In the United States in 1917, James "Jim" Apperson's (John Gilbert) idleness (in contrast to his hardworking brother) incurs the great displeasure of his wealthy businessman father. Then America enters World War I. Jim informs his worried mother that he has no intention of enlisting, and his father threatens to kick him out of the house if he does not join. However, when he runs into his patriotic friends at a send-off parade, he is persuaded to enlist, making his father very proud.
During training, Jim makes friendships with Southern construction worker Slim (Karl Dane) and Bronx bartender Bull (Tom O'Brien). Their unit ships out to France, where they are billeted at a farm in the village of Champillon in the Marne.
All three men are attracted to Melisande (Renée Adorée), whose mother owns the farm. She repulses all their advances, but gradually warms to Jim, bonding at first over chewing gum. They eventually fall in love, despite not being able to speak each other's language. One day, however, Jim receives a letter and a photograph from Justyn (Claire Adams), which reveals that they are engaged. When Melisande sees the picture, she realizes the situation and runs off in tears. Before Jim can decide what to do, his unit is ordered to the front. Melisande hears the commotion and races back, just in time for the lovers to embrace and kiss.
The Americans march towards the front and are strafed by an enemy fighter before it is shot down. The unit is sent to the attack immediately, advancing against snipers and machine guns in the woods, then more machine guns, artillery, and poison gas in the open. They settle down in a makeshift line. Jim shelters in a shellhole with Slim and Bull.
That night, orders come down for one man to go out and eliminate a troublesome mortar crew; Slim wins a spitting contest for the opportunity. He succeeds, but is spotted and wounded on the way back. After listening to Slim's pleas for help, Jim cannot stand it any longer and goes to his rescue against orders. Bull follows, but is shot and killed. By the time Jim reaches Slim, he is already dead. Jim is then shot in the leg. When a German (George Beranger) comes to finish him off, Jim shoots and wounds him. The German starts crawling back to his line. Jim catches up to him in another shellhole, but, face to face, cannot bring himself to finish him off with his bayonet. Instead, he gives his erstwhile enemy a cigarette. Soon after, the German dies. Fortunately for Jim, he is not stuck in no man's land for long; the Americans attack, and he is taken away to a hospital.
From another patient, he learns that Champillon has changed hands four times. Worried about Melisande, Jim sneaks out of the hospital and hitches a ride. When he gets to the farmhouse, he finds it damaged and empty. Melisande and her mother have joined a stream of refugees. Jim collapses and is carried off in an ambulance by retreating soldiers.
After the war ends, Jim goes home to America. Before he arrives, his mother overhears Justyn and Jim's brother Harry (Robert Ober) discussing what to do; in Jim's absence, they have fallen in love. When Jim appears, it is revealed that he has had his leg amputated. Later, Jim tells his mother about Melisande; she tells him to go back and find her. When he returns to the farm, Melisande rushes into his arms.John Gilbert as James Apperson
Renée Adorée as Melisande
Hobart Bosworth as Mr. Apperson
Claire McDowell as Mrs. Apperson
Claire Adams as Justyn Reed
Robert Ober as Harry Apperson
Tom O'Brien as Bull
Karl Dane as Slim
Rosita Marstini as Melisande's mother
Harry Crocker as Soldier (uncredited)
Julanne Johnston as Justine Devereux
Kathleen Key as Miss Apperson
Carl Voss as Officer (uncredited)
George Beranger as German soldier
The Big Parade was one of the greatest hits of the 1920s earning gross rentals of $4,990,000 in North America and $1,141,000 overseas on a budget of $382,000 during its initial release, with MGM recording a profit of $3.4 million. It played in some larger cities continually for a year or more, boosting Gilbert's career and made Renée Adorée a major star, although Adorée would soon be diagnosed with tuberculosis and die only a few years later. The film ultimately grossed $18–$22 million in worldwide rentals and is sometimes proclaimed as the most successful film of the silent era, although it is most likely this record falls to The Birth of a Nation.
After the film's producers found a clause in Vidor's contract that entitled the director to 20% of the net profits, studio lawyers called for a meeting with him. At the meeting, accountants upgraded the costs of the picture and downgraded their forecast of its potential success. Vidor was thus persuaded to sell his stake in the film before he could receive his percentage. However, the film's tremendous success established Vidor as one of MGM's top directors for the rest of his career.
In 1992, The Big Parade was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
The film was re-issued in 1931 with a sound-track consisting of William Axt's score. Composer Carl Davis created a new orchestral score for the film in the 1980s (quoting the theme associated with Melisande in Axt's original setting), and it was restored and released on video in the late 1980s as part of the MGM and British television Thames Silents project. The original 35mm negative was subsequently discovered intact, and has been the source for theatrical showings and the DVD and Blu-ray editions (Blu-ray was released October 1, 2013). Davis' score has also been featured on these later editions.
The 2013 DVD and Blu-ray Warner Home Video release of The Big Parade contains an audio commentary track by film historian Jeffrey Vance (with excerpts from King Vidor's oral history with the Directors Guild of America).