Columbia Pictures Corporation
Directed by Frank Borzage
Based on a novel by Ferenc Molnár
Written by Jo Swerling
Cinematography by Joseph H. August
Edited by Viola Lawrence
Nemecsek (George P. Breakston)
Boka (Jimmy Butler)
Gereb (Jackie Searl)
Feri Ats (Frankie Darro)
Csonakos (Donald Haines)
Ferdie Pasztor (Rolf Ernest)
Henry Pasztor (Julius Molnar)
Kolnay (Wesley Giraud)
Csele (Beaudine Anderson)
Within the medium of film, it’s easy to convince yourself that you know what a film is really trying to say by accepting the surface message. In the case of Frank Borzage’s “No Greater Glory,” the apparent surface message is essentially that war is bad. However, upon closer inspection it becomes clear that the war portrayed gives the characters purpose, and the war alone is responsible for the eventual unity reached by the end of the film. Through the use of deliberate staging and framing, Frank Borzage effectively represents the social status and progression through the social hierarchy of certain key characters within “No Greater Glory.”
The film opens with a war montage, before quickly cutting to a classroom packed with boys. A few of the boys are passing a note, and as a result are asked to stay after the class is dismissed. Here we are introduced to the primary characters including Nemecsek (George P. Breakston), Boka (Jimmy Butler), and Gereb (Jackie Searl), among others. Together, the boys form a faction known as The Paul Street Boys. One day, Gereb deliberately leaves the door to the Paul Street lot unlocked, giving Feri Ats (Frankie Darro), the head of rival gang the Red Shirts, the opportunity to steal the boy’s flag. Boka, Nemecsek and Csonakos (Donald Haines) go on a mission to recover their flag, only to discover that Gereb is the traitor.
Nemecsek falls ill from the previous night’s exploits, but still attempts once again to recover the flag. In doing so he earns the respect of Feri Ats, but exhausts himself even further. Eventually Nemecsek is bed-ridden. The Paul Street Boys and the Red Shirts agree to have an organized war for control of the flag. Nemecsek, out of a deep-seeded responsibility and an onset of hallucinations, forces himself to get to the lot in time for the war. He finds Feri Ats, and wrestles him to the ground for the flag, only to die moments later. The film concludes with his mother walking him back from the lot, with all the boys following closely behind. Shortly after, the boys memorialize Nemecsek in the lot, just as it is revealed that the vacant lot will be developed after all.
Borzage’s utilization of cinematic techniques has been pretty well exhibited in the portion of his works we’ve seen thus far this semester. By far, the most apparent element is the exposition he provides through the way characters are framed. Perhaps the only time we see all of the boys represented equally on the screen is in the classroom at the beginning of the film. There is a shot when the boys are addressing the teacher after class, which is essentially a profile shot of Nemecsek, Boka, and Gereb (from left to right). Each of them takes up almost exactly one third of the frame, and it is one of the only times Gereb appears to be almost as tall as Boka, presumably because of the slight upward angle it is shot from. Even Nemecsek in this scene appears to have more of a presence than his other appearances around this point in the film. The representation of a socially equal environment by Borzage through the staging here is unique to this moment in the film.
In the case of “No Greater Glory,” a good place to start when discussing the significance of framing would be with Gereb, the traitorous Paul Street boy, whom Borzage apparently has a lot to say about. Following the boys’ initial appearance in the classroom, the next time we are introduced to them, they are in their full military regalia in the Paul Street lot. During the scene, Nemecsek pleads to become an officer, like everyone else, and the camera frequently cuts back and forth between Nemecsek, and Boka and Gereb. It is at this point Borzage begins to develop his own commentary on the characters through framing, as is evidenced by Gereb’s apparent stature throughout these shots. The entire left half of the frame is devoted to Boka, and while Gereb is directly to his left (the audience’s right), he appears to be substantially shorter than he was when we were introduced to him one scene ago. What could otherwise be attributed to slouching seems deliberate on the part Borzage, because immediately behind Gereb is another unspecified Paul Street boy, who towers above him. Even though the boy placed behind Gereb is a few feet behind him, and slightly more to the right of the frame, his head actually touches the top of the frame, just as Boka’s does. This can hardly be attributed to the angle from which the shot was taken, because the camera appears to be at about eye level with Boka, pointed down at only a very slight angle.
