THE BIG PARADE
MOVIE: **** (out of 5)
BLU-RAY EXPERIENCE: **** (out of 5)
John Gilbert as JAMES APPERSON
Renee Adoree as MELISANDE
Hobart Bosworth as MR. APPERSON
Claire McDowell as MRS. APPERSON
Claire Adams as JUSTYN REED
Robert Obert as HARRY
Tom O’Brien as BULL
Karl Dane as SLIM
Rosita Marstini as FRENCH MOTHER
Studio: Warner Bros.
Directed by: King Vidor
BY KEVIN CARR
When it comes to major re-releases of studio library titles on the latest video format, people often forget about the films from the youth of cinema. However, many of these silent-era pictures are done a great service with a high definition treatment. Not only does it preserve the film in a digital format for generations to come, but it gives a readily accessible viewing experience for a wider audience.
I’ll admit that my knowledge and appreciation for the silent-era classics is pretty limited, partly by availability but also partly by schedule. So when a movie like “The Big Parade” comes across my desk, it’s quite a joy.
At first blanch, “The Big Parade” can be daunting. Where I expect older films like this to generally have a shorter running time, the 151-minute length of “The Big Parade” can be intimidating. However, this is a necessity for the scope the picture has.
The movie tells the story of an idle rich man named James Apperson (John Gilbert). The film begins at the dawn of the American involvement in World War I, and instead of staying safe at home, James enlists. He leaves his naive sweetheart back home an heads to France to fight. However, the fighting doesn’t immediately take over for him.
The first half of the film tells a different story of warfare. While there’s basic training and early occupation, showing the challenges of being in the Army, it’s not a bloody film. In fact, much of the first half features James and his Army buddies in the French countryside doing the lesser-known wartime duties. There, James meets a French girl named Melisande (Renee Adoree) and soon falls in love.
However, like any good war film, “The Big Parade” does not ignore the horrors of war. Soon, James and his platoon is sent to the front lines, where they experience widespread bloodshed at the hands of the Germans. The terror of machine gun ambushes in the forest and the dangers of chemical warfare are all over. Trench warfare puts the heroes in a fight for survival. Eventually, the film shows the aftermath of this war and the challenges James faces upon returning home.
While watching “The Big Parade,” I had to keep reminding myself that the story elements that seemed so tired (including the affair with the French girl and the struggles at home) were not cliches back in 1925 when the film came out. In fact, this was part of the mold that was made which so many war films have used over the years.
Like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Big Parade” gives a comprehensive look at then-modern warfare. It was not a glorification of the process, though it showed the dogmatic attitudes back home as well. The film strikes a fine balance between the reality of combat and the many other aspects to travel abroad (even in war time) which can be rather pleasant.
However, the big reason to catch this film on Blu-ray is for the visuals. Like many films from the silent era, “The Big Parade” offers tinting of different sections of the film for emotional impact. It also features some stunning cinematography for its time. When people think of older films like this, they often dismiss the visuals simply because they are rudimentary compared to what can be achieved today.
Yet the visual aspect of “The Big Parade” is one of the finest parts of it. Movies made prior to 1940 have a unique look and utilize the Academy aspect ratio to its fullest. With synched sound either not available (as was seen in “The Big Parade”) or in its infancy (with something like, say, 1931’s “Dracula”), the emphasis on set design and composition is astounding.
Add to this the fact that all the effects in “The Big Parade” are practical because complex opticals were not available back then, and it’s even more impressive. The scenes of warfare are stark and powerful, and at times even more effective than what we see with today’s best war films.
The Blu-ray for “The Big Parade” includes a 64-page commemorative book with notes and rare art. There’s also the original theatrical trailer and a vintage 1925 Studio Tour short available on the bonus menu. Though the neatest element is the commentary that is included, which is hosted by historian Jeffrey Vance and features director King Vidor. Commentaries on older films such as these can be a challenge because the people involved in the production have often passed away years before, so to have some archived recordings of the actual people involved in the film itself is a treat.