The Big Parade has always sat there on my “must-see” list, like a little thorn in my side. I knew I “should” see it, but its 2+ hours length and its age—released in 1925—always pushed it down the list until I would forget about it. It also starred John Gilbert, whose career famously fizzed out in the early sound film years, with him becoming something of a sad sack or joke, even being lampooned by Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain.
Then the film appeared again on my horizon, and I made myself see it. So very glad I did. It was much more than I expected, and a marvelous experience in its own right.
The film checks a lot of boxes. It was the biggest hit of its year, and the most successful silent film of its time. It made a superstar out of John Gilbert, and provided the best context in which to judge his work. It was a studio–saving film for the young M-G-M, and it set the template for war films right up until today. But none of that really tells of its delights.
It’s a grand epic, for one, wonderfully balancing grand battles (WWI) with the personal story of a young and spoiled man who grows up, brutally, during the war. There is everything we have come to expect: a love story (or two), the bravery and fear found in battle (and even the PTSD that Hollywood forgot to cover for decades), and the horrors of war.
There’s a little work one has to do to appreciate the film. One is to look at the viewing of an old film as a trip to another place and another time. What many of us would give to travel to a faraway place, or to a whole other time in history! This is the mindset we need in watching silent films—a happy free trip to a different time and place. Silents aren’t constructed like sound films; they communicate almost solely in images, with the exception of the musical score and the occasional intertitle (surprisingly sparely used for such a long and complex film). It’s a whole other way of enjoying the film experience, but like sampling a new food, it can be a delicious departure from the usual.
The film starts off as a solid and well-made but typical silent, with a camera that doesn’t seem to move much, huge sets that seem like they were from the teens, comedy bits that go on way too long, and love scenes that border on the silly to a modern viewer. But then…there are two set pieces that lift this film way far above the other films of its time.
One is the (spoiler alert) mid-film separation of James (Gilbert) from his newfound French love (Renée Adorée) as he heads to battle. If you leave your modern experiences behind and give yourself over to the scene, you’ll be drawn into one of the most gut-wrenching and visually stunning separation sequences in film history. I watched in something like amazement as I saw the director take this into a cinematic realm I’ve rarely seen in a film—daring, beautiful, emotional. I thought the film couldn’t get any better.
Then the battle sequence began. Also daring, beautiful, and emotional, but in a completely different way. The reverse tracking shot that dominates the beginning of this sequence is extraordinary; we tend to forget how smooth the camera could be in the late silent era, and how imaginatively good directors could use it. Watching our three male leads walking toward the camera—with neither they nor the viewer knowing what might happen—creates a tension between narrative suspense and nearly distracting cinematic magnificence. Watching gunfire come from “behind” us, hitting those in the midground and background, was both exciting in film terms and awful to watch. These are the battle scenes that set the high bar for other films to try and attain. Director Vidor spends a lot of time literally in the trenches, yet not a moment is unnecessarily drawn out or wasted.
The last treasure I picked out was the acting. I admit that I put Gilbert in two places before this film—as the great sound failure, and as the lesser half of the famous Greta Garbo-John Gilbert pairings. Garbo went on to cinematic immortality; Gilbert went on to obscurity. So his acting here is a revelation, given one more shift in my ability to appreciate. Putting aside what his voice was like, or what may have been engineered during his early sound films to end his career, most critics now seem to think it was his inability to adjust his acting style (and to be honest, his lover persona) into sound films. Be that as it may, his work here is a master class of silent film acting, with all the expressions and gestures of that style. With that in mind, it was understandable why this film made him such a star. He was able to convey every emotion and nearly every thought with his toolbag of movements, large and small. The style would quickly fade just a few years later, but here it is in full form, and a near-perfect fit for that time’s film style.
Much more than a successful war film, or even a well-made one, The Big Parade is an epic with two set pieces that made my jaw drop in respect and complete artistic enjoyment. I haven’t been that artistically stirred in months.