Judge Daryl Loomis is going to war: a war on processed cheese!
Orders! Orders! Who the hell is fighting this war, men or orders?
After years of cutting his teeth directing newsreels and shorts, King Vidor (War and Peace) started his own production company. He didn't make anything that would last, but he did draw the attention of Irving Thalberg, the head of production at MGM. He got a contract and hit the ground running. Tired of making the kind of ephemera that would play for a week and be gone forever, he wanted to direct something that would be remembered. And boy did he. His first major picture for the studio would turn out to be one of the best of his award-winning career. The Big Parade was one of the first serious war films ever made and its strength is evident in Warner Bros fantastic new Blu-ray restoration.
Facts of the Case
As America is gearing up to join into the Great War, James Apperson (John Gilbert, Flesh and the Devil), the son of a wealthy businessman, defies his family by helping his country and signing up for the Army. He leaves his first love and heads off to France, where he meets Melisande (Renée Adorée, The Pagan), a lovely country girl who he immediately falls in love with. But after months of waiting and romancing, James is called to the front, forcing him to leave his love and risk his life, but all he wants is to return to Melisande.
That parade that the title touts as so big doesn't come until almost ninety minutes into the movie, but it sharply delineates the two sides of the movie. The first part is basically romantic comedy. We meet James and his two buddies from the lower classes: bartender Bull (Tom O'Brien, The Winner) and welder Slim (Karl Dane, The Son of the Shiek). They head off to France with all their patriotism on their sleeves and, upon arrival, they find many weeks of idleness that results in plenty of antics and James meeting Melisande.
But then it's time to go to war. The resulting first tragedy is the lovers' separation, which comes at the beginning of the parade. Then, we have the parade itself, a massive convoy of thousands of soldiers on a slow haul down a long straight road. Now, the action starts and what started as a lazy French retreat becomes the horrors of war.
In one long and surreal scene, the regimen slowly trudges through the mud while the Germans, hidden in the forest, pick them off. The soldiers can't fight back because the Germans remain unseen; they can only fall dead. It's a dreadful experience to watch, and masterfully filmed. It must have been the most realistic depiction of war to date. Eventually, of course, we find the troops engaging in trench warfare, where even more are sent to their death. By the time it's all over, there is a second parade, this one of ambulances full of the dead and wounded. The Big Parade may have had the largest body count in cinema to its date. Frankly, if not for the trust that Thalberg had placed in Vidor, I have doubts that such a movie would ever have been made.
And thank goodness it was, because this is King Vidor at his very best. It's artfully directed, with plenty of emotion, but eschewing any hint of melodrama. There isn't even a villain in the picture, unless you want to call war as a concept the villain, which I would guess was Vidor's intention. John Gilbert is at the top of his game, as well. With no moustache and a minimum of romancing, he actually acts here, his emotions changing from passive freeloader to carefree army man to hardened soldier over the course of the movie and, more than any other movie I've seen him in, he's a pleasure to watch. There is, of course, a requisite ending that can't be avoided, but because of everything that has happened previously, it's perfectly acceptable, if perfectly predictable.
Warner Bros. DigiBook presentation of The Big Parade does excellent justice for the film. The 1.37:1/1080p image transfer is absolutely stunning, quite possibly the cleanest silent film I've ever seen. There are a few missing frames and a couple of instances where the image narrows a bit, but that's a small price to pay for how gorgeous it is otherwise. The clarity is stunning, with sharp detail everywhere you look. It pristine like a new film would be, but it's as close as we're going to get with current technology. Really, a beautiful restoration.
The sound is good, as well, but it would, being much more recently recorded. The DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track is an orchestral score composed and conducted by the ubiquitous Carl Davis, recorded in 1988. It's been restored and has no hiss or buzz with solid dynamic range. The trouble is that I don't really like his silent scores all that much. Within the orchestration, he uses popular songs from the era like "In the Army Now" and "Over There," which is perfectly fine, but he always inserts noises that would be occurring in the movie. So if somebody blows a whistle onscreen, there is a whistle noise in the score. Some people really like it; I really don't. Aesthetic differences, I guess. Still, it sounds really good.
Extras aren't extensive, but are pretty strong. The disc starts with a commentary featuring film historian Jeffery Vance, who discusses all aspects of the film, as well as four excerpts with King Vidor himself recorded for the Library of Congress in the 1970s. Between the two, it's an interesting and entertaining commentary. A 1925 MGM studio tour is classic newsreel stuff. They take us to each department for a look at the various jobs, with people posing for pictures, including a number of notable directors and stars. It's heavily staged, but classic film fans will eat it up. A 64-page book of notes, essays, and photos is one of the better of these that Warner Bros has done, and the film's original theatrical trailer closes out this fantastic disc.
Silent war movies have a hard time working because, so often, they are nationalistic and sentimental melodramas with black and white heroes and villains. Vidor recognized this and hated it but, given his way to make one how he saw fit, he made likely the very best of the genre during the era. It's fun, emotional, and more interesting to me than most war films. Warner Bros doesn't always seem to put their all into their catalog releases, but they've done an excellent job here; never have I seen a silent movie look so good. Very highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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