This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand, writer, composer, silent film accompanist and TV and radio presenter. The Big Parade screens at BFI Southbank on 2 February 2020 with musical accompaniment by Neil Brand and an introduction by author Michael Hammond.
In 2006 my wife and I experienced a very personal, very deep loss. Happy events since have well overtaken the pain it involved, but it occurred just as I was about to leave to play for the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Sacile and I had to delay my arrival there until the Monday. Two days later I played The Big Parade. It was last thing on a midweek night, I had asked for the gig and nobody, least of all me, was expecting anything special.
The morning after, as I looked back in horror at what I can only describe as a traumatic experience, I felt that I had to write a document that could be given to the audience at that screening, explaining a few things. With the permission and profound support of my pianist colleagues, and particularly Giornate director David Robinson, I wrote this…
What Happened in The Big Parade by Neil Brand
This is a strange document to publish but I am both a musician and a writer and I use my writing to try to understand profound occasions – The Big Parade was such an occasion and I feel it’s worth committing a few thoughts to paper.
Performances of silent films never happen in a vacuum – times may have moved on but we are all human and so we respond to universal truths no matter how antique. A number of factors prepared the ground for what happened musically with the film – several personal emotional events in the last few months have meant that I am in a more sensitive and emotional frame of mind at the moment anyway – beyond that I am a keen student of the First World War (my mother’s father was killed in France in 1917) and thanks to Kevin Brownlow I had the opportunity to play the film in London in March – I was shocked to rediscover the violence and hopeless destruction of the last half-hour and I knew from the start of this performance that that shocking climax had to inform all the rest of the film.
One other chance encounter aided the intensity of the music – at the Imperial War Museum last Wednesday I attended a discussion on the influence of the First World War poets in our view of that war – was it really as bad as later literature and films have suggested? Is All Quiet on the Western Front an over-sensitive exaggeration or a truthful picture? A historian, poet and biographer struggled to reconcile different outlooks and agendas, but then the historian, the eminent Professor Richard Holmes, said something that went right inside me and stayed: “The major similarity between earlier wars and modern ones is the fact that we at home have no idea what we are sending our young men to face.”
With a jolt I absorbed a vivid element of the guilt and responsibility for the suffering of soldiers today in Iraq and Afghanistan who were fighting in my name and, according to their commanders, in my defence… but their men were not entirely prepared for the experience, because it is impossible to be wholly prepared for what can happen in a war.
I think that is why the music for The Big Parade had an intensity which shocked me as I was playing it, that my sympathy and dread for the central characters grew throughout the first hour, helped without a doubt by the superb quality of the print and Vidor’s extraordinary sense of immediacy and naturalness – however the battle scenes themselves were transformed by an angry violence in the music which I had not felt before and which overwhelmed me as I played them – the sense of loss and waste seemed all the greater and when the final attack went in the music somehow obliterated itself into an inhuman noise – even now I don’t know what was going through my mind as I tried to ‘play’ a battle – I was unaware of anything but myself, the piano and the monitor and deafening noise. After a while my left arm went dead with fatigue and still the killing went on… I felt less in control of a film than I have ever felt before – it took me beyond tiredness or intellectual control, and it scared me very deeply.
That is why at the end of the movie I could hardly bear the wonderful standing ovation I received – I actually wanted to run away and hide – that is why even now I seem distant when receiving compliments on the performance – I felt as if I had lost my temper in public somehow, and that that was, in true British style, strangely shameful. I will almost certainly never play the film with that intensity again, and indeed I dread the idea of playing it now – I don’t know what it will produce and whether I will be able to handle what it drags out of me. So the reason for this document is to say thank you so much to everybody who felt moved by the film, and forgive the strange response I have given to some of you for your generosity. All of us musicians use ourselves to accompany these films and sometimes it costs us more than we are expecting to pay. It is a great privilege when it works but there is sometimes a price for riding the coat-tails of a masterpiece during “interesting times”.
Thirteen years later, and I am playing The Big Parade again – not for the first time since that horrifying occasion, and I can’t promise a breakdown at the piano now that I am much older and somewhat more contented. But what I can promise is one of silent cinema’s greatest essays on soldiers’ experiences – a film which has not been overtaken by the All Quiets and Paths of Glory that have followed, (let alone the 1917s or They Shall Not Grow Olds) but which retains its power to shock, to anger and to move. It is a fitting example to place alongside the great historian Dr Michael Hammond’s new book The Great War in Hollywood Memory 1918-39, and Dr Hammond will be on hand to introduce it. Miss it at your peril.
By Neil Brand