No Greater Glory
Directed by Frank Borzage
Available on Criterion, Criterion Streaming

FRANK BORZAGE’s No Greater Glory is often described as one of the greatest anti-war films ever made — but is it?

The film starts out with scenes from All Quiet on the Western Front: shells bursting, earth churning, men running across a blasted landscape — all to the sounds of a bugle calling them forward (later another bugle or call of some kind will figure in the plot). A man with fist shaking cries out “Patriotism is a loathsome lie! I tell you…”

Cross fade: teacher with fist also raised intones “…there is nothing finer than patriotism; nothing nobler than war in defense of the country we love.” He reprimands a group of boys for passing a note around, learns from quizzing them that they’re electing a new president for their gang The Paul Street Boys, organized to defend a lumberyard turned playground (the story is set in Budapest, though most of the actors speak unselfconscious American). The teacher declares their gang disbanded. The mousiest of the boys, Nemecsek (George Breakston), points out “but you just told us…” The teacher replies: “That is different.” No further explanation, just turns away to change indoor coat for outdoor wear and repeat his command: the gang is disbanded.

Borzage follows the boys — who don’t disband of course — to their lumberyard and here you see one tactic with which Borzage (channeling Ferenc Molnar’s The Paul Street Boys) means to criticize war: by transposing every detail — from preparation for battle to subtleties in discipline to the issue of promotion within ranks — onto childhood play.

The Red Shirts threaten war, so the lumberyard is under strict security (“this GATE must ALWAYS be CLOSED and BOLTED”). Boka (Jimmy Butler) runs against Gereb (Jackie Searl) and wins all except two votes (“Who else voted for Gereb?” “I’ll bet Gereb did!”). Nemecsek, the only private, begs Boka to be promoted but is denied because 1.) they need privates, and, 2.) he’s the smallest. When Nemecsek points out another boy as short or smaller it’s further pointed out that that boy has a bugle. “I can blow calls without a bugle!” Nemecsek responds, putting two fingers to his mouth and puffing out a wobbly warble. Nemecsek’s “whistle” becomes his signature sound that he keeps attempting in moments of great emotion, even when deep in enemy territory; a boy’s earnest stab at grownup play, mocking despite all his efforts the glories of war.

The Red Shirts’ leader Feri Ats (Frankie Darrow) steals the Paul Street flag; Boka stages a daring raid on the Botanical Gardens, where the Red Shirts meet. Nemecsek begs to come along, and Borzage follows the adventure closely, emphasizing the diminutive boy’s incompetence as a soldier and spy: he rings the Garden’s entrance bell, later switches on a greenhouse light; tries several times to whistle; falls into water again and again and catches a cold. Borzage couldn’t make it any clearer: the boy is a disaster as spy or soldier and the last person in the world that should engage in an enterprise as serious as war.

A setup of course: the Red Shirts hold another meeting and seemingly out of nowhere Nemecsek sneezes and drops from an overhead tree limb: he just stole the Paul Street flag back and is waving it defiantly in the Red Shirts’ faces. Feri is impressed: he sums Nemecsek up (“you’re all right”), rules out a beating (“he’s too small”), decides a dunking is in order. Poor Nemecsek, already sniffling and sneezing, is shoved for the umpteenth time into the chilled Botanical water. Feri allows Nemecsek to leave, orders a salute in the wake of the boy’s departure. The moment is one of the funniest (for the tinny parody of military honors on display) but also most unexpectedly moving in the film: nothing is more heartfelt or more extraordinary, as Borzage very well knows, than an adversary’s grudging admiration.

Borzage’s films — at least the ones he’s emotionally invested in — are arguably all romances, and this it turns out is no exception. No Greater Glory is a love triangle between Nemecsek, Boka (who Nemecsek worships), and Feri (who is fond of Nemecsek); it’s also — arguably, arguably — his most homoerotic, though it’s possible to argue that the boys’ real romance is with war itself.

I don’t believe it. Borzage’s other films celebrate the intensity of heteronormative love as incarnated in a series of beautiful men and women — Gary Cooper, Helen Hayes, Charles Farrell, Janet Gaynor, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Gail Russell, the incandescent Mary Duncan. The very presence, the physicality of Borzage’s characters — the way Boka strikes a heroic pose, the way Feri gazes at Nemecsek, above all the way Nemecsek is himself presented — upturned face, sadsack often moist eyes, transcendent lighting — makes one pause and say under one’s breath “okaaay.”

But I digress — or do I? Borzage’s films are intensely felt, and this one like Boka musters every element and detail, homoeroticism and all, to whip the drama to a climactic frenzy: startling overhead shots of the Paul Street Boys swarming over and between piles of lumber; long shots of the boys with spears pointed at the gate, the gate opening to reveal arrayed Red Shirts; the various improvised war machines (bombs made from bagged sand, a catapult fashioned out of a cartwheel, a row of sheds converted into holding traps), hilariously yet effectively used in battle.

More than that are the images burned into memory: Boka declaring war with the boys cheering, the lumberyard watch man (Christian Rub) gazing sadly down at his missing left arm; Boka and Rafi looking at each other just before fighting breaks out, the camera falling from Rafi’s face to the fateful flag clutched in one hand; Nemecsek finally falling on Rafi, his hands tangled in the flag’s tattered threads.

You can’t help but think “this is too much, Borzage’s glorifying war not condemning it” — your pulse races when the boys are in pitched battle and, possibly, you found an irritating mote in your eye when Nemecsek’s mother finally catches up with the boy. The film does ends on an ironic note: a giant steam shovel digging up the recently hallowed grounds for a new apartment building — but the detail may feel belated, following as they do scenes of battle that compare in excitement to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The boys suffer, it’s true, but that suffering can arguably be seen as the kind of sacrifice that validates the cause of war. The film did win The National Fascist Party’s cup for Best Foreign Film, ironic considering Borzage’s other anti-fascist efforts (The Mortal Storm, Little Man, What Now?). What was that again about the grudging admiration of adversaries? Couldn’t there have been a skeptic, a wiseguy character commenting on the action, putting it all in perspective? The watchman does his best but his quiet voice and gentle manner can barely compete with all the tumult. Couldn’t Nemecsek or Boka or Rafi have a revelation and renounce all this military crap, renounce the lumberyard in a fit of moral disgust?

Maybe not; maybe it’s too unrealistic to expect something so radical. Maybe Borzage’s exuberant filmmaking is too strong to completely counter, and what’s needed is a less romantic more cynical filmmaker. Maybe a truly effective film against war should take an altogether different approach — Francois Truffaut once said Duck Soup was one of the few real antiwar films because it doesn’t even give war the respect of taking it seriously.

The lumberyard watchman, for all his seeming gentleness, does have some kind of reply — that the boys are playing for more than a plot of land, that this has been going on yesterday, today, tomorrow. Maybe the film is saying war is an incurable condition, but we don’t have to be happy about it — I don’t know. No Greater Glory may be confused, or as confusing as the filmmaker intended; whatever the truth it’s some kind of a great film.