“Waiting! Orders! Mud! Blood! Stinking stiffs! What the hell do we get out of this war anyway?”
Three young Americans — the wealthy son (John Gilbert) of a businessman, a bartender (Tom O’Brien), and a welder (Karl Dane) — experience love and tragedy when they head off to France to fight in World War One.
King Vidor’s blockbuster WWI epic was the highest grossing silent film of all time, and received rave reviews upon its release (“as a motion picture it is something beyond the fondest dreams of most people”, gushed reviewer Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times). It’s easy to see why audiences at the time were impressed: handsome movie icon John Gilbert gives a nuanced and sympathetic performance in the central role; many scenes are beautifully lit and composed; and Vidor’s depiction of life for soldiers on the front was surely revelatory. Unfortunately, however, the story itself hasn’t aged all that well. An inordinate amount of time is taken up by a rather pedestrian subplot in which Gilbert falls in lust/love with a comely French milkmaid (Renee Adoree), conveniently neglecting his fiancee, Claire Adams, back at home. By the time he and his two buddies (played simply as “types” by O’Brien and Kane; they never emerge as true individuals) get to the trenches, more than half the movie is over — we only see them fighting in one hideous battle, and then they’re sent home, so there’s no sense of the endless scope of time spent by most soldiers on the front. Despite these complaints, however, film fanatics will surely want to check out this famous silent film at least once, and should definitely enjoy Vidor’s stunning imagery (see stills below).
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- John Gilbert as James Apperson
- A powerful early portrait of war
- Lovely cinematography
- Many impressive “large scale” compositions
Yes, for its historical popularity. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)