Do you remember the last time you cried at a movie? I mean, had to stop the film for a few minutes just to recover kind of crying? I had that experience watching King Vidor’s World War I epic The Big Parade, now available on a beautiful Blu-Ray from Warner Brothers.
The Big Parade is one of those epic films that silent Hollywood was well known for: sweeping vistas, massive casts, melodramatic tales of love, war, and redemption. Some of these epics fall flat now, with our contemporary need for sound, kinetic camerawork, rousing speeches and booming scores. While the score is still there – and it is booming, to say the least – The Big Parade is an intimate story surrounded by an epic event, making it one of the most affecting wartime dramas ever made.
The film follows the fortunes of spoiled rich guy Jim Apperson (John Gilbert) and his two war buddies Slim (Karl Dane) and Bull (Tom O’Brien) – three men from very different walks of life who wind up as grunts on the Western front. Jim joins up at the behest of his girlfriend Justyn (Claire Adams), who wants to date a man in uniform. Things get complicated when Jim and his troop bivouac at a farming community in the French countryside. There he meets lovely farmgirl Melisande (Renee Adoree); she can’t speak a word of English, but that doesn’t stop them from falling in love. Jim still has to worry about the girl he left behind, though, not to mention the rapidly encroaching front. The love affair is interrupted by the requirements of war, and off Jim marches to the trenches, promising to return.
The first half of The Big Parade is part comedy and part love story, with Slim and Bull providing plenty of comic relief as the three friends run around the French countryside. The film treats Jim and Melisande’s romance with a surprising tenderness and depth of emotion, such that we might not expect from the more extreme examples of silent melodrama. Their love scenes are gentle and, more importantly, realistic; even without the benefit of meaningful dialogue, they behave like actual human beings and not character types.
Then the war comes, turning from the film from a tender love story to a brutal war epic; you can almost hear the explosions as shells drop and machine guns rattle. Yet the film’s silence is in some ways more terrible than the din of battle – it creates a different kind of tension as Slim, Bull and Jim lay trembling in a shell-hole, waiting either for death or salvation. The Big Parade does not romanticize war; Jim’s sole act of heroism comes from desperation and fury, not from a desire to be a hero. Not even ten years following the end of World War I, The Big Parade takes an unflinching look at the realities of war without preaching or overdramatizing. It lets the images speak for themselves.
King Vidor creates a spectacular mis-en-scene, proving just how wide in scope a silent film can be. Much of the credit for the personal level of the film must go to John Gilbert and Renee Adoree, as the lovers brought together and then torn apart by the war. Gilbert was a silent screen icon, in the same realm as John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino, yet we tend to remember him largely as the paramour of Greta Garbo. He’s a fantastic actor, however, imbuing his role with pathos without becoming maudlin. Gilbert plays Jim as an inherently decent human being, caught up in something that he cannot control.
The wonderful restoration on this Blu-Ray of The Big Parade gives a color and crispness of the original; each frame is clear and bright without appearing digitized. The sights and sounds are lovingly reproduced in 1080p HD, with none of the usual snap and crackle we might expect from a digital rendering of early cinema. The DTS HD Master-Audio, doing great justice to Carl Davis’s new score that mimes the violence of the war scenes without the benefit of proper sound effects.
Other special features on this disc include:
- 64 Page Book: Comprehensive Notes by Historian Kevin Brownlow, Plus Rare Original Art, Photos, and Advertising Materials
- Audio Commentary by Historian Jeffrey Vance with Director King Vidor
- Vintage Shot 1925 Studio Tour
- Theatrical Trailer
The book feature is very informative, both as an overview of late silent cinema and as an examination of the importance of this film within the framework of its time period. The commentary, meanwhile, is a great treat, with excerpts from recordings of King Vidor discussing the film and an extensive historical discussion by Jeffrey Vance.
The Big Parade more than stands in the running with Saving Private Ryan or All Quiet on the Western Front as a great wartime drama. On this new Blu-Ray, it looks better than it has ever looked since its release in 1925. It is a testament to great filmmaking and great acting, and one of the most moving stories of World War I ever committed to celluloid. The Big Parade is what filmmaking should look like.
The Big Parade is a beautiful, eloquent drama about people brought together in the midst of war.