by Sam Juliano
The opening scene of Frank Borgaze’s pre-code era anti-war film No Greater Glory is a battle montage depicting a legion of soldiers, armed with bayonets engaging in combat. A man dressed in civilian clothes suddenly declares that war is a useless exercise and that he will fight no longer. The episode, taken from Lewis Milestone’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front, is a powerful one, and it wholly encapsulates the theme of Borzage’s film. The subsequent scene of a teacher reading the patriotic riot act to his students -which recalls both the Milestone and a much later German film The Bridge- illustrates the role of adults as instigators, prime motivators in the horrors that were to claim the lives of thousands of innocent European school children in the name of a foolhardy and unattainable status of patriotic glorification. Of course No Greater Glory like its celebrated predecessor offers up adults as symbols in the madness populated by kids who realize the horror of their aggression far too late. It is rather curious that the classic children’s novel The Paul Street Boys, by Ferenc Molnar, upon which No Greater Glory is based, was written seven years before the start of the First World War, though it is a generally known fact that the society of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was largely militaristic. Molnar wrote the famed Liliom and other acclaimed works that were adapted for the stage and cinema before fleeing to the United States in 1939 at the time anti-Semitism was growing in his country. The screenwriter of No Greater Glory was another Jew that took up residence stateside. As Borzage was a fervent anti-war advocate, he was a huge fan of both the aforementioned Western Front, released four years earlier and the 1925 silent classic The Big Parade, of which are powerful statements of disenchantment and lost innocence.
The film depicts two groups of boys who engage in a domestic feud over a vacant lumber yard, which serves as their private playground. The Paul Street Boys are the younger combatants, and they feign having a military organization. The youngest and seemingly frailest boy is named Nemecsak. He’s enthusiastic, loyal and determined to rise from his capacity as the sole “private” among a fraternity of officers. A unanimous vote confirms the election of Boka as President, but his closest friend Gereb enviously turns traitor, an act that paves the way for the old group -the Red Shirts’- commander Feri Ats to seize the Paul Street Boys’ flag. The fearless Nemecsak returns later in the evening to recapture the flag but falls out of a tree during a Red Shirts’ assembly. The boy remains firm and defiant -qualities that impress Feri Ats- but punishment in the form of a dunking is meted out. This seemingly innocuous castigation later has fateful consequences. In any event the boy’s resilience greatly impresses Feri Ats, who sets the boy free with a complete measure of obeisance. The Paul Street Boys are equally moved by Nemecsak’s valiance and award him an officer’s cap at the same time they disbar Gerab for his treachery. Shortly thereafter Feri Ata and Boka come to agreement on a full-scale brawl, with possession of the Paul Street Boys flag to determine the winner. Gereb’s father arrives at the lot, and insists on an explanation for his son’s ejection from the group. Despite Gereb’s treason, Nemecsak stands by his friend, keeping the truth hidden. Gereb rejoins the group and volunteers to take up position on the front line.
By this time young Nemecsak has come down with pneumonia as a result of the dunking, and is ordered home by Boka, where he is attended by his terrified parents. Boka visits to bring the boy his new officer’s hat, as does a few boys sent by the guilt-ridden Ats. The boy ignores the doctor’s warnings and sneaks out, not wanting to be seen as a deserter, joining in the battle. He tackles Ats who is holding the flag, but collapses and dies. The unconscionable tragedy brings both groups together, the devastated mother carries the boy off, (in a scene that bears comparison to a similar one in James Whales’ Frankenstein) raising a flag as a memorial, just before bulldozers move in to obliterate the yard to make room for an apartment complex. This wrenching denouement is one of the most emotionally powerful sequences in all of the American cinema, though as always a very small minority will reject it as too sentimental. But such a charge has little validity when one considers Borzage’s sobering depiction of the machinations of war throughout in the film.
