King Vidor's The Big Parade
is one of the successful and influential movies from the silent era and
it's astounding that it took over a decade and a half to release the
film on DVD. Good things come to those who wait as Warner
Brothers has finally rectified that situation with a pristine looking
Blu-ray (also available on DVD) that has a couple of exciting
extras. The long neglected classic is finally getting its due.
In 1917 America things seem peaceful and carefree, with no evidence
that a horrible war is raging in Europe. After all, that's on the
other side of the globe. It doesn't concern Slim (Karl Dane) who
works building skyscrapers or Bull (Tom O'Brien) who tends bar.
It worries Jim, the idle son of a wealthy tycoon, the least of
all. Why should he be bothered by something like a war?
That all changes when the US enters the fray. Slim and Bull sign
up to do their part, but Jim isn't planning on doing anything like
that... it resembles work too much. While driving to the club one
afternoon however, he sees a parade of new enlistees and among them are
four of his buddies. The shout at him to sign up with them, and
between the cheering of the crowd and the patriotic music that sets his
toe tapping he can't resist.
Jim's mother is scared, but his girl is proud of him and so is his
father. With a tearful farewell he heads off to basic training,
where he meets Slim and Bull, and gets some rudimentary
instructions. After that it's off to France where his company
gets stationed in a small town and told to wait. Jim and his
buddies are assigned a loft in a barn to sleep and they spend their
days just cooling their heels. It's here that Jim meets
Melisande, the daughter in the family that owns the farm where he's
stationed. He doesn't speak French, and she doesn't speak
English, but they somehow are able to communicate and end up falling in
love. Things are looking good until they get their orders and
Jim, Slim, and Bull along with the rest of their battalion are sent to
the front lines.
This is one of those movies that work on multiple fronts. The
story is carefully constructed and unfolds in such a fashion to give
the last half a real punch. The beginning of the movie is pretty
light, which is surprising for a war film. There are even a
couple of very humorous scenes, such as when Jim's girl from back home
sends him a cake that she baked herself. It turns out to be so
hard that his bayonet won't cut it. Another funny sequence has
Jim trying to get a barrel back to his camp and rolling it though the
streets. They're covered with mud and it's very slow going, so he
puts the barrel over his head and walks back, awkwardly, peering though
a hole in the side. Of course Melisande sees him making a fool of
himself and can't help but make things even more difficult for him.
The tone changes dramatically when they get sent off to the
front. The scene where they depart is particularly
touching. Jim is bummed that he's going to have to leave
Melisande, but she, on the other hand, is frantic and distraught.
After all, she has first hand knowledge of what happens to people who
find themselves in the trenches. As the truck carrying Jim and
his friends pulls out she grabs onto a chain welded to the side and
runs along as long as she can, crying the whole time.
Much later, the group arrives at the theater of combat. They're
near a forest that has German snipers and machine guns scattered
throughout. The order is given to fix bayonets and the men march
into the forest. It's a powerful scene that the director, King
Vidor, filmed by having kettle drums pound out a beat. The men
are all moving at the same time and speed, scattered between the trees
when one just falls over. Then another one. It takes a few
deaths before they even realize they're under attack. They men
continue to walk in a slow, deliberate pace while shooting back and
dropping. The staging is beautiful and makes the contents of the
scene all the more powerful because of it.
This movie is removed from other war films of the time and earlier
because it gives a realistic and human face to war. The American
soldier's aren't skillful warriors who win the day but regular people
thrust into a situation that's way beyond their control.
Conversely the Germans aren't cruel villains who throw babies out of
windows (as Erich von Stroheim did portraying a German officer in
1918's The Heart of Humanity) but just ordinary people doing what
they've been told to do. In one scene Jim pursues a German who
had just shot him into a bomb blast crater. Jim is going to stab
him in the throat with a knife until he see that his opponent is a very
young man, who is just as scared as he is. By showing both the
brutality of war as well as the human face of the enemy, Vidor made
this a very effective anti-war film.
The acting is also superb. John Gilbert was already a star, but
this film cemented his reputation (at least for a while... once sound
arrived Gilbert's career waned for several reasons) and it's easy to
see why. The good looking Gilbert easily played the dashing rich
playboy, but he also did a great job making that character sympathetic
once he was overseas. He turned Jim from an entitled lay-about
into a regular fellow seamlessly. The other real star of the film
is Renee Adoree who played Melisande. She's spunky and loyal and
made it seem believable that her character would fall for the charming
This single Blu-ray disc arrives in a nice digi-book package. See
the Extras section for more information.
The AVC 1080p image is quite impressive. The film was restored in
4K from the recelently rediscovered original camera negatives (which
were thought to have been destroyed in a fire for years) and the
results are spectacular. If it was a recent film it would look
fine, but taking into account that the movie is 88 years old makes the
picture quality astounding. It's a crisp, clean presentation with
virtually no print damage aside from a couple of missing frames (and I
only noticed that twice). Viewers will be very pleased with the
level of detail which allows the fine lines on John Gilbert's suit to
be distinguished, to note just one example. The blacks are deep
and inky and the contrast is excellent. This is a truly wonderful
presentation of an important silent film.
The DTS-HD MA stereo soundtrack features a score written by Carl Davis
in 1988 and performed by the 45-piece English Chamber Orchestra and it
sounds just as good as the image looks. The score itself is
excellent with Davis drawing upon popular tunes of the time (You're in the Army Now, Over There)
to set the time of the piece. The music accents the action on
screen wonderfully and sets the mood. The minimalist approach he
took for the march through the forest, where German snipers and machine
guns start picking off the American soldiers, works beautifully.
The score sounds great on the disc too, with a wide range and deep
sound. I really can't complain.
There are only a few extras included on the disc, but they are high
quality bonuses that really make this a complete package. I'd
much rather have 2 or 3 solid extras than a dozen fluff pieces.
It starts off with a commentary track by film historian Jeffrey
Vance. I've always enjoyed Vance's commentaries and this is no
exception. It's very comprehensive and covers all facets of the
films creation as well as discussing the careers of the actors and
crew. What really makes this a memorable track is that Vance
includes archival (audio) interviews King Vidor, discusses the
film. A truly wonderful track that's educational and entertaining.
The video extras are limited to a theatrical trailer and a very
interesting short: a tour of the MGM studios from 1925.
This in an in depth look at the film factory, running 32-minutes in
length. The camera goes to all of the various departments and shows
what it takes to make a silent film. This doesn't seem to be
something that was intended for theatrical release; it's doubtful that
audiences of the day would sit for half an hour watching a short that's
rather dry at times. Maybe it was something that was shown to
potential investors back in New York. In any case I'm glad it
still survives. Seeing it today is like looking through a window
to the past.
Finally there's the digibook itself. I really enjoy this type of
packaging, and The Big Parade
includes one of the most impressive book sections that I've run
across. The 64-page book includes some thorough comments on the
film and King Vidor from historian and silent film champion Kevin
Brownlow, a reproduction of the original program book, and some
wonderful stills and behind-the-scenes shots. An excellent
package all around.
One of the great American films about WWI from the silent age, The Big Parade, is finally
available on DVD and Blu-ray. For those of you who have been
waiting, you'll be pleased with the results. The 4K restoration
looks beautiful and the bonus material is great. This landmark
film arrives as one a the more impressive discs of the year. DVD Talk Collector's Series.