At the conclusion of the previous scene, as well as in the next scene, Borzage uses the same techniques to once again portray Gereb as small of stature, or insignificant against the rest of the Paul Street boys. First there is a wide-angle shot of that described above. Nemecsek, in front of a number of the Paul Street boys, is on the left, and Boka and Gereb are in the right half of the frame, also backed by a number of the other boys. The shot is once again taken at a slight downward angle, from just about the level of the top of the boys’ caps. Only the profile of Gereb is visible, closest to the camera, but once again it is evident that he is shorter than the rest, with military caps behind him extending above his own. Moments later Borzage transitions to the election scene. Gereb is only visible on three occasions in this scene. First a wide-angle shot is utilized to once again show him backed by some of the other Paul Street Boys. Gereb is immediately in the center of the frame. Directly behind him is the single tallest Paul Street Boy so far. To the right of the frame is vacant lot’s watchman, a war veteran. Visible behind him, only by the top of his cap, is a very short boy (shorter than Gereb by about 6 inches or so), who position-wise is directly to the right of Gereb, as opposed to the watchman who is to his right and closer to the camera. As if the enormous boy behind him weren’t enough, Borzage cuts to a close up (a sequence he uses twice in the scene) of Gereb. His face is in the center of the frame taking up a good portion of it, however to the left of the frame you can see the body of the tall boy. He is so tall, however, that his face is out the top of the frame, and only his neck is visible. To the right of the frame, behind Gereb’s left shoulder, the short boy who was moments ago obviously dwarfed by Gereb is standing. His cap is entirely out of the frame and the majority of his face fills the upper right hand corner. This cannot be attributed to the angle, as the camera is at eye level with Gereb. Either Borzage swapped the boy for a taller boy for the close up, or he gave the short boy a box to stand on. When one begins to wonder why Borzage didn’t let the short boy fill the space behind Gereb, even though it contested the continuity of the scene, it becomes clear that he had an agenda,
That agenda apparently was to exhibit Gereb as diminutive and minuscule, in order to parallel the character he exhibits, or even the way the other Paul Street Boys think of him. Considering the literal interpretation of the plot, Gereb gets only two votes for the office of president out of the whole lot of the Paul Street boys, one from himself, and one from his gracious opponent. It stands to reason that Borzage could be sympathizing with this, by representing Gereb as an insignificant part of the group. His social status appears to be elevated only a few short scenes later, after framing Nemecsek for leaving the door to the lot open. In another shot, straight on from eye-level, Gereb is to the left of the frame, Boka is in the center, and Nemecsek is to the right. Finally, Nemecsek appears diminuitive in contrast to everyone else in the frame. At the same time, Gereb appears just as tall as Boka, both of their caps just barely leaving the top of the frame. How Borzage achieves this is unclear, as they appear to be standing directly next to one another. What is much more clear, is that the shot seems to signify an upward movement for Gereb. His deceit, while not yet apparent to the audience, has increased his social status among the Red Shirts, and seemingly bolstered his self confidence. The scene continues and the Paul Street Boys run to check on their flag. Gereb stays behind and is framed in alone, as Borzage cuts back and forth between him and the high angle shot of the rest of the Paul Street Boys. Once again, the framing here is indicative of Gereb’s social status as an outsider.
