More of a generalized expression of counterculture angst than a properly formed story, Parades takes several different approaches to its antiwar theme. In fact, the picture divides somewhat neatly into four episodes, but not by design—at regular intervals, the filmmakers seem to forget what story they’re telling and latch onto the next shiny object that enters view. First the movie is about a young deserter whose parents narc on him to the government. Then the picture explores the deserter’s experiences in a military prison, where a brutal sergeant subjects him to physical and psychological torture. Next, after a tragedy that most viewers can see coming way before it happens, the movie shifts into ensemble mode as prisoners process terrible events. Finally the movie resolves into a far-fetched melodrama, with a civilian protest outside the prison inspiring nonviolent activism behind bars, which in turn causes yet more bloodshed.
It’s not hard to imagine a version of the same basic narrative achieving the desired effect, but getting there would have required more discipline than the makers of Parades could muster. Yet it’s wrong to dismiss Parades as a complete misfire. The film’s politics are consistent, and some of the young actors playing convicts attack their roles with vigor. One gets a sense of the folks behind this picture committing wholeheartedly to what they perceived as an important statement, and, to be fair, this endeavor was not completely without risk. Even though the youth audience circa 1972 was heavily behind the protest movement, many in the Establishment viewed those questioning the war as traitors. For those looking to make a splash in movies, there were less controversial subjects to explore.
In any event, Parades has a few points of interest beyond its plot. Future TV stars David Doyle and Erik Estrada play small roles, and Barry Manilow did the theme song. (Yes, you read that right.) Incidentally, it appears that director Robert J. Siegel did major surgery on the picture after its original release, because reports indicate that the presently available version, released in 1980 as The Line, contains extensive new footage. Given how discombobulated the 1980 version is, however, it’s probably for the best that the original cut has faded from view.