s inter-titles), and supplemented with a gripping and poignant love story to present the war’s emotional impact.
After the credits, a title card notes that “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer gratefully acknowledges the splendid co-operation of the Second Division, United States Army and Air Service Units, Kelly Field.”
The first scenes of the film quickly introduce the three main characters in a United States of 1917 with booming productivity: “In the Spring of 1917, America was a nation occupied in peaceful progression. Mills were humming with activity – Buildings climbed skyward, monuments to commerce and profession. The three men from different walks of life, who will soon be called to war, are introduced:
- Here ‘Slim’ Jensen worked….just one of labor’s millions, building a nation.” Tobacco chewing, blue-collar steelworker/riveter Slim Jensen (Karl Dane) works high atop a steel skyscraper.
- “Along The Bowery were men of another trade. Among them was ‘Bull’ O’Hara.” Bartender ‘Bull’ Michael O’Hara (Tom O’Brien) wipes a glass clean behind the bar.
- “On life’s other side were rich men, chiefs of industry…and rich men’s sons – such as Jim Apperson.” Jim Apperson (John Gilbert), the affable son of a wealthy southern mill owner, belongs to the monied class – he is reclining and lathered up for a shave by a black servant, who asks: “Are you for sure goin’ to take a job in your father’s mill?” A lounger, he is unambitious and uninterested in productive work: “Me…work? I should say not!”
Sirens and steam whistles signal more than the end of the work day. The day’s newspaper carries the headline that President Wilson has declared war and the troops are bound for Europe: “WAR DECLARED – Tremendous Rush For Enlistment.” “In such an hour, most mothers are alike…and Jim’s mother was no exception.” Jim’s mother (Claire McDowell) is concerned that Jim may have to enlist and go ‘over there’, but he laughs off the seriousness of it: “I have enough war on my hands…with Dad.” “As long as Jim could remember he had been in love with Justyn Reed.” His hometown, girl-next-door sweetheart Justyn (Claire Adams) is caught up in war’s enthusiasm and coaxes him to enlist – attaching romance to the idea of fighting:
Justyn: Aren’t you thrilled that we’re going to war?
Justyn: You’ll look gorgeous in an officer’s uniform! I’ll love you more than ever then.
“What a thing is patriotism! We go for years not knowing we have it. Suddenly – Martial music!…Native flags!…Friends cheer!…and it becomes life’s greatest emotion!” Jim drives his open convertible into town – his way is blocked by a flag-waving, patriotic parade of white-uniformed nurses and marching bands, accompanying volunteers leaving his American hometown for the battlefront of World War I. Excited friends from another vehicle call over to him: “Come on! The whole gang’s going over!” Impulsively, Jim taps his feet to the beat of the martial music – the militarism is contagious. One parader carries a sign: “Berlin or Bust – We’ll Knock the L out of Berlin.”
That evening, after Jim returns home and is dropped off by his buddies, his mother embraces him with worry. His father (Hobart Bosworth) supports the war effort: “It’s come, Mother! Now we must all pitch in and do our bit!…Harry (Robert Ober) [Jim’s younger brother] has already organized double shifts at the mill…and he’s going to work nights!”
Jim’s father sternly lectures and points at Jim in his study and demands an end to his useless idleness – comparing him to his more serious and responsible brother:
Mr. Apperson: Look here, young man! I’ve stood all the nonsense and idleness from you that I’m going to stand! We’re in the fight now…and it’s time for every man to jump in and get busy! Look at your brother! See how he’s putting his shoulder to the wheel! The country’s at war! There’s no room in my house for idlers! You’ll do something or…get out!
Jim: (perplexed) Is that all? Do you mind if I stay here tonight? (His father assents) (to his brother) Is it all right with you? (His brother agrees)
Justyn: (She enters and hugs her boyfriend) Aren’t you all proud of him? (Jim’s father asks: “Proud of him. For what?”) Hasn’t he told you? (Mr. Apperson and Harry answer “No.”) Jim has enlisted!
There are surprised and mixed reactions – his mother hugs him and rests her head on his shoulder, knowing that she will soon see him depart. His father smiles and rushes over excitedly to shake his son’s hand and lights up a cigar. Harry looks with pride toward his older brother.
