The Big Parade (Blu-ray Review)

BIG PARADE, THEThe highest-grossing silent film of all time, as well as the first realistic war drama, The Big Parade tells the harrowing story of a young man’s (John Gilbert) front-line experiences in World War I.  The film was adapted by Harry Behn and King Vidor (who wasn’t credited) from the play by Joseph Farnham and the autobiographical novel Plumes by Laurence Stallings.  The film was directed by King Vidor and it stars John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Claire Adams, Karl Dane, Robert Ober and Tom O’Brien.





Before reviewing this movie, I had no idea how successful The Big Parade was or how influential it was on just about every other war film ever made after it.  Once I started to research the movie for my review I was astonished to discover that the film was the highest grossing film of all time and that it ran in theaters for about two years straight. It was MGM’s biggest hit for decades until their Gone With The Wind finally dethroned it.  All of which had to be satisfying for the film’s director King Vidor who made the movie in the first place because he wanted to make something that mattered and that would have an impact on audiences and one that would last more than a week or so in the theaters.  He originally wanted to option Laurence Stallings’ stage play What Price Glory but it had already been picked up by Raoul Walsh (who went on to direct it later himself), so Vidor managed to convince the studio and Stallings to provide a new story for The Big Parade which he and Harry Behn reworked into a film script.

Having grown tired of watching movies that glorified war, Vidor knew that he wanted to do something different.  His movie would take place during the horrific fighting of World War I and show the brutality of war and its affects on the soldiers that fought in it.  In this film, we would see that affect focused on mainly three young men from different walks of life and means from their entry into the war all the way through to the end.  One of those three characters include Jim Apperson (John Gilbert), a spoiled rich young man who only joins the military because he got caught up in a patriotic mood at a parade.  His idleness up until then hadn’t endeared himself to his family who viewed him unfavorably, especially when compared to his older brother Harry (Robert Ober).  Their father (Hobart Bosworth) doesn’t bother hiding his disdain for his son but his wife (Claire McDowell) still has a soft spot for Jim.  The family’s opinion of Jim goes up once they discover that that he signed up for military service, but Justyn Reed (Claire Adams), Jim’s sweetheart is very sad to see him go.

The other two central characters in the film are Slim Jensen (Karl Dane) who is a welder who is also looking forward to get into the action and the other is Bull O’Hara (Tim O’Brien), a bartender whose opinion of himself will cause him a lot of trouble later.  These three completely different personalities will soon join together in basic training and serve together throughout the rest of the war.  After basic training, they spend their time waiting for orders in the small farming village in Champillon, France.  It’s there they Jim meets a young woman named Melisande (Renée Adorée) who he hits it off with despite the language barrier between them.  For Jim, it’s love at first sight and all thoughts of Justyn end there.  When their orders do finally come in, Melisande realizes how much she feels for Jim and tries to keep with him while he’s being transported away to go to the front.  Up until this point, the film has been mostly played for laughs but this final scene foreshadows a shifting tone that originally ended at this point for an intermission before returning to a much darker second half.

From this point forward, there’s not too many laughs as the trio of men will face hard training, boredom, hardships caused by the war, and finally some terrifying combat where they will face death all around them.  The film takes its time getting to the combat which I’m sure was deliberate and done to give the viewers time to get to know and care about the characters before they are thrown into harm’s way.  When they do finally engage in the fighting it’s brutal, realistic, and scary.  From a walk though a French forest filled with enemy snipers picking off soldiers left and right, to the trench fighting that also included the deadly no man’s land between the two combatants, this is war at its ugliest. For my money, Saving Private Ryan is the most realistic depiction of war every put on film, but there’s something about this film that is also powerful in its own way.  It’s eerie to see explosions and men suddenly collapsing from sniper fire when there’s no sound to be heard. It draws your attention into the movie in a different but no less involving way and you will catch yourself holding your breath during the final battle scenes.  This is the most powerful silent movie that I’ve seen and I can see why it held such a power of the audience of 1925 considering that many of them had been involved in that war just seven years previously. Just the images of the endless train of truck carrying soldiers to war and later returning the wounded and the dead as part of the ‘big parade’ (of which this title came from), you get some sobering bookends for the movie which will leave you thinking about the movie long after it’s over.



