I think it's near impossible to imagine the reaction of contemporary audiences to King Vidor's 1925 film "The Big Parade". WWI finished in 1918 and seven years later the events were very much alive in the memories of those who fought or lost loved ones. In the countries that were in the war, nearly everyone was affected one way or another. And here, at least in the war sequences, was a film that was as realistic as film could be on the subject. The camaraderie, the trenches, the fights for just a few metres of land. And young men who enlisted not realising what they were getting themselves into. From the moment the big parade starts (the parade of trucks taking soldiers to the front) till about ten minutes or so before the ending, including the famous walk though the woods sequence, this is one of the great silent films ever made. It was also one of the most sucessful.
The film follows three young men from different backgrounds from New York to the frontline. The spoiled rich kid is played by John Gilbert; the bartender by Tom O'Brien; and the construction worker by Karl Dane. The latter provides the film with one of his best moments during the trenches' sequences. Gilbert uses too much make-up, is overbearing when tries to moralise (oh, yes, there is one of those speeches) but while I didn't care for his character, or him for that matter, the change from brat to man is very well done.
However, the film has 70 minutes before the battle sequences and 10 minutes or so afterwards. The former are ok - we have been there before. Romantic war, the American soldier and the French peasant girl (played by Renée Adorée, and by the way, who thought of that name?), etc., etc., funny at times, and worth for character development. Note that a French peasant girl in 1917 is literate enough to use an English-French-English dictionary. Not quite at the level of Disney's Pocahontas magically being able to speak English but slightly amusing nevertheless. Depending on them, the film would be nice, but not memorable. On the other hand, the last 10 minutes - well most of them, and I will explain that in the moment - if cut would make this a much a better film.
So, spoiler alert! After the battle scenes, John Gilbert wakes in hospital and learns that the village where Renée Adorée lived was now a battlefield. And here the nonsense begins: he runs away from hospital, wounded in a leg, and goes to find her. The film's main selling point had been veracity - so why throw it out of the window for the sake of cheap melodrama? Of course he can't find her, is sent back to hospital and then home. At this stage, the film improves again - when we see him he has lost his leg. Not that my sympathy is with him, since he lost it because of the previous bout of nonsense. His family's awkward reaction is great cinema, and his mother's excellent. And a few minutes later, we are back to cheap melodrama, running with a wooden leg to the arms of the French love of his life. It really made me wonder if these had been later additions... After reading so much about it for so long, I really wanted this to be a better film than it is. But at least, for 40 minutes or so, it's really as good as it gets.