“From avenue and alley they came…ROOKIES.” The camera pans across the front row of boot camp enlistees, including the threesome of Slim, Jim, and Bull. Jim sticks out with his affluent clothing and belongings. The image of them walking behind their drill sergeant in street clothes dissolves into their full-uniformed march as infantrymen – hundreds of them – marching and singing optimistically as they proceed into France:
You’re in the army now,
You’re not behind a plow;
You’ll never get rich,
You’re in the army now!
“And so the ‘laughing American’ boys, a song on their lips, marched into France. One nightfall, after a march of twenty miles, they arrived in Champillon…weary and ready for sleep.” French peasant girls gesture tantalizingly at the tired men as they arrive and receive “orders for billeting.”
In a light-hearted sequence, where the warfront is only a backdrop for frolicking hijinks, some of the men climb up into a hayloft to sleep. But before they can retire, pushy Corporal Bull orders them to “police” the yard and shovel the manure out of the barn – their first real task: “Hey, you Bozoes! No sleep for you babies until you dress this manure pile! Come on! Take the anchors off them shovels!” He sings a revised Army song to entertain them:
You’re in the army now
No use to raise a row;
Shovel and chuck
The goo and the muck,
You’re in the army now!
His buddies joke with Bull about the detestable work:
Slim (complaining): Say, I joined this army to fight…not shovel!
Jim: You’ll shovel and like it, dearie!
Bull (after giving Slim a bigger shovel): Now, you big stiff – SHOVEL!
Jim has his first look at a young French peasant girl named Melisande (Renee Adoree), the daughter of a farmer who doesn’t speak English – she will eventually become the object of his affection. She stands back as her mother (Rosita Marstini) complains about the noise of the men outside their village home. Bull spurs on the men to work faster: “What do you birds think this is…a May party? Come on! Show me some speed!” In a flurry, they shovel the manure at him.
“Dog-tired,” the men settle down in the hayloft. Jim opens up a food package sent from home by his girlfriend with a hand-written note – she is foolishly ignorant about the realities of the warfront:
I wish you could be here but the thought that you will soon be leading your men into battle fills me with pride. I suppose the fragrance of beautiful flowers fills the air of your picturesque surroundings. I baked the cake for you myself. Forever, Justyn.
Salivating next to him, Bull expectantly asks: “It’s to eat…ain’t it?” The gawky, comical-looking Slim and pushy Bull are the only ones still awake and they eagerly anticipate large portions. However, as Jim starts cutting into it, he realizes the cake has turned rock-hard. As he saws into it and eventually splits it into unequal thirds with his bare hands, he passes the broken chunks to his comrades. As they stuff their faces, Bull editorializes: “This ain’t such a bad war.” Jim collapses, exhausted.
March and sweat the whole damned day;
Sleep at night in lousy hay;
Turn out mornin’s full o’dirt,
And scrub the real estate off your shirt!
[Note: The use of the word ‘damned’ in this title card was one of the earliest uses of the curse word in a US film.] By a country stream, the men do their laundry and sing their newest version of the Army song.
We’re in the army now,
And we have all learned how
To wash our shirty
And still have it dirty,
We’re in the army now!..
We rub our socks
Till we wear out the rocks,
We’re in the army now!…
We drown the fleas
In our Bee Vee Dees,
We’re in the army now!
Jim is tricked by his friends into going to the French village to get a barrel (all three pieces of paper in the crooked lottery read “I am it” but Jim doesn’t know that), so that he can construct an ingenious shower-bath apparatus back at the stream. After using “his best sign language, convincing the wine-shop keeper that he wanted a barrel and not a fat girl,” he clowns around with the wine barrel on his head with the same French girl. He spots her through a small round hole in the side of the barrel, but she doesn’t know what he looks like.
The shower scheme works – Jim hauls a barrel full of water to the top of a tree – a totally-naked Slim and Bull stand in the shower stream of water below. When Melisande happens by, Jim warns them that a French girl is watching them and they scurry to cover themselves with blankets. Jim tells his friends: “I AM it!” and takes the opportunity to meet Melisande under an archway. She recognizes him as the barrel clown, identifying him from a loose wrapping on his leg:
Melisande: C’est vous qui m’a fait rire, n’est ce pas?
Jim: I don’t understand a word you say…but I know what you mean….Voo…and…me…vooley voo…take…little…petite…walk?
His charm convinces her to willfully follow him to the stream’s edge where they sit together:
Jim: French is Greek to me. (He can’t resist touching and retouching her arm – although she fends off his persistent advances. He snatches a small frog at the stream’s edge.) He…froggie! You…froggie! (He tosses it back when she doesn’t get the joke.)
