Film, Storytelling, Uncategorized, World War I, Writer's Life, Writing Inspiration

“The Big Parade,” a Silent Story

After a hectic end of the school year and a couple of weeks absorbed in final book edits (hopefully final, anyway, though I keep having dreams that I’ve forgotten something) the new blog post I had in mind is taking a back seat to some much needed family time.

Instead, I thought I’d revisit this one from a couple of years ago. I chose “The Big Parade” as my Memorial Day viewing this year, and was once again blown away by how a story told without words could pack such an emotional punch.

I hope you enjoy it and that those of you in the northern hemisphere are all having a good start to summer!


Big parade posterI’ll admit, I was skeptical of my husband’s interest in silent films.

I had never seen one, but I thought I knew what to expect. Silent films equaled the jangle of organ-grinder style music, makeup resembling cake icing, and overacting reminiscent of the comedic scenes with Lena Lamont in Singing in the Rain.

With such low expectations, the Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd films he played for our family were a pleasant surprise. The comedy bits were engaging and creative, and the music was well-orchestrated. Best of all, the kids found the movies fascinating- this was something we could ALL enjoy!

By the time I unwrapped The Big Parade, I was prepared to give silent films the benefit of the doubt. Still, King Vidor’s serious film was a departure from Keaton’s comedic Steam Boat Bill Jr. How would a film about an American soldier’s experiences in France during World War 1 play out as a silent film?

I didn’t expect to find a new favorite movie.

the big parade 2

The leading man, John Gilbert, plays a wealthy American named Jim with no real idea of war, who grows into a protagonist we can root for and weep for. Renee Adoree plays his love interest in France. The two of them pull the viewer inexorably into the story until one can almost forget that in the entire film they haven’t spoken a word.

While a silent film must lean heavily on the skills of its actors, creating one must have also posed interesting challenges for the writers.

I wonder how much time it took to distill the text that occasionally appears on the screen to its barest elements, highlighting the key points of the story without bogging down the pacing.

In addition to brevity, the writers must have had to choose the words with care, to tell the story, but also to avoid a fuss from the censors. (For instance, I suspect that the words to the song “In the Army Now” may have been edited for the film. “Rich” and “Son-of-a-gun” don’t quite rhyme…)

However long it took, it was time well spent.

The attention to the story shines through the filming of each scene. One of the most powerful sequences is Gilbert’s introduction to battle. The following quote from describes it very well.

“King Vidor recalled, “I timed the march of the US youth into battle and possible death as a slow, measured cadence with the muffled beat of brass drums heralding doom–a metronome to simulate exactly the gait of the soldiers”.

The sequence is eerie and tense and tragic, without the need for flashy special effects or gore. The story carries the emotional impact, even through a black and white movie made 92 years ago.

I could go on, but as The Big Parade demonstrates, sometimes fewer words make more impact!

Writers, Readers, and Movie Viewers: Have you found other areas in writing and filming where ‘less is more’?

Many thanks for visiting!

If you’d like to check this film out, “The Big Parade” is available for rental or purchase on Youtube. (No, I’m not affiliated with anyone on there—I just own a DVD. 🙂 ) If you’d like a quick look at it, below is a link to a four minute clip of one of the “slower” parts of the film, as Jim and his friends move up toward the front. Oddly, while the music IS from the film, it isn’t quite synced to the action in the clip if memory serves. Ah well…

7 thoughts on ““The Big Parade,” a Silent Story”

  1. I think “The Big Parade” was the first silent movie I ever saw. In the theaters when it was new… kidding.
    It is so powerfully atmospheric. There is something magical and eerie about those old silent images! I would almost add “Hell’s Angels” to the category, its a first generation “talkie” and a lot of its style is still heavily influenced by the silents (over emoted acting, very little camera movement or change of depth during a shot, and a very melodramatic sort of story); but the flying scenes are breath taking and practical effects are like a block buster from a later era.
    One thing I really appreciate about these older movies is how their look is much more “period”. Everything from obvious things (to me) like equipment being more true to the events to broader things like clothing, hair, mannerisms. But I really like getting a glimpse into the moral thinking and attitudes of the time (anti-war without being self important, preachy, anti-Christian and supremely naïve like modern Hollywood).
    I think Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old” may be the best combination of original materials with modern techniques I’ve ever seen; powerful, mesmerizing movie. And the 45 minute “making of” feature on the disc is as fascinating as the film is powerful.
    I’d also mention I’ve had some hugely emotional/moving experiences with silent classics like Phantom of Opera and Nosferatu when I was sick and feverish or loaded up on Vicodin…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It sounds like I am adding “Hell’s Angel’s” to my must watch list! There can be a level of melodrama to the older films, but I will absolutely pick them over the modern-day drama anytime! You make a good point about the level of accuracy in the films made closer to the actual events, too- there’s a big difference telling a story that the viewers actually LIVED and a similar story told a couple of generations down the road! That’s one reason I like to find books that are first-hand accounts written in (or close to)the 40s. They don’t have the same kind of hindsight that later histories and memoirs share, but they are such an interesting snapshot of that period.
      Wasn’t They Shall Not Grow Old phenomenal? I am so happy to have it on my shelf.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I really do remember when that was in the theater! It was limited to two showings on one day, and I think they both sold out!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your point here about the challenge of telling a story through gestures and visuals and not with text. I’d not really thought about the silent film like that before–like you, my only exposure has been comedy, which is just about all physical telling. I don’t know if I could take on that distilling text challenge on this scale!

    Liked by 1 person

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