director King Vidor
Often making lists of the best or most important films of the Silent Era, King Vidor’s The Big Parade has been on my list of “films to see” for some while. It’s a War film, made about WWI when it was still “the war to end all wars”, only 6 years after the conflicts had ended and still almost a decade before it started to become clear that another war would take its place.
Interestingly, the three men that the story follows are examples of different classes drawn into the fight. Hero and star Jim (John Gilbert) is a wealthy ne’er-do-well caught up in the patriotic call to arms. He’s joined by the more working class Bull (Tom O’Brien), a bartender, and Slim (Karl Dane), a construction worker, who head to Europe with perhaps little insight into what they have signed-up for.
The bulk of the film’s 2 1/2 hours is a leisurely comedy-romance in which the three, with their fellows, lounge around Champillon while Jim falls for pretty Melisande (Renée Adorée), a French peasant girl.
And to be honest, nothing about this opening hour and a half is of particular interest or stands out from a lot of the era’s films. But when the march to the front, “the big parade”, leads the men into battle, the film becomes vividly visual, intense, and powerful.
The march through the woods (Belleau Wood, based on a real life battle), is the film’s best sequence. Tracking shots follow and lead as the march pushes forward. Shot at by entrenched German soldiers, they move inevitably forward in the film’s best visual sequence.
The latter battle sequence, strafed and bombed in foxholes left by explosions, the trio fight and hide, staying alive as the battle rages. Toward the end of this segment, Jim winds up in another hole with a wounded German soldier and finds a level of humanity with his enemy.
Taken as a whole, it is indeed a noteworthy film, but it’s really the battles that transform the film into something much above the average. It’s visual storytelling of great intensity and vividness, with amazing cinematography and camera movement. The Big Parade is well worth seeing, but in other ways, I’d consider showing just the battle sequences to someone out of the context of the whole.
Also, tragically and interestingly, Adorée, Gilbert, and Dane died young. Adorée at 35 of TB, Gilbert at 36 from alcohol-related heart attack, and Dane at 47 by suicide.