Jim’s friends quickly dress and join the pair, displacing him while manhandling her:
Bull: Parley voo Francay…Chevrolet Coupe? (Melisande slaps Bull when he repeatedly grabs her hand in a rough manner. Slim moves Jim over and sits in his place next to the French girl, puts his arm around her, and spits tobacco juice. She fights both of the horny men off.)
Jim (angrily to Slim): You big stiff! You don’t handle girls the way you handle rivets!
A bugle call for mealtime signals them to return to the village. Jim joins his pals to rush off, but then hesitates and returns to Melisande. He kisses her on the forehead. Defensively, she slugs him – knocking him flat on his back – but then smiles comically at him, kneels at his side, and kisses his hurt jaw. He points twice to the hurt spot, encouraging her to keep kissing him. They hug and embrace – the beginnings of a sweet romance.
“That evening Jim detailed himself to some more ‘skirt duty’.” Before their first date, he whistles for her at the farmhouse door. In a marvelous, fully pantomimed, classic sequence – (one of the most famous scenes in silent film) – filmed in a single, uninterrupted take after they sit down on a bench beside her front steps, he introduces her to American chewing gum with a lesson on how to stretch the gum out of one’s mouth. To her surprise, she swallows the stick of gum with one large gulp and then politely refuses his offer of a second piece.
Language difficulties are a tremendous barrier but they still try their best to communicate. With broken French, he boldly and awkwardly attempts to tell her of his love, and she reciprocates the attempt in broken English:
Jim: Me…you…tres…much…love. (To rephrase his words, he looks into a French phrase book) Gee…aimy…vowse…boo…coop! (She laughs)
Melisande: Je suis tres contente. (She borrows his word book to assist her translation) I…am…verree…happee! (He spits out his gum, and makes subtle advances for a kiss – she is reticent, but succumbs to rubbing noses and a few short kisses)
Above them, Melisande’s mother steps out of the house and looks around for her daughter. They slide and crouch down to avoid being seen, coming into even closer contact with each other. When they are alone again, she suggests: “Reviens a huit heures,” and shows him eight fingers. He realizes what she’s said and holds up eight fingers in reply: “Eight o’clock…me…returny.” She rushes into the house after playfully resisting another kiss. The other men pass the time in the evening by singing and dancing. While Melisande is pumping water outside her home, Bull intimidates her one more time: “Come on, Bon Ami…slip Poppa a little kiss!” She winds up and slaps him across the face and gives him a piece of her mind before disappearing inside the house. Later, Bull congratulates Jim on his better luck: “I got to hand it to you! You’re certainly makin’ this war a social success!”
Jim shines his shoes and wears his best uniform before his eight o’clock date. “Once a week, at Melisande’s home, there was a patriotic gathering to read letters from loved ones at the front.” Sitting with her family, Melisande is summoned by his loud whistling tune from outdoors. She guides him in to meet her mother, and he soon feels out of place in the company of her eccentric relatives. Meanwhile, Slim and Bull spy the village’s wine cellar, with Slim suggesting: “There’s wine in that cellar, pardner! We can’t leave Jim to tackle it all alone, can we?…Can you figure any guy settin’ in his parlor…when he’s got a cellar like this?” Bull replies: “Can you imagine! Some guys was saps enough to join the navy!”
When the pitcher of wine runs empty as she pours a glass for Jim, Melisande bids him to join her to replenish supplies from the cellar. There, led by candlelight, he points out what he wants to say to her from his French primer. She beams a smile back at him and they both share a delicious, long kiss. Nearby, they hear the rowdy drunkenness of his pals. Jim wrestles his friends to prevent them from stealing wine – Melisande helps him by swatting them with the end of a broom. The loud uproar disturbs the family in the upstairs parlor. His friends flee just in the nick of time, and Jim is mistaken as the wine thief and arrested by MPs – he accuses them of thievery: “Oh-h-h! You dirty M.P’s!! So you’re the birds who go around swiping wine?” With Melisande protesting his innocence, Jim is hauled off. His two friends see his predicament and decide to defend him:
Slim: We got Jim in this trouble…now we gotta get him out, ain’t we?
Bull: (To all his men) Get in it, gang! This ain’t a private fight!
