TCM Classic Film Fest: The Big Parade (1925)
Kevin Brownlow was on hand to introduce the newly restored version of this astounding World War I film, one of the first to deal realistically with the horror and tragedy of war on a very personal level. Brownlow is probably the greatest living expert on The Big Parade, not only based on his vast knowledge and experience producing, researching and writing about the silent film era, but his book “The Parade’s Gone By” gives fascinating detail of the making, distribution and the aftermath of this groundbreaking film.
Most exciting of all for the audience in attendance, was the rerecorded musical score created by esteemed composer Carl Davis. As great as The Big Parade is, one can only wonder how even greater a reception it would have received if Davis’s transcendent music had accompanied it back in 1925. His ability to create themes that swing from the sweet and humorous to the hellish nightmare of battle, without sounding maudlin or melodramatic, is a testament to his vision and skill.
Brownlow noted the film’s sophisticated handling of the enemy. While a good number of war movies tend to depict the enemy as evil, The Big Parade treats them as human beings, most notably in the scene when John Gilbert’s character Apperson is trapped in a foxhole with a German, and we experience all the emotions of dread, hatred, and empathy he has for this man. He’s no longer the enemy- he’s just a member of the human race. Apperson stabs him, and as he lay dying, gives him a cigarette and a light, then struggles to deliver the death blow. Very few films since have so accurately portrayed the myriad of emotions a soldier must go through when brought face to face with the enemy.
Interestingly, even with its objective handling of war, the film was banned in Australia, not for violence or censorship reasons, but because they felt the film was American Propaganda.
1925 was one of the great years of silent cinema, and theatre attendance was on the rise. People went to the movies weekly, if not several times a week, so it was important for the local cinema to constantly rotate pictures. It was not unusual for a film to change out every week. When director King Vidor set out to make The Big Parade, he wanted a movie that came into town and stayed. And stay it did, for a total of 96 weeks in NYC. It was the biggest moneymaker for MGM, holding the highest grossing record until Gone With the Wind, 14 years later.
The plot follows three men from very dissimilar backgrounds and how they bond. John Gilbert had the breakout role, as the pampered rich kid thrust into the world of men, war and violence, and it was only a year later that he was paired famously with Greta Garbo, earning him the epithet “The Great Lover.” I’ve only seen him with Garbo, and the smaller role he had in He Who Gets Slapped, so I was really impressed with his natural style and ease on camera. Vidor uses close-ups sparingly, but to great effect, allowing the camera to linger as his face becomes a study in subtext.
Any war film of merit that followed owed a debt to The Big Parade. As powerful as All Quiet on the Western Front is, its politics and depiction of the horrors of war is similar, but you could also make a case for films all the way to present, including Platoon, which illustrates the constant bombardment, the human and soulful casualties, and the psychological trauma that war wreaks. Vidor had said he wanted to create a “Ballet of Blood,” and he has done that, but even more visceral and impactful, he has painted a “World of Blood” that goes further than the physical. Soldiers marching to their doom, snipers taking them out as they fall in a metronome-like cadence, or the troops and vehicles powering incessantly past Melisande as she searches for Gilbert’s Apperson amidst the overwhelming numbers of men and munitions, or Karl Dane’s “Slim,” riddled with bullets but still dragging himself forward on his ill-advised suicide mission; all these are powerful moments, grand choreography and kinetic performances that ensure The Big Parade will forever be a formidable meditation on war, and great moviemaking.
Gallery of Images from The Big Parade