The United States had entered the war with high hopes and dreams—aiming to make the world “safe for democracy” as President Woodrow Wilson would proclaim, but by the 1920s there were strong feelings that the U.S. should never have gotten itself involved in the byzantine affairs of the European powers. Isolationist sentiments grew across the country especially after the rejection of the Versailles Treaty by the U.S. Congress in 1920. These feelings of bitterness and disappointment found their fullest expression in the literature of the day, written by members of what has become known as the “Lost Generation,” most notably John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
Much of that same disillusionment was expressed in popular movies—from fantasies such as The Enchanted Cottage (1924) to westerns such as The Stolen Ranch (1926). But few other films from the 1920s struck such a responsive chord in the hearts and minds of Americans as the 1925 film, The Big Parade.
Films about American war veterans who return angry and alienated to civilian society are common today. In the 2008 film The Hurt Locker, Army Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) returns from Iraq to his home and family, but feels out of place—especially when standing in a supermarket aisle staring silently at an endless row of breakfast cereals. In the 2009 Brothers, Marine Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) returns from Afghanistan to his home and family, but erupts with uncontrollable rage when he believes that his brother is having an affair with his wife. And let’s not forget Sylvester Stallone, who as John Rambo in the four films from 1982 to 2008, developed a character whose name has become synonymous with the alienation and bitterness of the Vietnam Vet traumatized by the wartime experience and the painful memory of a homecoming to a country much divided.
What many viewers today may not realize, however, is that the same basic formulas, themes and characterizations of the alienated and disaffected veteran were similarly employed in movies about Americans returning from Korea, World War II, and (in its most influential formulation) World War I. In spite of what we may have heard about “the greatest generation” or “the great war,” the cinematic veterans of those earlier wars did not return to celebratory parades and optimistic outlooks for the future—or at least not in the movies that were made immediately following the return of those veterans to civilian life.
If there had been Academy Awards in the mid-1920s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s The Big Parade produced by Irving Thalberg, directed by King Vidor, and starring John Gilbert and Renée Adorée, would have swept the prizes. And although box-office records were not carefully monitored in the 1910s and 1920s, the Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats (1988) claims that The Big Parade was the highest-grossing silent film ever, earning approximately $22 million in box-office rentals. It made MGM a powerhouse among Hollywood studios and established actor John Gilbert as one of the top stars of the 1920s, alongside Greta Garbo, with whom he appeared romantically in four films between 1926 and 1933.
The film’s plot is relatively simple. Jim Apperson (played by Gilbert) is a wealthy businessman’s son, who after becoming swept up in the nation’s patriotic fervor, suddenly joins the Army. He’s overcome by his fiancée’s suggestion that he’ll “look gorgeous in an officer’s uniform.” In true democratic fashion—another formula of American war films—Jim becomes best friends with two working class stiffs: Slim Jensen, a riveter; and Bull O’Hara, a bartender. The trio endure training camp together, as well as the travails of living in a small French village, where they meet Melisande (played by Adorée), a farmer’s daughter. Jim and Melisande fall in love just before he and his buddies are sent to the front. Slim and Bull are killed in combat; Jim survives and returns home to his family.
Several scenes in the film remain as powerful today as they were when the film premiered nearly 90 years ago. Take the scene when Jim’s unit is suddenly called to the front, Melisande frantically searches for him among the troops. As a truck takes him away, Jim tosses her his wristwatch, his dogtags and even one of his shoes, which she lovingly caresses. In another, Jim’s unit advances cautiously through the Belleau Woods (the scene was actually shot in Los Angeles’s Elysian Park), the film’s director used long tracking shots and synchronized the slow cadence of the American troops to the beat of a bass drum. And high drama ensues when Jim tries to avenge the deaths of his buddies. Pursuing a wounded German soldier into a shell hole, he prepares to kill with a bayonet, but instead shares a cigarette with the enemy soldier.
The veteran's return to peacetime society after battle is a dramatic narrative that dates to the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Homer's Odyssey (ca. 750 BCE) and Vergil's Aeneid (ca. 20 BCE) are masterpieces of this genre. Nevertheless, there are several compelling reasons why the First World War established the formula and the framework for this narrative in motion pictures. This war produced the first large-scale demobilization of tens of thousands of returning American veterans. It was also the first time that contemporary feature-length motion pictures were produced in the immediate aftermath of a war. And perhaps most dramatically, World War I marks a profound shift in the nature of warfare that distinguishes it (and its postwar aftermath) from all previous episodes of combat. Never before were so many nations engaged in combat, and never before was there so much death and destruction. Accordingly, it was known at the time not by what we call it today—World War I, as if it’s simply the first in a series of global cataclysms—but rather the Great War.
In terms of battlefield hardships and loss of life, the American experience in World War I was profound, but still relatively mild compared with that of the other principal combatants. During the final 19 months of the conflict, between April 1917 and November 1918, the U.S. was fighting intensely but for only the final 25 weeks of the conflict. The U.S. sustained some 117,000 service-related deaths (more than half of them victims of disease, not battle). By contrast, there were approximately 2.8 million Russian dead, 2.2 million German, 1.8 million Austro‑Hungarian, 1.7 million French, 1.1 million Italian, and 1 million from the British Empire.
Encapsulating that devastation, then, is the powerful scene near the close of the film, when Jim returns from the war, riding in his father’s open-top car—he has lost a leg, and also his fiancée, who has fallen in love with a brother who had remained at home. The cold stare on Jim’s face, smoking a cigarette, is a brilliant visual representation of the classic bitterness and alienation of the returning vet. When his brother exclaims, “You look great, Jim, old man,” the angry veteran snarls, “Don’t try to kid me! I know what I look like!”