Out of the parlor and into the manure pile, nothing like a world war to push you into life’s great, messy torrent. A nation "in peaceful progression" is interrupted by the call of patriotism, the idle fancy-pants (John Gilbert) joins the lanky proletarian riveter (Karl Dane) and the burly bowery bartender (Tom O’Brien) with helmet and bayonet. King Vidor knows the allegorical implications all too well and still enjoys the leisurely set-up, the first half or so is a spacious barracks comedy about training, waiting, "skirt duty." Sent to France, the men find social barriers vanishing in fraternal practicality, bundled-up while struggling to crumble a stale cake or bare-assed in the woods under a makeshift shower. Keaton figures in these gags, the eye-hole in the barrel worn over Gilbert’s head allows for an iris-encircled POV shot, the ideal way to frame the Gallic sweetheart (Renée Adorée). For the whiskered villagers literally rattling their sables, the battleground is a glorious confetti downpour; for the doughboys in the fields, it is poison-gas mist, explosions, and a stride into the forest "alive with machine guns and snipers." (The rhythmic montage mixes lateral panning shots with reverse tracking shots, an advancing camera that can’t afford to blink as comrades drop like flies all around.) In between there’s that mini-masterpiece of Vidorian ardor, the transcendental impulse against the monumental flow as Gilbert and Adorée must be pried apart amid lines of departing trucks. (Kalatozov has it in The Cranes Are Flying, Rossellini in Viva L’Italia!) A rural vista is composed like a Barbizon canvas and then blown to smithereens, the sustained two-shot of lovers sharing a stick of gum becomes the sustained two-shot of enemies in a crater splitting a smoke while slowly bleeding. "Cheers when we left and when we get back! But who the hell cares... after this?" The soldier’s homecoming is from Griffith and goes right into Renoir (The River), the mother’s tearful recollection of her maimed boy’s life is Vidor’s alone. Wyeth’s Winter 1946 and Christina’s World comprise the ultimate analysis. With Hobart Bosworth, Claire McDowell, Claire Adams, and Robert Ober. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce