A revelation in its day, and still a work of considerable power, The Big Parade remains a striking example of the kind of visual poetry of which silent cinema was uniquely capable.
Like his other masterworks The Crowd (1928) and Our Daily Bread (1934), director King Vidor conceived the film as an effort to depict the experiences of an ordinary man (“the individual rather than the mass” as he put it), in contrast to the impersonal spectacles of the typical war movies of the time.
It is not, however, an explicitly anti-war picture (in the manner of the later All Quiet on the Western Front), though at the time the sheer novelty of its dramatic realism made it seem that way. Vidor explained: “I do not wish to appear to be taking any stand about war. I certainly do not favour it but I would not set up a preachment against it.”
The film is the story of a high society wastrel (John Gilbert) who enlists in the army on America’s entry into the war, makes friends across social divides he could never have passed in civilian life, falls in love with a French farm girl and ultimately loses a leg in the fighting.
In précis the narrative sounds trite, but the film itself is anything but. As Vidor intended, there is a completeness about its conveying of the experience of war absent from other, more episodic treatment, as well as a powerful realism, not only in the vivid, still shocking scenes of trench warfare and hand to hand combat, but also in the early comic scenes, contrasting the romantic propaganda version of army life with the often crude realities.
The whole of the film’s first hour in fact, alternates roughhouse army comedy and pastoral romance, and it is only in the second half that the horrors of war intrude fully. By this time our emotional investment in the fate of the characters is such that the random injustice of their circumstances and fates carries real dramatic impact.
As well as the most financially successful silent film ever made, The Big Parade is truly one of those archetypal silent movies that cause the viewer to almost instantly forget there is anything ‘missing’, thanks to its superbly rhythmic editing, constant sense of movement (both physical and in terms of narrative progression), and a careful attention to pacing that ensures the film is never boring, despite its considerable length.
In his book ‘On Film-Making’ Vidor recalled that “each one of the several thousand scenes (was) trimmed to start as late as possible and end the moment the climax was reached.” This ruthless post-production pruning really pays off in the film’s many set-piece highlights, among them the ‘big parade’ of troops and tank reinforcements making its perilous and seemingly endless journey down a long, dusty road, the incredibly tense scene in which the soldiers progress slowly through an eerie, sun-dappled wood infested with concealed snipers, and the powerful moment in which Gilbert proves incapable of killing a wounded German soldier he has followed into a trench with the intention of bayoneting to death.
The film is also of value as a reminder of the dynamism and magnetism of Gilbert in his heyday, an actor whose name survives today, if at all, almost solely as a synonym for pathos.