My appreciation for silent films came during my sophomore year at BGSU, when I took and entire semester course devoted to the early years of cinema. The instructor for that class was a quirky man named Dr. Jack Nachbar. His enthusiasm knew no bounds as he paced in front of film students, lecturing about the technical and thematic excellence of silent movies. Generally dressed in a flannel shirt that contained his big belly, and suspenders that held up his faded jeans, Dr. Nachbar appeared more like a farmer from the small town of Bowling Green rather than one of the university’s most respected and beloved professors. His classes were always full, as his love for film and for teaching was contagious. Through his lectures, Dr. Nachbar was able to transport his colleges age students back in time and place them in the right mindset for popular entertainment produced in the early 1900’s.
Two films that I saw in that class have remained favorites of mine for more than twenty years. The first is D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919), a story about a young waif (Lillian Gish) who lives with an abusive father (Donald Crisp) in London’s inner city. She escapes his strong hand and finds refuge with a kind Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) who nurses the girl back to health and falls in love with her. Unlike Griffth’s most well known films that were told on a grand scale, Broken Blossoms is intimate and poetic, a tragedy that brought me to tears, and still does.
The other film is King Vidor’s epic World War I story, The Big Parade (1925), starring John Gilbert as Jim, a young rich man who loses his innocence on the battlefields of France. Produced by the legendary Irving Thalberg, The Big Parade became the highest grossing film during the silent era. It’s a remarkable piece of storytelling and from it you’ll find many of the elements of war films that have since become clichés: The bonding moments between fellow soldiers, the boredom and shenanigans that go on during the wait for battle, the beautiful girl from a foreign country and a communication barrier, and of course, the enormous battle sequence that claims the lives of favorite characters. Gilbert and his costars all give heartfelt performances. If your only impression of silent films is clips of grandstanding actors over performing for the camera, you will be surprised by the subtlety of the men and women in this movie.
Gilbert’s Jim is a naïve, gentle soul who gets caught up in the patriotism and enthusiasm of his friends. After a tearful goodbye with his mother, he’s off to basic training where he meets Bull (Tom O’Brien), a bartender, and Slim, (Karl Dane), a high rise riveter. The three immediately become friends and are quickly shipped overseas to France, where they hang out in the countryside and become ingrained in a small French village. Among the people they meet is Melisande (Renee Adoree), a pretty maiden who immediately catches the eye of Jim. She’s smitten with him, as well, and they begin courting each other. In Melisande, Jim has found a soul mate.
The first hour of the film lets us get to know the characters. The threat of war looms in the background, yet the initial sixty minutes lure you in and make you care deeply about these people. The three guys invent a shower out of a barrel, Jim teaches Melisande how to chew gum (in a scene that was largely improvised by Gilbert and Adoree), and Bull and Slim start a fight with MP’s. Then, when Jim and his friends are ordered to the frontlines to attack the Germans, the gravity of the situation takes hold of everyone. Fearing that she may lose Jim forever, Melisande races through the streets of her town to find him and say goodbye. In a famous sequence, she maneuvers around groping soldiers and past truck full of men until she finds him and they embrace one last time.
“I’m coming back,” Jim tells her. “Remember, I’m coming back.”
As his truck drives away and the crowds disperse, the young girl is left standing in the middle of a dusty road, alone and heartbroken.
The film then cuts to the frontline. A long parade of trucks moves in a single file before coming to a stop. The men jump down and are immediately ordered into an imposing forest, where the danger of snipers and machine gunners are ever present. In a chilling series of scenes, Jim, Bull and Slim march forward, stepping over the dead bodies, while in the background, soldiers are getting picked off by snipers. The mix of fear and determination on the faces of our heroes is palpable. All of this leads up to the climactic sequence, a nighttime battle in the trenches of an open field. Cannons blast away. Grenades a thrown and flares light up the darkness. By the end of that night, all lives will be changed.
Having seen movies like Platoon and The Deer Hunter, modern movies that placed the graphic horrors of war right in your face, I was unprepared for the emotional power of The Big Parade. Despite the lack of sound, this film spoke to me. Vidor directs the film with an even hand, giving the romantic scenes room to breath and holding on the faces of Gilbert and Adoree to allow us to witness the birth of true love. We also witness the birth of brotherly love between Jim, Bull and Slim, making the end of the film tragic. During the march to war and the terrifying battle scenes, Vidor used long lenses and wide angles to show the scope of devastation and the number of bodies piling up in the fields of war. It’s no wonder that this film was a smashing success. The Big Parade retains its power after repeated viewings, even now, 85 years after it was first released.
I may never have seen this film or come to appreciate silent classics if it wasn’t for Dr. Nachbar. I was fortunate to not only have him as a teacher, but also as my faculty advisor during my four years at college. I saw The Big Parade around the time of my first existential crisis. During a period when I should have been thrilled to be entering actual filmmaking classes, I was distressed. My first super 8 class was proving difficult. I just couldn’t wrap my head around aperture settings, film speeds and lighting setups. My mind has never been technical in that way. I might as well have been taking physics or Greek; filmmaking was a foreign language to me. This struggle to absorb the knowledge had me doubting myself. Was my dream a mistake? Should I have been majoring in English or music instead? Fortunately I had a great advisor who was willing to hear my concerns and talk things out.
One afternoon we met in his office, a room overflowing with film books and pop culture knick-knacks. He asked me to lay it on him and a floodgate open. I spewed out all of the fears and doubts that had been running round my brain for weeks. Dr. Jack nodded and listened intently, and then he chuckled and leaned back in his chair. “Scott,” he said, “you’re experiencing what every sophomore I know goes through. The sophomore slump. It happens to everyone.”
I was shocked, no, relieved. I wasn’t crazy?
“Tell you what,” he continued, “ride this thing out for the rest of the semester and we’ll revisit what you’re feeling before you look ahead to your junior year. If at that time you still think you want to change your major, we’ll address it then.”
In that moment, I didn’t need to think any further. Honest. Just hearing his reassuring words and having my concerns taken seriously was all I needed to ease my mind. Sometimes that’s all it takes, the kindness of a friend or mentor, words of encouragement when you’re at your lowest, that’s all it takes to knock you off of the fear spiral and help you return to a positive frame of mind.
You can understand, can’t you, why The Big Parade has remained one of my favorite films. Besides King Vidor’s technical mastery and the perfect combination of quiet moments and epic war scenes, besides the emotional strength of the fine acting by John Gilbert, Renee Adoree, Tom O’Brien and Karl Dane, this film takes me back to a place in my life when I was as lost as the main character and I was able to find my way through my fears to continue my journey in life. I’m forever grateful to Dr. Nachbar for supporting me and helping me through that time in my life.
One final note, The Big Parade, despite its importance in the history of film, is not available on DVD. Turner Classic Movies airs it at least once a year and I strongly recommend keeping an eye out for it and setting your DVR the next time it’s on.
Here’s the trailer for next week’s movie, one of the two holiday titles I’m featuring this year. You may have seen it before.