A stunning achievement, King Vidor’s The Big Parade is the most successful silent film ever made, racking up millions on top of millions of dollars and playing for years straight in some theaters. It’s also one of the too-rare instances of a film’s massive commercial accomplishments being matched by its artistic ambitions. The Big Parade is one of the greatest war films ever made, criticizing the institution of war without ever turning into a screed and achieving a level of unhurried, arresting naturalism. Vidor, both a romantic and a realist, tells an essentially human story, patiently allowing his characters to connect with one another and the audience before wrenching reality sets in.
Beloved silent star John Gilbert stars as James Apperson, the son of a wealthy industrialist who’s ambivalent at best when the U.S. announces its entrance into World War I, but his family and longtime girlfriend, Justyn (Claire Adams)—not so much. She’s hopelessly romanticizing the whole thing, sure that the sight of James in a uniform will only deepen her love, and the sheer power of assumptions and inertia get the reluctant James to wind up enlisted.
Sent off to France, James makes a couple of buddies among his unit in gruff bartender Bull (Tom O’Brien) and gawky construction worker Slim (Karl Dane). They’re stationed in a tiny rural village. Though some of the unit’s soldiers with visions of heroism are disappointed by the lack of action, James begins to appreciate the idyllic lifestyle. There’s no war here, only a few training exercises broken up by stretches of free time and opportunities to interact with the locals. James’ meet-cute with farm girl Melisande (Renée Adorée), involving a barrel on the head, is completely adorable, and the two fall fast in love.
Vidor’s clear-eyed romantic sensibility makes for some of the loveliest and truest scenes of brand new love on film. His long, uninterrupted shots—some close to five minutes in length—don’t have a hint of overwrought sentimentality or stereotypical silent film emoting. A scene where James shares some chewing gum with Melisande is playful and beautiful, wryly funny but deeply moving in its simplicity. Vidor uses the characters’ language barrier to his advantage. Rather than cluttering the screen with intertitles, he uses them sparingly, allowing the tremendously expressive performances of Gilbert and Adorée and a patient, watchful camera to transform them into deeply connected people before our eyes.
Of course, this is not forever. The inexorable march of war soon overtakes James and his unit as they’re called up to the front lines of battle. A stunning shot displays a mile-long line of patrol vehicles—the titular big parade—making their way across the French countryside. Immoveable institutions have far more sway than romantic longing, no matter what the human heart says.
The battle sequences are virtuosic and deeply disturbing. Men drop like flies as they advance across heavily contested terrain. Crude foxholes provide little comfort to the wide-eyed young men stashed in them, as explosions rain down all around them. There are no winners or losers in this depiction of war, and no heroes either. A selfless act by a newly sober Slim might make him a hero to his buddies, but is sadly essentially meaningless in the big picture. A shell-shocked James finds himself unwittingly sharing a hideout with a German enemy, and in a scene that visually echoes his sharing a piece of gum with Melisande, James lends him a cigarette.
Ultimately, The Big Parade is an unrelenting exploration of the horrors of war. Despite its happy-ending trappings, Vidor doesn’t go as soft as it might seem in the end, allowing romance and sadness to coexist just like he would at the conclusion of later masterpiece The Crowd. It’s a phenomenal, overwhelming film, given an absolutely incredible release here.
The Blu-ray Disc
The Big Parade is presented in 1080p high definition in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Warner’s transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration of the original camera negative, deserves every superlative I could throw at it and then some. I feel pretty safe in saying this is the best-looking silent film disc I have ever seen, with exceptional levels of fine detail, stunning clarity and sharpness and almost no damage to be seen at all.
There are a few missing frames and a couple tiny scratches, and one moment where the edge of the frame creeps in from the left, losing some information, but aside from a couple minor things, this looks nearly damage-free, a stunning accomplishment for a nearly 90-year-old film. The transfer is very respectable to its celluloid origins, preserving a tight grain structure and not overdoing any digital manipulation. Popping in this disc feels like watching a 35mm print that was struck yesterday. Well done, Warner.
The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack presents Carl Davis’ score, performed by the 45-piece English Chamber Orchestra, and its crystal clear presentation is quite nice.
An audio commentary combines observations by historian Jeffrey Vance and archival audio interviews with King Vidor himself, while a vintage 1925 promotional short offers a tour of MGM’s studio lot. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included. The disc is presented in Blu-ray book packaging, and while these things are usually full of generic fluff not worth the paper, this one contains extensive notes from the great historian Kevin Brownlow and a few reproductions of vintage press book material. It’s well worth the read.
The Bottom Line
Warner’s long-awaited release of The Big Parade is everything a cinephile could hope for. If only every silent film could look this stunning on home video. Now please, Warner: The Crowd next?