The Big Parade (1925)

bigparade

The 12 Classics for 2016/ Blind Spot project is aimed at getting movie bloggers to broaden viewing horizons and catch up with well-regarded essentials of cinema.

This month I finally watched King Vidor’s epic WWI drama The Big Parade, a beautiful and engrossing picture showing some hardships and tragedies of war while avoiding graphic antiwar shock and balanced with heroics and sentimentality. Caught up in the patriotic excitement and the potential glamour of military service, idle young heir Tom (John Gilbert) enlists, and in boot camp meets blue-collar men Slim (Karl Dane) and Bull (Tom O’Brien). The film focuses on his journey from aimless playboy to noble survivor.

A very long portion of the film is spent getting to know the men, mostly while they wait at a French farmhouse near the fighting, and it’s all time well-constructed and well-spent to build the characters and their bonds, while chipping away at the notion, communicated from back home, that war is marching boldly through picturesque, fragrant fields. Here, set to clever twists on “You’re in the Army Now,” it’s as glam as shovelling manure, being overjoyed at stale, rock-hard cake, and other examples of discomfort, deprivation, monotony and anxious anticipation. But it’s also light moments of flirting with the farm girl Melisande (Renee Adoree), getting mixed up in comical diversions and taking on projects to kill time or create homey conveniences like a barrel shower. All those adventures and vignettes establish the personalities of the three soldier buddies, but once they march among multitudes in endless columns, the individual becomes universal–they all have the same families, bonds, feelings, dreams, and value, and it’s all irrelevant to their chances of survival.

After the sweet and careful buildup, the troops’ grim march into muck and machine-gun fire is all the more startling and disconcerting, and a crucial emotional break and outburst more believable. The gruelling and inventively choreographed battle section escalates to a furious push and breakthrough sparked and led by Jim’s righteous anger at the waiting and dying, the senselessness of it all. Even in the height of the action, things are brought down to individuals again, in a private encounter and moment of mercy between Jim and a dying enemy soldier. Jim returns, a changed man in every sense, to a grateful family and girl who’s moved on. He’s traumatized and testy about platitudes offered by those who can’t understand. But this hero’s reward, and a comfort for the viewer, is not the parade or any cheers but a touching reunion with his Melisande. Such delicate and heartfelt images, often imitated but no less memorable: Melisande’s attempt to hold back the truck that carries Jim off to war, his desperate search of her bombed-out village, her realization that he’s returned even though she’s just seeing a tiny figure on the hilltop, and his fast hobble down the hill toward his love, in the land where he lost and gained so much.

The Blind Spot Series is hosted by Ryan McNeil of The Matinee.

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14 thoughts on “The Big Parade (1925)”

  1. This is one of those movies that I’ve always felt like I should see, yet I keep putting it off. Your review really makes it sound appealing, though, so I’ll have to make a point of watching it soon. (I see that it’s on the Watch TCM site until June 6th, just in case anyone else is interested.) Thanks for recommending it!

    1. I wondered about the length of it, that it might be dull but I didn’t find it so, the time spent humanizing the characters is like a light movie of its own, almost a romantic comedy, and that pays off once you put the men in battle and lose them. Even if you don’t end up liking that, it’s still always worth seeing an essential with some of cinema’s iconic imagery. Hope you enjoy and look forward to your thoughts! Thanks

  2. Even into the middle of the 1930s “The Big Parade” was shown at the Royal Alex to sell-out crowds. I had avoided it for a while, foolishly expecting to be bored. Sometimes I just don’t know what I’m talking about and “The Big Parade” was certainly one of those times.

    1. Good structure, balance and creative visuals all really worked for me, and it still feels fresh. I was avoiding it too, assuming it was long and dull. Nice thing about movies is there are still so many surprises like this, out there waiting for us 🙂

  3. Nice overview of what you got out of the film. I watched it several years ago after putting it off for the twin reasons of its length and it being a silent. But once I adjusted to its different rhythms I got caught up in the story and appreciated the obvious craftmanship that went into it. Taking into consideration the different style of acting required by silence the performances were very strong.

    This was the second time I’d seen a John Gilbert film, Flesh and the Devil was the first, he was extremely charismatic and a decent actor though better looking without that stupid mini mustache. I can well see why it was a huge hit in its day and can easily imagine it would have been quite an awards magnet had the Oscars existed when it came out. Sad that the three main stars, Renee Adoree, Karl Dane and Gilbert, all met tragic early ends. Adoree from TB at 35, Gilbert basically drank himself to death at 38 and Dane by his own hand at 47 after being unable to make the transition to sound.

    It also encouraged me to start watching more silents, which like all film has had its ups, The Unknown, Wings, The Last Command and Clara Bow, and downs, Mr. Wu, The Half-Breed and pretty much any William Haines movie,

    1. Yes, involving epic and I liked the acting too, I still feel like a silent newbie despite having seen some best known titles but films like these take very little adjustment I find, and it’s educational and thrilling to see where some images that are now cliched, came from, and see them still look so fresh.

  4. This is on my dvr waiting for me to view it. I’ll be doing that tomorrow, then I’ll come back and read your post about the film. Nice coincidence, this is!

      1. Finally, I watched The Big Parade today. While I watched I did google about Karl Dane, as I’ve seen him now in several silent films, and Renee Adoree, as I didn’t know a thing about her. I thought the film fine, until the scene where some of the soldiers had been put into the church/hospital by the Red Cross. I cringed as I thought it was too over-acting on Gilbert’s part and the actor who was strapped down on his bed. My kids, who tease me about wanting to watch silent films-one did think that was a nice touch to have the Red Cross symbol colored red in that one shot. I enjoyed the music, and the snippets of the Army’s song. My son and I were impressed with the special effects to make it look like John Gilbert had really lost his leg. Pretty good for 1925! I did like the ending, with Melisandra rolling, scrambling down that hill and Jim hobbling to her as fast as he could on his crutches. 🙂

        1. Thanks for coming back with your thoughts, it is interesting. I agree the missing leg was convincing, clever use of angles when he came back home, and it’s revealed to his mother. There were a lot of nice touches and memorable images, several I’ve thought of often since watching. The one where Adoree searches the troops and then tries to hold back the truck, that final, etc scene. Nice to discover these landmark films.

          1. Some good silents I’ve seen: The Wind, The Scarlett Letter(I really think this is the best version of Hawthorne’s novel), Show People, The Kid, Orphans in the Storm, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, He Who Gets Slapped, The Phantom of the Opera, Tell it to the Marines, and White Shadows in the South Seas.

            1. Thank you, I do love a list and suggestions! I’ll have to see those, have seen the Chaneys (except for Tell it to the Marines) and the Kid but not the others.

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