Frederick Lamster asserts in his mainly fascinating study Souls Made Great Through Love and Adversity: The Film Work of Frank Borzage that No Greater Glory is a Christian allegory with Nemecsak of course as the Christ figure and the scene-specific events that precede it as the Stations of the Cross. Such a pat interpretation echoes a preponderance of similar thematic contentions throughout film and literature, and it is highly unlikely that Molnar and subsequently Borzge were shooting for such a representation. It is far more plausible that the main thrust here was with boyhood ethics and a military mindset, as can be most strikingly seen during the finale. Tears roll down the boys’ faces as the boys stand upright, evincing a love of country countenance even at the expense of the worst price that can be paid. There is little reason to believe that the boys themselves have experienced an emotional epiphany, and that if faced with a similar dramatic situation they will react the same way all over again. But they have learned about bravery, loyalty and resilience, qualities that would broaden the deeper understanding of war.
It should come as no surprise that No Greater Glory was a financial flop stateside. The film featured boys who attended public school who behaved as if they were in military academies, and it relegated the adults as either ineffectual or inconsequential. Even the war hawk history teacher shows hypocrisy by preaching patriotism and them threatening to break up the two warring groups and bring the matter to school officials. This is especially ironic when one considers that the boys were acting out his beliefs. Nemecsak’s parents are loving but are unable to understand the reason’s for their boy’s sturdy convictions. Gereb’s father is solely interested in reputation. Only the film’s Greek Chorus figure, the lumberyard’s caretaker, a doleful war veteran, understands there are no winners in such futile clashes, though he too in military mode seems to sense that it is best to let things play out. Of course the film was a monster hit in Germany, which at that time in its history was laying out the welcome mat for Hitler and the Nazi party. The kids in No Greater Glory were the equivalent of the Hitler youth, pledging a cult-like blind obedience to the Fatherland. Nemecsak was seen as a role model for card-carrying fascists in both Germany and Italy, and reportedly won the National Fascist Party’s cup for cinematic excellence. Furthermore, the film was seen as projecting a European sensibility of the time, one where the classroom was in large measure a soap box for military propaganda.
The film’s most extraordinary performance is by light-haired George Breakston as Nemecsak, the spirited martyr who envisions the Montagues and the Capulets by bringing both adolescent gangs to their knees. The atmospheric nocturnal segment when he listens to his adversary’s meeting and then obstinately hold his ground when apprehended is scene stealing as its finest, even if the character he plays is irresistible. Breakston exudes the mischievous spunk of the Dead End Kids, while maintaining an unusual sense of adult morality in his comparatively complex role. The talented young actor makes it all so believable. Frankie Darro, who just a year earlier played the lead as aimless youth Eddie Smith in William Wellmann’s masterful Wild Boys of the Road, is again superb as the feared and respected Feri Ats, but Darro succeeds admirably in expanding the character’s humanity. Jackie Searl, a “bratty kid” specialist in a prolific career adds a vivid turn as the film’s Benedict Arnold character who later reverses himself, and as Boka, Jimmy Butler delivers a spirited turn as Boka, the Paul Street Boys’ commander-in-chief. Sadly, Walker lost in life a decade later during World War II, bringing an added poignancy his performance in this film, and the ironic theme at its center.
The cinematographer Joseph H. August, who worked with John Ford on some classic pictures, collaborates on giving No Greater Glory an arresting visual scheme. The Depression era is evident in modest dwellings, which are rendered like most of the film with an austere delineation of monochromatic images, that ably convey that the film’s message is one that combines impending doom with marked urgency. The previously mentioned nighttime scene is haunting, as is the tragic conclusion which suggests the vigor of Eisenstein. It should also be noted that August handles his close-ups quite compellingly. R.H. Bassett and Louis Silvers’ score plays a much lesser role in the film, but certainly it is more than serviceable. No Greater Glory is a deeply felt and masterfully directed film that in the opinion of this reviewer is the very best of Borzage’s illustrious career. As such it is predicted to stand the test of time better than the remainder of his work. The film also rates as one of the most effective anti-war narratives ever committed to the medium.
Note: ‘No Greater Glory’ is available as a Columbia on demand title which is burner on a DVD R. The quality of the print and presentation is nevertheless quite nice, and a must acquisition for one of the finest American motion pictures.