The Doomed Adventure: Narratives of Disillusion in Post-World War I American Cinema Open Access

Malahy, John (2013)

Permanent URL:


This thesis examines the effect of World War I on Hollywood film narratives in the late 1910s and 1920s. I identify the "doomed adventure" as a manifestation within film stories of postwar societal disillusion in America, in which a protagonist's once-promising journey becomes overwhelmed by tragic circumstance, leading to that character's disenchantment with the adventure. I argue that this narrative model is reflective of the popular understanding of the war by American soldiers and civilians after the conflict; moreover, it appears across a variety of film genres and regardless of authorial intent.

My analysis includes symptomatic readings of three films from different genres: King Vidor's war epic The Big Parade (1925); Cecil B. DeMille's drama of sex and class, Male and Female (1919); and Charlie Chaplin's tragicomedy The Gold Rush (1925). Both within and without the context of World War I combat, the essential spirit of the war is recalled through various forms of disillusion. Vidor's film links the war's doomed adventure narrative to the war film genre through its main character's experiences as a soldier. DeMille's upper-class heroine comes to question the ethics of English class divisions that hinder potential romantic pursuits. Despite his eternal optimism, Chaplin's Tramp finds himself hungry and desperate enough to make a meal of his own shoe. In each of these examples, the main character is not necessarily physically doomed, but his or her glorious adventure ultimately proves illusory.

Many analyses of 1920s American cinema have been written, but few of them consider the war's effects on film narrative; they instead choose to focus on its economic impact on the industry. A symptomatic reading of postwar Hollywood film reveals an underlying anxiety that funs afoul of the popular image of the "roaring twenties," and of a film industry whose formative years align with those of the "war to end all wars."

Table of Contents

Introduction ..... 1

Chapter One - Vidor's The Big Parade: Doomed Adventure on the Battlefield ..... 16

Chapter Two - DeMille's Male and Female: Doomed Adventure in the South Seas ..... 43

Chapter Three - Chaplin's The Gold Rush: Doomed Adventure in the Klondike ..... 70


Filmography ..... 94

Bibliography ..... 97

About this Master's Thesis

Rights statement
  • Permission granted by the author to include this thesis or dissertation in this repository. All rights reserved by the author. Please contact the author for information regarding the reproduction and use of this thesis or dissertation.
  • English
Research field
Committee Chair / Thesis Advisor
Committee Members
Last modified

Primary PDF

Supplemental Files