A massive brawl breaks out – Jim and Melisande extricate themselves and escape. The commander of the MP’s whistles for the fighting to cease – one of the MPs explains: “We weren’t stealn’ wine, sir. We were just doin’ our duty.” They are dismissed and things settle down. Bull shakes hands with Slim – proud of their successful rescue: “AH! Monsewer Demi Tasse!”
Melisande follows after Jim for a rendezvous – she breaks off a night-blooming flower and crushes it across her bosom to release a sweet fragrance. He drops down from a tree where he has been hiding. Their passion is released in a flood of kisses by the stream’s edge.
Eat your chow from tin mess-kits;
Pick your teeth with bay-o-nits;
Shine your shoes on hunks of pork;
And the barber shaves you with a knife and fork!
Mail call brings anticipatory excitement. Thinking that one of his fellow soldiers has taken his letter before he can read it, Bull accidentally boots the back-end of an officer and is sharply reprimanded: “As soon as I’ve read my mail I’ll have your chevrons removed.” His mail is ultimately returned – it is entirely written in French:
Paris le 15 Mai 1918
Mon Cher Bull,
Oh, comme la vie d’un etre humain rent de trouver, predicament transformde par le plus ensignment des incidentes! Il’en est de meme pour le sort des nations pour la destinie du monde!
Si vous ne m’aurez pour murmure comme vous le filles “Bonjour Mignonne!!…
Concerned to know what it says, he asks Slim: “Can you readee-voo Francay?” A soldier who knows French reads the entire letter to himself and then congratulates Bull: “My boy, you certainly know your onions!” He pins a ‘SHARPSHOOTER’ medal above Bull’s jacket pocket. There is disappoinment for those without mail. “As far as ‘Bull’ could figure…’the war was a flop.'” Slim has been given Bull’s chevron, and he proudly shows it off on his arm.
Jim’s letter is from his sweetheart back home with a picture enclosed – she has remained faithful:
I am beginning to be frightened by the thought that perhaps you have forgotten me. Then I remember how sincere you were and that we are engaged to be married. If only the letters which I know you write would reach me, and tell me that you remember – I am waiting for you.
Jim is torn between his feelings for Justyn and Melisande – hurt, she realizes he has deep love for his girl back home when she points to the picture and then to his heart. Part of his maturing at the front involves choosing between Melisande and his new French girlfriend. Both in their own worlds of pain, Melisande cries by a tree at the stream, and Jim sits on the end of a wagon bent over and perplexed.
At that very moment, a bugle is blown and the men are summoned to the battlefront:
Fall in! Company street! Full packs and tin hats! Ten minutes! We’re moving up!!
Jim stands and freezes, touches his throat, and realizes the crucial moment of decision is upon him. The men hurriedly gather their belongings in the hayloft: “Step on it, Lightning! WE’RE MOVING UP!”
The scene of the parting of the troops is one of the film’s most famous and memorable. In his haste, Jim calls out for Melisande but cannot locate her. She too hears the bugle call and sees the dust of the trucks, the horse-drawn caissons, and the running men assembling for the pull-out. Her distress and desperation rises with the suddenness of their leaving. Suddenly, she decides that she is desperately in love with the American doughboy.
She pushes her way through the massed ranks of soldiers – looking and calling out for him in the ensuing chaos and rising dust. Her frenzied search becomes more frantic and emotional as Melisande searches for a glimpse of him to bid him a lasting farewell. Two other passing soldiers grab at her – one touches her breast, the other tries to steal a kiss. Jim climbs into the back of a transport truck, one in a long line of battle trucks. When he finally catches sight of her, he jumps off the truck and races back – they wildly embrace and pepper each other with kisses – framed in close-up. Earnestly, he vows to return to her in the touching scene:
I’m coming back! – Remember – – – I’m coming back!
An officer pulls on Jim, and then rips them apart. The agonized, feisty French village girl hits back at anyone who would tear them from each other. As Jim is dragged into the tail end of a truck, Melisande holds on firmly to his left leg – refusing to let go. She runs along for a moment as the truck pulls away – she desperately hangs onto a chain dangling off the vehicle, trying to halt the inevitable and defy both time and fate. When she won’t let go, she is dragged alongside the procession until she can’t hold on any longer. He tosses her mementos to remember him by: his wristwatch, his dogtags, and one shoe, and then sprays her with two-handed kisses. She stands and watches the truck disappear – holding his shoe to her bosom. The passing vehicles and clouds of dust envelope her – and then subside. In the middle of the road, she sinks to her knees with her head bowed.
