A challenge for many critics is to convince their audience to watch a silent film. This is not to say said audience is impatient (please don’t leave) it is just difficult to gauge whether a film works as entertainment or as just a relic. Like, “sure Grandpa, you played with sticks as a kid but that doesn’t mean I should trade my Kindle for one.” That is why I tend to recommend silent comedies or things like Triplets of Belleville; visual humor is more appealing than say: German Expressionism, Soviet films, or D.W Griffith’s aggressively controversial work. Nevertheless, there are is a group of “pre-Talkie” Hollywood films that are both grand, deep, and fun to watch, among them is King Vidor’s World War I epic The Big Parade.
One thing to keep in mind with The Big Parade is that was made in 1925, a raucous moment of peacetime in America, meaning that King Vidor was never had a reason to make a propaganda. Therefore, so he had the freedom to say whatever he wanted with The Big Parade. This makes The Big Parade very unique because not only is it a WWI film, a rarity these days, but a contemporary WWI that is as brutally honest as The Hurt Locker was about the Iraq War. Nevertheless, the film is much breezier than most war films due to having a night and day structure.
Tonally, The Big Parade can be split into two films; the first half is a romantic comedy of manners about a three American soldiers stuck in reserve in a French village, trying to woo a village girl. The other half being a horrific melodrama about said soldiers marching to the frontlines with the entire platoon slowly being picked off. Surprisingly this structure works because both halves are strong in their own right but also due to the way comedy aspect linger and then suddenly vanishes. During the first half of the story it is easy to forget that the war is spreading across the setting, making the violent second half all the more terrifying and tragic.
That being said The Big Parade would have fallen apart if not for its fantastic main cast and their chemistry within the film. John Gilbert was an absolute star for his time and it shows here, he is a charming and versatile lead that can play comedy and drama with graceful ease. Renée Adorée is a hidden gem, in this film she is proves to be a stronger performer than the likes of Lillian Gish. The chemistry between Gilbert and Adorée, as a soldier and French villager who fall in love, is both gleeful and passionate; they are so delightful to watch that to see them get separated is almost too cruel. The supporting cast is also sublime; Karl Dane and Tom O’Brien in particular are unique as both comic relief and as military archetypes. Dane essentially plays Forrest Gump but with a goofy pretense for honor, O’Brien is a cocky blowhard who fears the frontline, meanwhile Gilbert is fearfully stuck between their viewpoints. Ultimately these characters are scared; regardless of whether it is concealed, stated, or forgotten, they are trapped together in the same hell and the entire cast sells that idea perfectly.
The funny thing about The Big Parade is that it is a glamorous Hollywood war film about how unglamorous war is. It was as epic as any film could have been back then; it featured the biggest stars in the world, and had fantastic moments of fun. But it is clear all of this escapist fantasy stuff could not hide the horror that was The Great War. The Big Parade essentially an admission that the idea of glory died amongst those millions, if it was not a lie in the first place. The film is very brave but it is a warm and glossy experience that one will gladly get immersed. Anyone who loves period melodramas like Atonement, War Horse, or even Titanic should check this out. Beyond just hugely influential, The Big Parade proves to be a surprisingly entertaining, graceful, and modern film after nearly 90 years.