Warner’s stunning 1080p (1.37:1) transfer of The Big Parade is a perfect example of just how studios should treat their important catalog titles.  This restoration was reportedly made with the original camera negative which makes this new transfer look like a movie that is nowhere near almost ninety years old.  While there are some minor issues on display such as missing frames that cause the film to jump a tiny bit every now and then, but if that’s the extent of complaints about a movie this old, then you’re doing something right.  The film’s level of detail is impressive and the black levels are deep and dark and the grays are all well delineated from each other which offers some nice contrast. Vidor and his team also added some tints to various scenes to give them some extra feeling and to help establish the time of day as well.  There is one shot that actually has some color added to it (which was tinted by hand and cut into every print) to give it extra impact. This is an amazing restoration and it once again proves that no studio cares more about their legacy films than Warners who spent a fortune on this film even though there’s no guarantee that it will sell well with modern audiences.  Kudos to Warners for that!



The Big Parade’s lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track offers a new score written by Carl Davis in 1988 which itself incorporates music from the film’s original score written by William Axt and David Mendoza.  You’d be hard pressed to believe that this new score isn’t what should have been the one that wasn’t part of the film from the beginning.  Davis cleverly uses and mixes in songs from the period into the score and when blended in with the original music and his own supplemental music, the score is perfect for the film.  It works especially well during the scene in the forest where the men are forced to march even in the face of sniper fire, because Vidor timed the actor’s march to a metronome to give them the appearance of a death march as a visual.  The score works beautifully with the movie and it sounds great too.  Even though this is a front heavy track, it still sounds fantastic and delivers as it should.



This is a fine assortment of extras with some surprises like a tour of MGM Studios circa 1925 and a digibook that contains a lot of cool bits of info in it, as well as a strong commentary.

  • Commentary with Historian Jeffrey Vance and King Vidor – In one of the most comprehensive commentaries that I’ve ever heard, film historian Jeffrey Vance gives a tour de force recap of the film’s history, the people who were involved in it, it’s impact on audiences both then and now, and some very interesting personal tidbits as well.  We hear about how this movie represented a high for the actors (Gilbert believed it was his best performance of all of his films) and the lows for them that followed afterwards.  It’s truly a sad story to find out what happened to all of the main actors in the years that followed.  We also hear how Vance met Vidor at a screening of one his films and how nice he was.  We hear from Vidor himself thanks to a recording of his talk at the Director’s Guild where he talked about he film in detail.  Clips from that discussion are cut into this commentary which adds quite a bit to it.   Another fascinating part that was mentioned was the fact that the big finale wasn’t even directed by Vidor who wanted nothing to do with it because he thought it was too big and wanted a more intimated ending to the battle but was overruled by Irving Thalberg.  I’ve got to say that I’m with Thalberg on this one as that added battle really puts the movie over the top and I think most people would agree, with the exception of Vidor who grudgingly accepted it.
  • 1925 Studio Tour – At a little over thirty minutes long, this silent look at the MGM Culver City studios is awesome to see if you love movies.  We get a tour of every department on the lot as well as  just about every star, director, and crew that was there that day.  I can’t believe they were able to get all of these people involved or that the tour was so detailed.  Nowadays, we get worthless EPK fluff that doesn’t give you anything but a one or two sentence comment from a star, but this was filmed when the studio was still king which is awesome.  This is in standard definition but I’m so happy that it’s been preserved and shown here.  See how many stars you can recognize during the tour!
  • Digibook – Most of the time, these books are basically just filled with pictures, but this one also includes some relevant info too.  With text from film scholar Kevin Brownlow, there’s a ton of good information included along with illustrations and a look at King Vidor, the film’s production, and Carl Davis’ superb score.  Out of the fifty pages of the book, the last sixteen pages offer a neat reproduction of one of the original programs from the film’s release which is really cool.
  • Theatrical Trailer

parade 2


If you’re like me and had missed this movie up until now, then that’s something you should correct right now.  This is a powerful film that works just as well now as it did in 1925 and it’s been beautifully restored by Warners who spent a pretty penny doing so.  The video and audio quality is great and the extras are diverse and interesting and really add quite a bit to the overall experience.  There’s a reason that this film stayed in theaters for two years straight so make sure you check it out soon!

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2 Responses to “The Big Parade (Blu-ray Review)”

  1. Brian White

    Interesting. I did not know the behind the scenes scoop you provided on this film either.
    Grand review!

  2. Sean Ferguson

    Thanks Brian! I can’t believe that I hadn’t heard of this film before this considering how successful and historically important it was.