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Silent films get the short end of the stick when it comes to Blu-ray, with the major studios seeming reluctant to release the classics in their archives. Warner Bros., which has access to all the great MGM silents, has finally reached into its vault for a Blu-ray release. The studio has picked master director King Vidor’s 1925 war epic, The Big Parade to release on the high definition format. The film comes packaged in a beautiful book and hit stores on Tuesday.
The Big Parade stars one of the biggest silent film icons of the 1920s, John Gilbert, and is set in 1917. He plays Jim Apperson, an idle rich man’s son. In an attempt to impress his father, he decides to enlist in the army and fight in World War I after the U.S. declares war on Germany. During training, he befriends Slim (Karl Dane) and Bull (Tom O’Brien) and the trio are stationed together in France.
For awhile, it seems as if they will never see action. In fact, there is no action at all in the film for the first 90 minutes. Instead, Vidor and writer Laurence Stallings let the audience build a connection with the three. Jim even finds a sweetheart in Melisande (Renee Adoree), even though he is engaged to marry a girl back home. But once the fighting starts, they have to leave Melisande and their idyllic French life behind to face the Germans. They march in a Big Parade (as the intertitles call it) to front, only to learn the horrors of war firsthand.
This is a film designed to directly connect with an audience that had actually fought the war themselves less than a decade before. There’s the mother who doesn’t want to let her son go, there’s a sweetheart at home writing letters and there are friends who might not make it back. It portrays the life of a soldier without rose-colored lenses.
The Big Parade is one of the top films about World War I and belongs in a class with What Price Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front and Wings. Warner Bros. has performed a stunning restoration of the film, making it hard to believe that this movie is nearly 90 years old. If you think all silent films look fuzzy and damaged, you really haven’t seen how good they can look until you watch this one.
Extras on the disc include a commentary with historian Jeffrey Vance and excerpts from an interview with Vidor; a 30-minute 1925 MGM studio tour; and a short trailer. The highlight of the set is really Kevin Brownlow’s in-depth book, which provides a great intro to 1920s Hollywood. The book also includes publicity material.
In conclusion, The Big Parade is an essential film for war movie buffs. It’s not just a great silent movie, but a great movie period. Hopefully this is just the start of MGM silent classics on Blu-ray and one day we get Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed and Vidor’s The Crowd.