Director: Frank Borzage
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the early decades of cinema, the line between family films and adult films was not as rigidly drawn as it is today. While filmmakers were as fond of sentimentalizing children then as we seem to be of marginalizing them now, the variety of roles children played was much more varied and nuanced. No Greater Glory, a true family film, delivers a potent message from one of the most antiwar filmmakers of all time, Frank Borzage.
Borzage was a genius at finding the humanity in any situation and rendering it as an eye-opening experience by burrowing into the effects of social forces on individuals. No Greater Glory has what seems to be a simple plot—two neighborhood clubs of boys, too innocent to call gangs, fighting over a vacant lot—but uses it to show us the warrior roles they have already internalized from their society and how playing soldier is preparing them for actual combat.
The Paul Street Boys and the rival Red Shirts both seek control of the only open lot, a lumberyard, in their part of bustling Budapest. The younger and smaller Paul Street Boys fear the Red Shirts, but after hearing their teacher give a gassy speech about what a great honor it is to fight and die for one’s country, the youngsters decide to organize to fight for their playground. The boys meet to elect a president: Boka (Jimmy Butler) wins easily over Gereb (Jackie Searl) and takes command of the clubhouse and its army of boys.
Ernö Nemecsek (George P. Breakston), because he is smaller than any of the other Paul Street Boys, is the only boy with the rank of private (“Every army has its privates, and you’re ours,” says Boka) and desperately wants to get a commission and wear an officer’s cap. When a small band of Red Shirts steals the club’s flag from atop their clubhouse, Boka agrees to take Nemecsek on a mission to retrieve it, which Nemecsek hopes will earn him a commission. Nemecsek braves every terror, including a fall into the river they must row down to reach the Red Shirts’ assembly and hiding in a freezing pond in the botanic garden where the Red Shirts hold their meetings, a frog croaking in his face. Failing to recapture their flag, they discover instead that Gereb has thrown in with the Red Shirts and bribed the lumberyard guard to eject the Paul Street Boys and let the Red Shirts take over.
Nemecsek catches a cold from the damp and defies his parents’ orders to stay home so that he can return to the garden and complete his mission to recapture the flag. He is discovered and repeatedly dunked in the river by the Red Shirts until their leader Feri Ats (Frankie Darro) calls his soldiers off. Feri Ats and Boka meet to discuss the rules of a war to decide the fate of the lot, while Nemecsek lies gravely ill with pneumonia. A feverish Nemecsek receives his captain’s commission and cap from Boka just before the grand battle, his only thought to get up and join his comrades in arms in defending their playground.
Borzage was one of the very few directors in Hollywood to deal with the plight of Jews in Europe in the lead-up to American involvement in World War II. No Greater Glory is based on the autobiographical book by Hungarian playwright and novelist Ferenc Molnár, a Jew who escaped Nazi persecution in the mid 1930s, and the screenplay was written by Jo Swerling, a Jew who fled persecution in Russia. While the religious affiliations of the characters in No Greater Glory are not revealed, it’s not hard to read between the lines: young Nemecsek’s father (Ralph Morgan) is an impoverished tailor who, in lieu of payment, offers to make a suit or topcoat for a dismissive physician who comes to examine his ailing son and writes him off as a goner. Nemecsek himself is the only private in the Paul Street Boys, that is, the only human private—the other is a dog—an allusion to the subhuman status of Jews among anti-Semites. His desperate need to belong is a typical desire for children, but the lowly rank he has been assigned emphasizes his outsider status in microcosm and poses a real danger to him on a macrocosmic level.
Nonetheless, the film doesn’t get carried away with its larger message. The boys retain their youthful attitudes and concerns as they enact their mock war with a thin veneer of solemnity, with boys missing drills because they have to go home for dinner and other real-world restraints on children. The boys’ war is ingeniously rendered, with the creation of sand bombs and traps to capture the invading Red Shirts offering full range to the children’s imagination and fun. Their martinet attitudes suggest those of the pre-World War I gentleman soldier (the book was published in 1908), defanging the war game just a bit and elevating it as a noble venture.
Of course, after the obscene slaughter of the Great War, it would be hard to ever again see militarism in the same rarified light. Borzage’s addition of elements that tout the evils of war is sometimes very clumsy; for example, he introduces an antiwar tone with a heavy-handed opening scene in which a wounded soldier cries out his anguish and opposition to fighting from a field hospital in World War I to contrast the immediate cut to the gung-ho schoolteacher indoctrinating his impressionable students on its virtues. Despite Borzage’s efforts, the trajectory of the film comes down harder on the side of noble sacrifice, as Nemecsek finds acceptance by lying to protect the traitor Gerek from his angry father, as well as putting his life in danger to help his comrades. Unavoidably, perhaps, the fallen soldier receives the kinds of honors he probably would not have achieved in life, perpetuating the idea that the least of us can attain glory by dying in a socially acceptable way.
Nonetheless, Borzage finds both ironic and emotionally powerful ways for us to understand the human costs of war. The title of the film comes from a quote that offers a full measure of irony to the film:
No greater glory can be handed down than to conquer the barbarian, to recall the savage and the pagan to civility, to draw the ignorant within the orbit of reason, and to fill with reverence for divinity the godless and the ungodly. —Richard Hakluyt, letter to Sir Walter Raleigh
Children are among those needing to be civilized, and the film shows that the barbarity of war is the instrument by which our supposedly civilized societies channel their reckless savagery. Yet the instinct of a parent’s love is brought forward as a truer expression of reverence. Both Ralph Morgan and Lois Wilson give very sensitive, heartfelt performances as Nemecsek’s parents, genuinely worried about their son, scolding him for his own good to stay in and nurse his cold. Morgan’s conflict between attending to a customer and staying with his sick boy is excruciatingly real, and Wilson’s tears strong enough to provoke unfettered grieving not only among the cast of boys, but also this audience member. Soldiers were all children once, and their loss in war is nothing to be proud of, but rather something to grieve as a waste of the tender care with which they were raised to do something wonderful in the world. It was a bitter pill for me to learn that Jimmy Butler, easily the best of the boy actors, would have his promising life cut short on a World War II battlefield in France two days shy of his 24th birthday.
The film has its flaws. Affecting camera work, such as an atmospheric nighttime scene of a marble game under a bridge and the truly interesting angles of the lumberyard action, mix with cheap back projection and a sped-up camera during the mock war, leading to an inconsistent look that tends to take one out of the picture. The mass scene of mourners at the end of the film seemed unnecessary and cheapened the genuine emotion of the previous scene for me. But the weakest link by far was George Breakston. He was, no doubt, told to act annoying to justify his second-class status with the Paul Street Boys, but Breakston just was not able to integrate his pleading dialogue and incessant attempts to whistle through his fingers as the natural actions of a fully developed character. I didn’t grieve for him because of intrinsic qualities Breakston brought out in Nemecsek, but rather because everyone around him was so good at eliciting emotions from me. Because Nemecsek is the main character, this flaw is not minor.
Nonetheless, No Greater Glory offers the kind of dignity to the plight of the young that makes it a stand-out family film. As our era offers little for children to consume but comic book and animated films that often seem more aimed toward the adults who must accompany their children to the movies, I unreservedly recommend No Greater Glory as a film truly fit for the whole family.