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on 15 July 2015
Wonderful film in a top-quality print from Warner. King Vidor shot this less than ten years after the WW1 events it portrays, and the whole thing has an authenticity that would be heard to recreate in modern times. The love-story is immensely moving, and let down only by a somewhat perfunctory ending. The impact of the whole thing is greatly enhanced by the superb score lovingly put together by Carl Davis with the help of Colin and David Matthews. (Colin Matthews has told me that the suspenseful scene of the army advancing through the forest under enemy fire was entirely composed by him.) No aficionado of silent cinema should miss this.
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The Big Parade was possibly the highest grossing silent film ever made, and it's still one of the most powerful, with a then-phenomenal $22m ($770m at today’s prices) attesting to just how much impact it had on a generation that had come through a war less than a decade earlier but had yet to see it represented with much honesty on the screen. Earlier war films had tended to be melodramas or propaganda films, but director King Vidor persuaded MGM’s wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg that the time was right for a new kind of war film that would be a more honest representation of returning soldiers’ experiences ‘over there.’ The original plan was to film the hugely successful play What Price Glory?, but Fox had already bought the rights (though The Big Parade would beat it to the screen by a whole year), so they commissioned its co-writer Laurence Stallings to craft a new story from his own wartime experiences. There are certainly similarities, with the two main supporting characters going up and down in rank reflecting Glory’s bickering sergeants, and at the film’s heart is a romance between a doughboy and a French girl which dominates the first half of the film.

John Gilbert, without his usual moustache, is the work shy rich kid who enlists on a whim during the surge of patriotism that accompanies America’s entry into the war, soon forming part of a trio with working stiffs Tom O’Brien and the lanky Karl Dane, who surely must have been the model for Goofy, and on their arrival in France the service comedy gradually gives way to romance as all three set their sights on Renée Adorée’s genuinely charming and convincingly unglamorized farm girl (no prizes for guessing which one wins). With neither able to speak the other’s language it’s the perfect situation for a silent film as they have to carry out their courtship in pantomime, at first comic, later increasingly heartfelt. Some of it was quietly innovative at the time – Vidor plays some scenes like the famous (and improvised on the spot) chewing gum sequence in long unbroken takes, and that unhurried feeling dominates the first half of the film without ever making it drag. The war is far away and barely thought of and it seems like there’s all the time in the world for their romance…

It all pays off magnificently with the spectacular sequence that gave the film its title and originally ushered in the intermission as the men are rushed off to the front and Adorée struggles to find Gilbert in the rushing parade of men and machinery. It’s the kind of scene that could be hokey and maudlin, but by now the film has earned its emotional payoff and the scene is still devastatingly powerful. When I was growing up I knew people who had seen the film when it first came out and, even though it had been out of circulation for decades, had never forgotten it, and it’s easy to understand why: it’s one of the greatest scenes in all of silent cinema. Vidor stages it magnificently, with Adorée framed against an endless line of men and vehicles rushing past with complete indifference as she becomes more and more distressed and her desperate search becomes more and more hopeless in a remarkable mixture of the epic and the intimate. It’s also the highlight of Carl Davis’ score, perfectly mirroring both the emotion and scale of the film as William Axt’s love theme fights a near-losing battle to be heard above the call to arms, before leaving her alone and bereft in silence.

When it finally reaches the front, the tone changes radically, with the men steadily marching through a forest full of snipers in a scene that’s all the more chilling because it’s so matter of fact and unsensational as their comrades fall around and are left behind them – only to be faced with open ground that gives machine gunners a clear line of fire once they make it through. The film unfortunately stumbles briefly into melodrama once it reaches No Man’s Land, but just when bathos threatens Vidor stages a remarkable scene between Gilbert and a dying German soldier in a shell hole. Clearly an influence on THAT scene in All Quiet on the Western Front [Blu-ray] [1930] a few years later, it’s staging is if anything much more stark, a lengthy unbroken take with the camera never moving as Gilbert watches him die with convincingly mixed yet burnt out emotions. It’s uncomfortable enough to seem almost a relief, and almost a disappointment, when it gives way to a nightmarish night time attack, shot against Vidor’s wishes but on Thalberg’s instructions by director George Hill with a remarkable display of light and darkness as shell bursts briefly illuminate the carnage.

There’s no denying that parts of the film play much more as melodrama to a modern audience than they would at the time, but the film still has a real emotional power that gradually creeps up on you. More than nine decades on the fact that its three stars would all die before their time adds another layer of poignancy to a film that focuses on the survivors of a doomed generation. Renée Adorée would die of tuberculosis in 1933, Karl Dane would commit suicide the following year after his career hit the rocks and he couldn’t even get work as a Carpenter at the studio that made The Big Parade, Gilbert, by then unemployable because of his alcoholism and his feud with Louis B. Mayer, died of a heart attack in 1936 and young wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg the same year.

While previous video and TV issues of the 1988 Thames Silents restoration prepared by Kevin Brownlow and avid Gill were taken from prints, Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray release is taken from the rediscovered original negative which is in remarkably good shape and naturally offers a lot more detail. A few shots of troops passing across the frame show a slight stop-start jerky awkwardness, but for the most part the transfer is excellent, even retaining the hand-coloured red on an ambulance’s red cross in one pivotal shot. It retains the score Carl Davis wrote for that presentation (itself retaining the love theme from William Axt’s original score as well as incorporating popular songs from the war) and – in the initial US digibook version at least – includes an excellent 64-page book that eschews the usual lightweight press release rehashing for a lengthy and excellent account of the making of the film and its restoration by Brownlow that expands on his account from his silent history The Parade’s Gone By, as well as reprinting the original souvenir programme. It also includes an excellent audio commentary by Jeffrey Vance that includes extracts from King Vidor’s oral history for the DGA, an original silent trailer for the film’s wide release and a half-hour behind the scenes tour of the MGM studios in 1925 (neither scored).

An excellent package for an excellent film.
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on 23 April 2014
Check the US site for the reviews of this truly excellent film (if only today's blockbusters exhibited the intelligence on display in this, without a doubt, blockbuster). This was, deservedly the highest grossing film of the non-talkie era (although I suspect more people saw Birth of a Nation) - a superb piece of all round entertainment - action, spectacle, comedy, non-hokey sentiment (and hokey sentiment) and a message picture in one sumptuous package.

More to the point for anyone here - the print is SUPERB - the best print of any film I've seen from that period (including the restored Metropolis). Even more to the point - ignore the Amazon specifications - this blu ray is not region A/1 - it is region free.

Grab it now.
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on 2 February 2014
I saw this as live cinema, with orchestra, years ago and it was brilliant (just ignore the corny bits). The orchestral score was terrific and scary (and loud!).
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on 28 November 2014
Waited years for this.thecopy is fantastic quality
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on 2 December 2015
excellent
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on 3 October 2014
Good
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on 5 August 2015
Was this my mistake or yours? This is a Region 1 DVD, and so I cant play it in Britain. Perhaps you should check whether you made this clear in the presentation on your web-site. Over to you.
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