I had to look up the word “cavalcade,” after spending the past eleven months wondering what the story was with this movie. A cavalcade is a procession of people on horseback (or, in its presumably more recent usage, in vehicles). Which makes sense in relationship with that other horsey word, cavalry. It also clarifies the recurring shots of horses trotting along while the year flashes across the screen, though in this case the horse reference is more metaphorical. Here, the years gallop past, and good luck keeping up.
The story focuses on two families – the wealthy Marryots, who live in a fancy London building, and their servants, the Bridges. It opens on the turn of the century (that is, 1899), on the verge of the Boer War, which drives both upper and lower class men to enlist. Over the course of the next two hours, their lives are seen through the lens of major world events: Queen Victoria’s death, the sinking of the Titanic, World War I… well, that’s about it, really.
There’s a sense of grandiosity about this parade through history, in that way that is apparently inscribed in the Official Rulebook of Historical Reenactments. Everybody talks about events in direct and ironic opposition to their reality, so we get people casually dismissing this big war as one that’ll last three months – six, tops. Or the romantic couple that discusses their future aboard ship on their honeymoon, only to step away, revealing the name on the life preserver (spoiler alert: it’s not the Queen Mary. And side note, who would take a ship across the ocean for their honeymoon?). Instead of personalizing the epic, this kind of stunt only seems to trivialize the lives of people who actually experienced world-altering events.
It’s hard not to think we’re living in high-stakes times at the present, which adds a sort of weight to looking back. One thing that oddly stands out, though, is how quickly we forget what came before us. I don’t know what the Boer War was about, for example. I suppose it involved the Dutch, and the big battle they kept referring to at Mafeking seemed significant. At the time of the film’s release, I’m sure its history was more present and relevant, but since then, we’ve had two world wars and several other significant national conflicts to push it back into the fog of history. Today, we as a nation can’t even seem to see the errors of Nazi Germany, let alone the disputes from twice as long before that. I don’t know if I should find that thought reassuring or terrifying.
The film concludes pretty much where it began, in the Marryot’s living room (convenient for the set designers) as they toast another new year, 1933, the very same year the film was released. Nearly everyone else they knew had died, and they’re pretty old, but since they were the rich ones, they still have a lot to celebrate. Their swanky mid-London castle, for example, probably hasn’t lost value even in the middle of the Depression.
Out of nowhere, there’s a bizarre cacophony of final images, nameless figures warning of the rise of communism and the loss of faith. You could imagine a similar kind of punditry today, which suggests that this progress hasn’t harmed us too much overall, though nor has it improved our lives beyond reckoning. Time marches on, whether on horseback or ocean liner, or in a tank, and we have only to look around us to watch the enormity of history claim us.
First Time Watching? Yes
Final Verdict: Seasick, hideously