It is a stark contrast when Gereb is welcomed into the Red Shirts camp. The boys, gathered around with their spears at hand, kneel down so that Gereb is visually high above them all, in the very center of the frame. Feri Ats is the only Red Shirt left standing (or, sitting, but sitting high on a rock), and he practically sees eye to eye with Gereb. Moments later, the rest of the Red Shirts rise to their feet again, and Gereb in the foreground is practically the same height as these boys who are now standing in the background. This would be fine except these boys are supposedly older, and as evidenced elsewhere in the film, for the most part taller. It’s intriguing that the shot appears to be from approximately the same slight angle that the earlier shots are taken from. The only reason Borzage would possibly go to such great lengths to show Gereb in this manner is to visually depict the contrast between his social status among the Paul Street Boys and the Red Shirts. Through these techniques, Borzage doesn’t necessarily justify Gereb’s actions, but he does subtly inject sympathy into the audience. Through the framing and staging of Gereb, Borzage communicates the notion that he is appreciated and heralded as a welcome spy by the Red Shirts, while when he is with the Paul Street Boys he is an outsider who has little or no value to the group. It seems as though Borzage is using this contrast in social status to ask the audience, can you blame him?
There is a shift later in the film for Gereb, at least among the Red Shirts. In a scene that is set up similar to how it was before, Gereb speaking with Feri Ats surrounded by the other Red Shirts, there is significant visual distinction setting it apart. While Feri Ats is once again sitting on his rock, at practically eye-level with Gereb, the rest of the Red Shirts are standing this time, for the entirety of the scene. A number of times the camera cuts to straight on angle, with Gereb centered in the frame, Feri Ats filling the left of the frame, and the Red Shirts this time standing taller than him in the background. His presence is minimized this time around, as he has lost some of his importance to the Red Shirts. To the contrary, in the final war scene of the film, Gereb is depicted as somewhat of an equal. He is never staged in front of the taller individuals, and he is not depicted alone in the frame at any point. Also, in his exchange with Boka, the two basically see eye to eye, before Gereb assumes his place among the other Paul Street Boys. While his social status may not be incredible with that faction, it has notably improved since the earliest scenes in the film. Borzage appears to be depicting a boy who has redeemed himself. He made a mistake, his sin was forgiven (through the selflessness of another), and he made good the second time around, content with his role in their microcosm of society.
The boy who helped Gereb to redeem himself is none other than Nemecsek, the individual Gereb tries to wrongly incriminate earlier in the film. It seems that Borzage has no less to say about Nemecsek than he did about his foil. Revisiting the opening scene where we are introduced to all of the boys, we once again encounter the socially equal environment mentioned earlier. In one shot, the teacher, his head practically reaching the top of the frame, takes up the leftmost quarter of the frame while the six boys are lined up in profile in the rest of it. The boys get further from the camera as they extend from the right of the frame,to the center, where Nemecsek stands. It is interesting to note that Nemecsek is the only boy at this point not in profile. He is literally facing the camera in the center of the frame, though his presence is still minimized because he is the furthest from the camera. The staging may be representative of the degree to which Nemecsek is exposed later in the film. Both his social difficulty early on, and social advancement later seem to stem from this degree of candidness (plot-wise, his willingness to cry and bare his feelings, and cinematically, the exposure Borzage grants him on the screen to emphasize the genuineness of his character).
One scene which reveals this vulnerability in particular is just a few scenes into the film, when the audience first encounters the Red Shirts. Descending from the top right corner of the frame, to the left center down a set of stairs no less, is Feri Ats and two of his henchmen. Feri Ats once again leans on the masonry to the far side of the stairs in the left of the frame, while his henchmen stand in approximately the center. The scene cuts to a wide angle shot of the whole scene, clearly taking place under a bridge which arcs over the top of the frame, jutting into the right half a bit. The stairs are visible in the background, with Feri Ats still leaning on the railing in the far left of the frame, directly above Nemecsek’s counterparts. Feri Ats’ henchmen approach Nemecsek who just crossed from the left of the frame to the right, against a wall constituting the base of the bridge. At this point there is a quick cutaway to the henchmen kicking Nemecsek over, before cutting directly back to this wide-angle shot. Nemecsek is huddled in the lower right corner of the frame, barely taking up a small fraction of it. Meanwhile, the two thugs standing in the dead center of the frame are hunched slightly over, which in of itself would be a monstrous sight even discounting the enormous shadows they throw over the inside wall of the bridge Nemecsek is leaning against. The idea Borzage is trying to supplant at this point seems to be that, as insignificant as Nemecsek may feel within his own ranks, he cannot so much as stand up to the enemy, literally or figuratively. At this point in the film, he is at the bottommost portion of the social hierarchy presented. Borzage does not clarify at this point if he feels that Nemecsek’s position is justified, purveying solely the idea of powers greater than him keeping him down.