In a spectacular shot, a long, single-file line of military trucks stretches from the foreground to the far-distant horizon along an endlessly straight road: “Men! Men! Men! Moving up! Up! UP! MEN!!” Bi-planes gather in the sky overhead during the massive mobilization. The camera fades to black on the sole figure of Melisande in the middle of the road.
IT HAD BEGUN!
THE BIG PARADE
Men! Guns! Men! Men! Guns!
To the front! To the front! To the front…Front!…FRONT!
“An endless column surging forward over roads that never were retraced.” The “Eyes of the Army!” are the warplanes in the sky. “And when Jim’s outfit reached the fighting zone, motor trucks were left behind and the remaining miles made a-foot.” The men complain about the tough times:
Bull: We’re ridden far enough and walked far enough to be in China!
Slim: Nix! If this was China you’d see a lot of Chop Suey joints around!
“Whenever there were new arrivals near the front, ‘Flying Fritzie’ usually sneaked across the line to give them their first welcome.” From an aerial view, the German airman (the Flying Fritzie) zeroes in on the marching troops, swoops down on top of them, and sprays them with machine-gun fire – a few of the men are hit or killed. Jim grimly tells Slim that war has come: “Well, we’re in it now, Buddy!” Return fire from ground weapons blasts the plane out of the sky in a fiery ball of flames. “To the front! To the front! To the front…Front!…FRONT!” The men rest – in close-frame shots, Slim, Jim, and Bull lie next to each other – with Jim in-between:
Slim (to Bull): Gimme a cigarette, Bull.
Bull: I don’t mind givin’ you cigarettes…but I hate carryin’ ’em all ’round France for you. (Jim passes a cigarette from Bull to Slim)
Slim: Gimme a match.
Bull: What am I…Santy Claus? (Jim passes Bull’s non-functioning lighter back and forth)
The men, sprawled along the sides of a winding road, are prepared to be sent into the Belleau Wood battle area. It is a chilling funeral march into sure death through sniper-filled woods:
Commander: Well, they say the woods ahead are alive with machine guns and snipers. What do you say, Captain?
Captain: We’re ready for orders, sir. (The men are assembled into ranks) Fix…bayonets! (Jim registers shock on his expressive face.) ATTACK FORMATION!
Two waves of soldiers are sent into the area in a beautifully-choreographed battle sequence – the men advance in their battle line through a seemingly empty woods area, except for scattered corpses from an earlier skirmish. The steady, eerie slowness with which they rhythmically march through the ominous daylight (to the relentless beat of a bass drum on the soundtrack) is filmed in a long, straight-on tracking shot – it is harrowing, suspenseful and frightening. Sporadically, the first man falls to sniper fire in the distance behind Slim and Jim – and then another, and another. A group of enemy soldiers surrenders – holding their hands up high in the air. The front wave of American soldiers, that has successfully cleared part of the forest, continues their march. Further on, German sniper fire from camouflaged nests indiscriminately mows down more of the men. Fighting back, the doughboys throw hand grenades toward the hidden enemy.
The battle becomes fiercer the farther the flanks of American military men march forward – explosions kick up mounds of dirt and smoke as the ranks of men are thinned. Larger, wagon-mounted cannons find their targets. The foot soldiers reach no-man’s land, a desolate, sterile area where the trees are stripped of branches and leaves and the fighting is done from open trenches:
Jim: They’re not going to send us out in that open field, are they?
Slim: Sure! We’re gonna keep goin’ till we can’t go no farther!
Poisonous fumes from a gas attack forces them to hurriedly don gas-masks – their goggle-eyed headgear makes them appear like strange elephants. They are commanded to cross open territory. Sniper fire from repeating machine guns in the trenches becomes more intense – tractor tanks dot the bare landscape during their approach. It is a devastating scene of hellish proportions – dirt flying, and men crawling and jumping over crater pits.
“Outnumbered by the second line of German defense, they took refuge in shell holes.” Slim, Jim, and Bull are together and still unharmed in one of the foxholes:
Bull: This dump is lousy with Heinies! I could chuck my hat across to where they are.
Slim: Quit squawkin’! You don’t want to live forever, do you?
