THE BIG PARADE
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: John Gilbert, Karl
Dane, Tom O'Brien, Renee Adoree
Director: King Vidor
Audio: DTS HD 2.0
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 151 Minutes
Release Date: October 1, 2013
“I don't understand a word you say...but I know what you mean.”
The Big Parade is a film I've always loved. It's also a film I thought I would never see again.
I used to have a massive silent film collection in my VHS days...however, when DVD came into being, I sold most of my tapes for money to buy new discs. I assumed everything commercially available on videotape would eventually reach disc. So far, I have not been proven right.
However, thanks to Warner Bros., The Big Parade is not only back, but better than ever in a beautiful Blu-ray release packaged in a collectible hardcover book. I hadn't seen this movie in more than 15 years, so it was a perfect time to revisit a true studio classic.
It reflects on the first World War through the eyes of three unlikely soldiers. Slim (Dane) is a construction worker, Bull (O'Brien) tends bar in the Bowery, and James (Gilbert) is the son of a wealthy family with no designs on life other than to work as little as possible.
When the country enters the war, all three enlist, for different reasons, and end up in the same squad together in France. This is the beginning of what is essentially the first segment: it's mostly lighthearted and comedic in tone as the restless trio finds ways to get in trouble, and James even finds himself falling in love with a French country girl named Melisande (Adoree), even though they can barely understand one another.
However, this is a war film, and the second segment interrupts, when the boys are finally rushed off to the front lines in a parade of seemingly never-ending trucks. James' goodbye to Melisande is quite moving; yet he swears to return.
The war is seen as chaos and confusion, with fellow troops separated by different trenches or shell craters. The night is black and offers few clues other than the occasional flare. The enemy is firing guns and mortar rounds almost blindly, but still managing to hit a few targets.
The orders reach Bull, Slim and James that one of them has to seek out the Germans with the mortar round and take them out. And it doesn't take James long to realize that even though he doesn't understand the war (it's never explained to the audience, either), sometimes the most noble fighting is the fighting you do not for country or duty, but for friendship and honor.
The war sequences must have been quite striking to audiences in 1925. Though war had been depicted on the screen before then, it was never shown in such a large way, with constant explosions, raining debris, and confusion. Is it meant to be an anti-war movie? The question makes me remember Francois Truffaut, who said making an anti-war movie was actually impossible because war always comes across as so exciting on the screen.
Nevertheless, The Big Parade stands as one of the towering achievements of the early days of the studio system. It helped launch the careers of both legendary director King Vidor and star John Gilbert, who would soon begin an on and off-screen romance with Greta Garbo that would keep him a major player until the end of the silent era.
But really, it's the combination of comedy, pathos, and humanity that makes this movie succeed amongst the spectacle.
You think a 90 year old film can't get much out of high definition? Think again. This print is absolutely gorgeous and pristine; as clean as I've seen from the silent era. Images are crisply rendered and detailed, and the contrast level is superb throughout. This is an extraordinary viewing experience.
This silent movie features a full orchestral score composed by Carl Davis, which is clean and moderately dynamic (some of the music helps serve as sound effects for the events onscreen as well).
The disc includes a commentary track by historian Jeffrey Vance with some audio from director King Vidor, plus the original silent trailer, and a 1925 studio tour short film. The packaging is beautiful; a 64 page hardcover book including photos, original art, notes and more.
I'm so happy to be able to see this masterpiece again, and more happy than ever that I can add it to my library via this quality Blu-ray offering from Warner. Highly recommended.