Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Big Parade (1925)

The first, and quite possibly the greatest, of the WWI epics made during the 1920s -- soon followed by such films as WHAT PRICE GLORY? and WINGS -- and produced on an incredible scale by the fledgling MGM as one of its first blockbuster hits (it was, in fact, the highest-grossing film of the silent era). Even with its massive scale battle scenes and epic scope, what is most remarkable is the sensitive and intimate focus on the character relationships, masterfully handled by director King Vidor. He allows the pacing to proceed at a leisurely pace, never feeling rushed or hurried to get to the war scenes, which make the climactic scenes on the nocturnal battlefields all the more effective, since we have spent so much time with these characters and really care about their fates.

John Gilbert gives perhaps his finest performance as the idle, rich young man who enlists in the army on a whim and undergoes a real transformation after falling in love with a French farm girl (Renee Adoree) and experiencing combat alongside his fellow soldiers. Silent screen veterans Claire McDowell and Hobart Bosworth appear as Gilbert's parents, and that fine character actor Karl Dane is memorable as the gawky but courageous riveter-turned-corporal, Slim.

Special mention should be made of Vidor's expert handling of the march through Belleau Wood. He shot the scene with the actors marching in time to a metronome, precisely edited to the beats, creating an eerily unnatural and stylized rhythm that remains unbroken even as the men stoically step over the bodies of fallen soldiers or shoot snipers out of the trees while marching into enemy fire. It is an excellent visual metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of war.

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