Among the many standout qualities of King Vidor’s 1925 epic The Big Parade, with its foundational narrative, thematic, and aesthetic approaches to the war film, the most surprising is its patient, almost naturalistic sense of observation. Vidor establishes his characters with such unhurried, minute focus that the disruption caused by the shriek of a steam whistle jolts less for its announcement of war than for suddenly yoking the carefree camera to a plot. Even then, Vidor’s film doesn’t rush to the battlefield, devoting more than half its running time to the longueurs of downtime that soldiers experience while waiting for deployment to the front line, from drunken rabble-rousing to romance with the locals.
Indeed, before The Big Parade can even develop into a war film, it serves as a romance between American GI Jim (John Gilbert), a lazy playboy pressed into service by his fed-up father and a lover who wants to see a man in uniform, and Melisande (Renée Adorée), the French farm girl whose family puts up the Americans before they head out for battle. Separated by language, the two must be around each other for a while before they can work out a kind of understanding, and Vidor is happy to give them that time. Bucolic scenes of Jim awkwardly toting around a wine barrel and Melisande playfully spying on Jim’s buddies Slim (Karl Dane) and Bull (Tom O’Brien) as they shower create such a tranquil, pastoral atmosphere one nearly forgets, despite the fact that all the men are in uniform, that there’s a war on.
Vidor lets such actions do most of the talking, and several of the film’s sequences are striking in their absence of intertitles. Jim and Melisande’s teasing flirtations come to a head in a scene that frames the pair in an extended two shot, never cutting to a title card for dialogue even as the actors visibly chatter for minutes. Yet as neither understands the other’s speech, Vidor allows the audience to view their only true means of communication: their gestures and palpable chemistry. Jim bashfully toying around with his gum to try to make Melisande laugh says everything one needs to hear anyway. A similar shot in vastly different circumstances occurs at the height of the trench warfare that fills the film’s second half. Having shot a German soldier in a rage, a wounded Jim crawls after his wounded prey, but finds he can’t finish the job, instead silently offering the enemy a cigarette as they both start to bleed out. Spared the maudlin, anti-war flourishes of later films’ handling of camaraderie across enemy lines, the scene attains a poetry exceeded only by the shot of Union and rebel friends dying in each other’s arms in The Birth of a Nation.
But if these calmly recorded, humanistic details define the The Big Parade, they don’t preclude Vidor’s pioneering mastery of war-film techniques. Vidor reflects and then perverts contemporary propaganda in filming the enlistees’ first training march, dissolving across the soldiers’ faces mid-chant, to the point that some transitions between people are hard to catch at first as individuality is stripped away. More overtly harrowing is Vidor’s filming of the warfare itself, which begins with a slightly over-cranked death march that drags out the meticulously timed steps of the men (Vidor had them march to the click of a metronome while shooting), stressing how they have become automatons ordered to walk blithely to their doom. And war has never looked so much like hell than in a shot that looks out from the charred remains of a forest edge as it opens up into a no man’s land consumed in fire.
Nevertheless, The Big Parade never settles into a simplistic tract, even when Jim snaps and rails at the grotesque waste of war. Vidor views World War I with an ambivalence befitting his human approach to the characters; long before Carl Davis rescored the film and added a sound effect of the aforementioned steam whistle calling for recruits, the movie visualized the whistle’s deafening, disruptive scream with chaotic editing that objectively, passively observes war’s effect on social life. That human touch extends to the occasional use of caricature, as well as the tendency of lovers on the battle and home fronts to find someone else to stir their affections. For all its grandeur, The Big Parade concerns the individual response to forces bigger than any one person, be it war or its attendant clichés, and if so many films have copped various elements since the film’s release, few have managed to replicate its soft touch.
The softness and visible flicker of silent film seems so antithetical on its face to the touted possibilities of sharpness and detail of Blu-ray, yet companies like Criterion, Kino, and Masters of Cinema have been demonstrating how much the format can bring out of decently preserved silents. Warner’s transfer of The Big Parade may top them all though: Print damage is practically nonexistent, nearly unheard of even for the best-loved and maintained silent films, and one can count on one hand the number of noticeable moments of removed frames or lines. So immaculate is the image that only the healthy level of grain reassures the viewer that excessive digital clean-up has not been applied. Carl Davis’s score, composed and recorded to coincide with an ’80s revival of the film, is heard in all its boisterous glory on the lossless stereo track, and that damn whistle may even prompt viewers to momentarily turn down their volume.
A commentary track from Jeffrey Vance, with a few archival excerpts of King Vidor speaking on the film, occasionally lapses into silence, but offers a wealth of information, not only on the movie and its cast but on WWI. His commentary is particularly useful for pointing out the tics of actors’ body language, calling attention to some small gestures that only deepen The Big Parade’s subtly shaded performances. A silent short that tours the MGM lot and a theatrical trailer offer glimpses into contemporary promotion (the MGM tour alone proves how far back EPK material goes), but the real treat is a booklet built into the digibook packaging that includes detailed notes from Kevin Brownlow, as well as some press material from the time of the film’s release.
Warner Home Video finally brings King Vidor’s innovative war film to home video with one of the strongest transfers a silent film has yet received.