I’ve seen ‘The Big Parade’ before but couldn’t remember too much about it. In my experience this is a portent of doom. A film so instantly forgettable that none of the characters faces let alone the story had left a smudgey footprint in my memory. I flipped quickly through some random points in the film hoping for something, anything to remind me of what I was about to watch. Nothing. I read the first few lines of the plot on its wiki page. Nothing. This did not bode well.
As I’m sure you’re well aware my poor DVD player has been on the brink of extinction for some time. Sadly, that time has now come and it is with a fair degree of distress that I must move on with my life, the DVD player is an ex-DVD player. I have plans for a Viking burial….after the month or so of official mourning. I raise a glass to you fine DVD player from Argos. We shared many nights of unadulterated joy. I first saw Gladiator with you, Raging Bull, High Fidelity, Grosse Pointe Blank, Being There, Man Bites Dog, Bonnie and Clyde, Barton Fink, Mars Attacks….the list is (probably not) endless. So long and good luck fine sir.
In the interim before the imminent purchase (or Christmas gift) of a Blu-Ray player I am reduced to the level of a bum. I insert the DVD into the drawer of my slowly expiring laptop (yes, all electronics in my vicinity are ‘slowly expiring’) and click play.
‘The Big Parade’ (1925) is….well what is it? Is it a buddy movie, a love story, a war film? It’s kind of all of these but none of them to any great extent. It’s the story of a rich kid lollygagger who signs up for the war along with his mates to the chagrin of his Mother and cheers of his Father. There is, of course, a girl who lives next door who the rich kid is betrothed to who kind of guilt trips him into joining up because she thinks it’s cool. He goes off to war, meets a French girl and the rest is history. Off into battle and then back for the requisite bitter sweet ending. All over, red rover.
That’s basically the plot, right there in one paragraph, and that includes my usual meanderings and polysyllables (in all the wrong places, of course). Couple that simple plot with the fact that the film comes in at two and a half hours and it should be clear to you that there is a fair amount of filler. The first 80 minutes of the film (yes I counted them individually) introduces us to the rich kid, the girl next door, the fact they’ve travelled to France, the matey nature of the three main characters and that the rich kid has fallen in love with a French girl. That’s it. I’ve seen whole films come in at less than that, some of them good ones. There’s been no war, no conflict of any kind, no classic cinema tricks or twists, nothing. Just 80 minutes of set up and nice, pleasant, vanilla cinema.
Luckily in minute 81 it starts to kick off. And it gets mucho bettero from then on. There is a battle scene that I am sure was realistic to some late 1917 early 1918 battle, it’s just too idiosyncratic of any other battle scene I’ve seen to have been a work of fiction . The American forces march slowly through a wood being picked off by German snipers and then machine guns. They hold their line and continue at a slow walk. They fall one by one but more follow and soon the German machine gunners surrender under the sheer weight of men. Onward they walk through fields of shellfire until they finally hit the front within spitting distance of the German line.
This long drawn out scene had some good camera work. A reverse track shot of the main guys with the sniper victims picked of one by one in the slightly unfocussed middle distance. The camera guys had a few good bits actually. Another memorable moment is a shot with a massively long line of troop carriers driving in close formation down a long straight road. Off into the far distance the vehicles, all chocka with soldiers, motor on. How many vehicles? Maybe a hundred or so. All the same, all topped up with maybe 20 men. Big budget stuff. Maybe the Army offered to help.
Again there is evidence of the dangers of being a stuntman in the silent era. Fair sized shell explosions rattle the running extras as they clutch at their ears and stagger about momentarily stupefied by the concussion of the staged explosives. Bugger being a silent era stuntman. One day you’re doing prat falls for Laurel and Hardy and the next you’re getting bits of you blown off or perforated in the name of art.
There is a further, bigger battle to finish off that’s loaded with some gnarly (for the time) camera trickery. There’s scale model cannons superimposed over advancing troops, overlays of soldiers against a landscape background devoid of people that makes the troops look all ghostly and weird. It’s a well put together piece. Where ‘Wings’ (1927) rams its extreme close up, realism, fly on the wing camera work down our throats ‘The Big Parade’ tickles us with quietly understated tricks and techniques that I only noticed the complexity of after rewinding and watching time and time again.
And then it ends with a happy ending. I shan’t spoil it. As it ends I’m left wondering why I didn’t remember it from my first viewing. This really was like I was watching it for the first time. Maybe I watched it drunk. Who knows. Anyway, I’ll remember it now. I think it has one big problem. The first 80 minutes are almost pointless. If they was condensed into 30 minutes or so it would’ve been about right. It’s just slow, vanilla, boring and nothing, nothing, nothing and then bang….excellent Great War Film! Look at me! I’m a Great Great War Film! HELLO!!
And that ladies and gentlemen is that. If you haven’t, please do. Clicky Clicky here to get your hot sticky hands on a copy.
Next up I crank forward another 6 years to 1931 for some pre code titillation, ‘Mata Hari’ (1931). Starring Greta ‘bloody’ Garbo.