“That was how they received their baptism of fire…and while they held the line, the machine of war moved up behind them. Dusk – – Silence…Mud…the whine of a shell…Mud…silence.” Nighttime falls and the men face an interminable wait – cornered close to a German machine-gun post. The silence is broken by a plane that flies overhead – Bull ducks his head into a muddy crevice like an ostrich. Jim plucks one of the few remaining flowers from the top of his trench – boldly daring the enemy to shoot him. After one furious explosion, a wide-eyed Slim looks around and asks: “Am I dead yet?” Bull peels open a metal can of Corned Beef – their rations for the day.
The company commander orders one of them to clean out the machine-gun nest ahead of them: “The skipper says for one of you guys to go get that Fritzie with the toy cannon.” Although Slim readily volunteers himself, Jim rejects the notion until a more equitable method of choice is determined:
Jim: Why should you take the chance to be picked off? You’re no better than we are!
Slim: We’ll settle this…like gentlemen! (He draws a simple target in the dirt) The guy what spits closest…goes! And splashes don’t count.
Jim: But you’re the champion spitter of the whole army.
Slim: No arguin’ with a Corporal! What I says…is orders!
All of them spit for the honor: Bull’s splash misses the circle and Jim’s hits the perimeter. Slim – a champion tobacco chewer and spitter – hits the target squarely. He smiles at his pals: “I…am…IT!” Before leaving the relative safety of the trench, he turns back: “Out there’s no place for little boys like you.”
“Slowly, inch by inch, Slim wriggled his way…until full darkness came.” The night battle sequence captures the nightmarish quality of the war – explosions light up the sky momentarily as he crawls along, seeking shelter in each crater or behind dead bodies. Jim and Bull wait feverishly:
Jim: Do you think he’ll make it all right?
Bull: Sure! Slim’ll come back wearin’ the Kaiser’s moustache!
A huge silhouette of Slim’s gun and bayonet, illuminated by hellish bursts of shellfire, casts a giant shadow above the German trench lines – he jumps one German and engages in hand-to-hand combat with another in the nest. Bull advises a restless Jim to calm his fear: “For the love of Mike, be calm…like me!” Slim emerges from the trench with two German helmets – trophies that he has gathered like scalps. While crawling on his way back, he is wounded on the battlefield. Jim is thrown into agony and tortured pain when he realizes that his friend may be the next victim:
Jim and Bull: (They call out over the lip of the trench) Yo…Slim!
Another soldier: Say, you hyenas…pipe down!
Jim: You can’t make us shut up! Slim’s out there alone!
Moaning for help, Slim repeatedly calls out to be rescued. Jim hears more machine gun fire and again screams over the top of the trench: “Hey…Slim!” Once more, Jim is told to keep quiet by company orders: “Cut that out. You got orders!”
Jim: God, Bull…I can hear Slim moaning out there.
With resolute fearlessness, Jim shrieks madly at the insanity of war:
Jim: Orders! Orders! Who the hell is fighting this war – men or orders? I came to fight – not to wait and rot in a lousy hole while they murder my pal! Waiting! Orders! Mud! Blood! Stinking stiffs! 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?
Bull: Don’t let it get you, kid…don’t let it get you!
As blood gushes from a wound under Slim’s helmet and he gasps for help for his last time, he perishes under more gunfire. Resolute, Jim grabs his firearm and vows: “I’m goin’ to bring Slim back!” At first resistant, Bull joins him to rescue Slim. Both crawl as low as they can get through the dark – illuminated by flashes of explosions. Jim turns his pal over and when he can’t revive him, he screams out at the heavens for the futile waste of life: “Slim, can’t you just try to say…good-bye? They got him! They got him! GOD DAMN THEIR SOULS!” He stands and turns toward the German enemy:
You got my Buddy, you b———s! Now…COME ON!
With a surge of fearless strength and energy, he charges toward the German trench, removes a grenade from his jacket, takes the pin out with his teeth, and hurls it forward. Jim and Bull both launch an attack into the trench, stabbing the stunned soldiers in the nest with their bayonets. They continue charging and throwing more grenades further ahead – but Bull is hit and calls out as he dies: “I’ll meet you in Berlin.” Jim is wounded in the left knee and lies crippled on the ground.
Crazed and enraged by the death of his two friends, Jim aims his rifle from his downed position and wounds a German sniper who is about to attack him. When his gun jams, Jim removes his bayonet and painfully drags his body toward the equally-crippled German to vengefully finish him off. In a long, uninterrupted take, Jim pursues the wounded, dying German youth back into a shell hole with the bayonet in his fist – but face to face, he is unable to finish him off with the blade poised at the enemy’s neck. When his victim gestures for a cigarette, Jim compassionately gives him one from his stash under his helmet and lights it. Then disgusted by him, Jim pushes the teenaged German’s face away and then cowers as the man dies next to him – the cigarette falls limply from the corpse’s lips. The agony, fear, filth and inhumanity of war – and the intimate proximity of death itself – change Jim forever. He retrieves the cigarette stub and smokes it himself.
