I plunge back into World War I with the next recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book following my viewing of All Quiet On The Western Front. This silent film is very engaging, telling the story of an idle rich lad, James Apperson (John Gilbert), who, when caught up in the patriotism that sweeps the nation when America enters the Great War enlists, much to the shock of his family, and the pride of his beloved, Justyn (Claire Adams).
He learns pretty quickly that all soldiers are equal, there is no class structure, only rank, and as they make their way across the French countryside, he becomes friends with two working class men, turned soldiers, Slim (Karl Dane) and Bull (Tom O’Brien), who are much less cultured than he is, but comrades none the less. And for the first time in his life, he takes part in general and menial labor.
It’s in the first half of the film that we get the lighter moments and misadventures, endearing the characters to us, shoveling manure, literally sawing through a cake from home, and the development of a love story between Jim and Melisande (Renee Adoree). There is a real connection between the two, but the occasional letter from Justyn at home tends to create problems for them.
Jim constantly evolves through the course of the film, he is no longer the idle layabout, he has become a part of the world, and it is at that moment, that he is thrown into the terror and madness that is the war.
The second half of the film follows the troops advance to the front, and the quiet tranquil shots of the idyllic French country side, are replaced with shots filled with frenetic and dusty activity, as they advance, against the German war machine. The cold, unstopping, even unflinching advance against the German lines through a forest is a particularly chilling moment, men fall all around our trio, but the pace of the battalion will not cease.
The brutal and intense war scenes conveying their true madness are a jarring shock after the beauty of home and the French village, allowing the film to be poignant, maddening, funny and downright terrifying in turns.
And Jim does not come through unscathed by his time in the service, though he is decidedly more of an emotionally whole man than when he began his journey, the scars that occur during war, and upon his return home shaping who he becomes, and leads him to make his final decision about who he is and whom he wants to spend his life with.
A stunning film that may in fact seem familiar in its beats and moments to modern viewers, but that doesn’t make the emotional impact of the story any less. It’s a strongly crafted film depicting the horrors of war, and one soldier’s journey to become a man.