“What a thing is patriotism! We go for years not knowing we have it. Suddenly...it becomes life’s greatest emotion.”
The Big Parade
The words ring as true today as when they did when they were written, over 90 years ago. Assigned to a title card, the sentiment opens King Vidor’s 1925 epic silent The Big Parade, playing Monday, April 4, as part of the Angelika Film Center’s monthly “Off the Wall” series. (The series’ title stems from the theater’s wall of one-sheets, a kaleidoscope of posters representing the biggest grossing films by year.)
The story couldn’t be simpler, the execution anything but. An idle playboy, caught up in the patriotic fervor of World War I, enlists, only to find himself fighting alongside the common clay. For the first 80 of its 151 minutes, The Big Parade marches to the tune of a romantic service comedy. He’s off cheating with a mademoiselle, while the girl he left behind has fallen for his best friend.
It isn’t until the battle begins that the film earns its reputation for being the first to portray the horrors of war in a realistic light. The combat sequences are nothing short of spectacular. For those unaware of a cinema before CGI, those are extras made of flesh and blood, not pixels, and actual aircraft, not toy miniatures or computerized counterfeits, whizzing overhead.
Upon the discovery of a clause in Vidor’s contract that entitled the director to 20 percent of the net profits, the producers brought him in for a meeting with the studio mouthpieces. Vidor, who was 30 at the time, had almost 40 shorts and features to his credit. Metro beancounters nonetheless convinced him that it would be next to impossible for a film budgeted at a then unheard of $382,000 to break even, let alone turn a profit. Vidor was talked into selling his interest in the picture for a pittance when you consider it ultimately went on to take home $22 million, making it the second most profitable silent film next to The Birth of a Nation.
In hindsight, Vidor observed, “I thus spared myself from becoming a millionaire instead of a struggling young director trying to do something interesting and better with a camera.”
11620 Carmel Mountain Road, Carmel Mountain
The show stars Monday at 7 p.m. It’s rare than any film not on the AFI Top 100, let alone a silent one that runs two and a half hours, screens in San Diego. Let’s pack the place in hopes of encouraging this type of behavior in the future.