From behind, the American commander orders a charge with reinforcements in an intensified attack. Support troops swarm by Jim’s shellhole as he tries to attract someone’s attention. The Americans surround and overtake a house where the few remaining Germans are hiding, moving further into No Man’s Land and claiming land for themselves. The battlefield becomes an inferno of fiery explosions, cannon fire, and hellish bursts of smoke, flame, and dirt. Jim is rescued from death – a Red Cross truck picks him up.
“Another Big Parade,” a single file line of trucks, retraces its way back along the road. In a makeshift Army field hospital with beds lined up in a cavernous stone cathedral, Jim lies recuperating between two other wounded GIs – one is hysterical and roped into his bed, the other one’s head is bandaged:
One of the soldiers: Where did you get yours?…They nicked me as we were going through Champillon.
Jim: (his eyes widen) Champillon? CHAMPILLON?
Soldier: Say, that farmhouse has changed hands four times since yesterday.
Jim: (distraught) How far is Champillon from here?
Soldier: Six kilometers north.
After hearing that Melisande’s town has been bombed and is in the middle of the heated battle zone, Jim struggles out of bed, uses a crutch to hobble away on his one good leg, falls through an open window to the outside, and hitches a ride to the village. The assault on Champillon has created many exiled refugees of its villagers – Melisande and her mother, with their belongings wrapped in cloth bundles thrown over their shoulders, trudge along a country road. Painfully, Jim maneuvers himself out of the truck in the deserted, devastated town of Champillon. In front of Melisande’s home, he finds a ransacked shell of a building as he desperately calls out for his missing sweetheart: “Melisande!”
He is caught in the middle of further conflict and shellfire in the town – again he is hit in the leg – loaded onto a stretcher and stashed into the back of a Red Cross truck. His eyes communicate his suffering and the realization that war is a murderous hell.
The last gun had thundered! The fields of France were stilled in peace. The Apperson home knew its greatest hour! Jim was coming back!
Jim is brought back to America and is driven home with his father: “Well, son…you’ll soon be home. I guess you’ll be glad to see your old sweetheart again?” However, in the meantime, Jim’s younger brother (who remained home to take care of family business) has stolen Justyn’s heart from him – Mrs. Apperson glimpses them secretly kissing each other while waiting for Jim’s home-coming:
Harry: I can’t give you up, Justyn –
Justyn: We mustn’t forget what Jim has been through.
As Jim walks with two crutches through the front door of the Apperson home, it is revealed for the first time that his left leg has been amputated at the knee. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, his mother (flanked by Harry and Justyn) sees her son’s mutilation for the first time. As they hug, the scene momentarily dissolves into the retrospective memories of his mother imagining her young son frolicking on two legs at various stages during his healthy youth. Justyn approaches with tears in her eyes – truly touched by Jim’s sacrifice. His brother, on the other hand, is callous and insensitive:
Harry: You look great, Jim, old man!
Jim: Don’t try to kid me! I know what I look like!
Mr. Apperson: Jim boy, mother and I are proud of you…and we thank God you’ve been spared.
In their living room, Jim lies in his mother’s arms, reveals his love for a French woman, and is urged to return to France and find her:
Mrs. Apperson: Yes, Jim.
Jim: There’s a girl in France – –
Mrs. Apperson: Then you must find her…nothing else matters.
Life is difficult in France for Melisande and her mother. They plow in a field full of dirt clods, although the young girl still pines for her American soldier boy – she stretches chewing gum from her mouth. Way in the distance, a tiny, dark figure appears on the top of a rolling French hillside – walking with a halting limp. Intuitively sensing something unusual, Melisande’s eyes open wide and she begins running toward the figure – she crosses the field, slides down an embankment, and traverses another field. It is Jim coming down the road in a traveling suit – hobbling on a wooden leg and steadied with a cane, returning to the girl of his dreams as he promised. In the gripping, moving finale, he tries feverishly to quicken his pace and run into her arms:
They are finally reunited and overjoyed as they embrace and hug each other once more.