Another interesting scene commenting on Nemecsek’s literal movement through the social hierarchy of the groups occurs when Gereb tries to frame him for leaving the gate to the lot open. The shot in question begins when Hector (the watchman’s dog) leads Nemecsek to one of the towers in the lot. There is a quick shot with the full frame being filled by Nemecsek’s face, looking upward before cutting quick to the dog and immediately back to Nemecsek. He begins to scale the pillar on the far left of the frame, grabbing and stepping onto planks jutting out from it as he ascends upwards in the frame. Borzage cuts to a closer angle, with Nemecsek framed directly center as he continues his ascent. Once he reaches the top, there is a shot of his face peeking over the corner of the pillar, before falling back down, scared of what he saw. The significance of this scene lies almost entirely in the slow ascent and rapid descent of Nemecsek. Borzage appears to be paralleling Nemecsek’s predicament. Here is an instance of Borzage positively portraying the idea of bravery, with Nemecsek overcoming his fear and scaling the pillar. There is no reason the pillar had to be as tall as it was, except that it gave Borzage an added excuse to show Nemecsek climbing upward, and making his fall from grace even that much more significant. On the one hand, one could say that Nemecsek’s climb was representative of his potential social improvement if he were to stop Feri Ats (the culprit at the top of the pillar) from stealing the flag. His failure to do so quite literally puts him right back where he started. On the other hand, this one scene could very well be representative of Nemecsek’s character through the entire film; a gradual increase in social status with both factions over the course of the film, with one traumatic fall from grace at the end.
There is one scene that comes to mind that parallels this scene. In a bold move, Nemecsek attempts to recapture the Paul Street Boys’ flag from the Red Shirts. He successfully does so, however he falls from his hiding place in a tree while the Red Shirts are gathered below. One moment the camera is locked on Nemecsek sitting on the branch of a tree, shot through the foliage. The next, it is a wide angle shot of the Red Shirts meeting which Nemecsek literally falls directly into the middle of, down from the top center of the frame to the bottom center. Where as before it was his fear of Feri Ats that caused him to fall, this time it was the fall that caused him to overcome his fear of Feri Ats. The bravery exemplified, a feature admired and respected by both Borzage and Feri Ats is the catalyst for Nemecsek’s upward movement within the social hierarchy of both camps.
The final two scenes of utmost significance for Nemecsek tie directly into one another. In the final conflict, Nemecsek dies after attacking Feri Ats for the flag. This is quite literally him overcoming his biggest fear, and in taking the flag, he achieves the highest renown within his own faction. The scene best representative of this is that immediately following his death. Nemecsek’s mother is at the center of the frame carrying him down the street, and behind her the street is literally filled with the boys. There is literally no empty space behind her that isn’t occupied by a boy. Nemecsek, by this point, has earned so much respect by the two warring factions that he literally has both sides fully behind him. The allusion becomes even more clear when his mother stumbles, and Boka and Feri Ats both rush to either side of her (immediately left and right of the center) and help lift Nemecsek. At this point, Nemecsek has reached the pinnacle… or almost. In the scene immediately afterward, the boys are gathered in two single file lines in the vacant lot. In between the lines, at the very center of the frame is a box with a flag. At the top of that flagpole sits Nemecsek’s hat, high above any of the other boys. Borzage at this point is just echoing his point that Nemecsek’s place in the social hierarchy has reached its apex. While his death may very well be considered a fall from grace, that does not change the fact that the imagery Borzage presents is consistent throughout.
There are simply too many instances to list every time Borzage uses clever framing or staging to signify the social significance of an individual within the film. There is no question that Borzage was deliberate and meticulous in his effort to do so, and the film resounds with sincerity because of it. Borzage’s admiration of quality character traits is fairly well represented, and through understanding his perspective of the film’s social hierarchy, we can attain a better understanding of Borzage himself.