by Allan Fish
(USA 1925 143m) not on DVD
A little ‘skirt duty’
p King Vidor, Irving G.Thalberg d King Vidor w Laurence Stallings, Harry Behn, Joseph W.Farnham ph John Arnold, Henrik Sartov ed Hugh Wynn m Carl Davis (orig.William Axt, David Mendoza) art Cedric Gibbons, James Basevi
John Gilbert (Jim Apperson), Renée Adorée (Mélisande), Hobart Bosworth (Mr Apperson), Claire McDowell (Mrs Apperson), Karl Dan (Slim), Tom O’Brien (Bull), Claire Adams (Justyn Reed), Rosita Marstini (French mother), Robert Ober (Harry),
King Vidor’s epic silent drama holds a place in cinema history for any one of a number of reasons. It was the film that propelled John Gilbert from the regular roster of stars into the supernova category where he could justifiably rub shoulders with Garbo and Gish. It was the film that propelled Vidor to the ‘A’ list of silent directors, alongside Griffith, de Mille, Ingram and Von Stroheim. Perhaps most importantly it was the most financially profitable silent film of them all, sending the fledging merged studio MGM so far into the black that they could not only take the spiralling costs and financial disaster of Ben Hur in their stride, but give Vidor carte blanche to make The Crowd as a thank you.
Jim Apperson is the beloved, spoiled son of a rich industrialist who has long been betrothed to childhood friend Justyn. Then America is called into the war and Jim signs up on the grand adventure with several friends. Despite his family’s pleadings, he goes off to war with two friends and, once in France, they befriend a French farm girl. He falls in love with her, but keeps faithful to his fiancée back home. However, back home, Justyn has fallen in love herself.
Vidor’s epic deserves its place among the great films about war, so many of which are about that most fateful and horrible of conflicts, the so-called Great War, a war that conjures up images of great films from the likes of Milestone, Pabst, Renoir and Kubrick. One might be forgiven for thinking that it took the advent of sound for the war to be demonstrated accurately, but the actual news cameramen at the trenches had no such luxury either. Its trench scenes may pale beside later efforts, but its technical craft cannot be doubted, as a deft combination of direction, camerawork and dextrous editing combine to devastating effect in the climactic battle scenes.
One thing that must be said is that war is seen to be a glorious thing, but the attitude of many Americans entering the war was one of sheer patriotism, and a grand glorious adventure, a cruise to Europe with Howitzers instead of hunting rifles. Many American history books will quote 1917-1918 and 1941-1945 as the dates of the World wars, as if the wars are only real once they joined. An attitude ridiculous and faintly insulting to the veterans of the battles of 1916 and 1917 that remain shrouded in infamy, but Vidor’s film only takes up the attitude of the time. Not for nothing does Carl Davis’ superb reissue score use such ditties as “You’re in the Army Now”, “Over There” and “The Band Played On”. Very few war films in the silent era focused on war as reality, and very few were downbeat (Rowland V.Lee’s Barbed Wire being an exception). Only in the last acts does the slightest sombre tone enter into the equation, echoed in the unusually apt title cards (“dusk…silence…mud…the whine of the shell…mud…silence…”).
For all its faults of viewpoint and attitude, its status as a classic piece of film-making remains secure. Vidor was certainly at his visual peak here, with memorable set piece upon memorable set piece, gorgeously photographed throughout by forgotten master Arnold. The comedy may seem misplaced in some cases, but it often works remarkably well, as when Jim’s two buddies drink themselves into s stupor in a wine cellar (“can you figure any guy sitting in a parlour when he’s got a cellar like this?”). Certain images remain embedded in the mind, such as Mrs Apperson’s recollections of the infant Jim when she sees him come home minus a leg, or the epic shot of Mélisande (the lovely Adorée) rushing into an oncoming troop of soldiers (a shot mimicked by David Lean in Doctor Zhivago). It might not be the best silent film, but it’s one of the most moving.