Reviewed by Santiago Ramos
There was only one way to make this movie, and that was to make a masterpiece. This war story calls for nothing less. Its heroic figures, intricate political backchannels, the ideology that sparked it, and the sainted martyrs it produced, all require a wide, detailed canvas. It would have to be an epic on the scale of DeMille’s Ten Commandments or Samson and Delilah, or at least a subtle effort, like Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, which captures the complex and ultimately perverse nature of the true-believing ideologue.
Director Dean Wright (renowned for his special-effects work in Narnia and the Lord of the Rings) did indeed try to make such an epic. For one thing, For Greater Glory is as long (over two hours) as a DeMille movie. But his model wasn’t DeMille; it seems to have been George Lucas.
The story Wright set out to tell was that of the Cristero War, the civil war which took place between 1926 and 1929 in Mexico, pitting a group of pro-Catholic rebels against the secularist, anti-clerical government of Plutarco Elias Calles (played here by Ruben Blades). Calles’ government saw the implementation and expansion of the anti-Catholic measures established in the post-revolutionary 1917 Mexican Constitution (the Mexican Revolution had taken place during the second decade of the century). Under Calles’ watch at least 4,000 priests were murdered by “revolutionary” forces.
The way Wright tells the story is reminiscent of Star Wars: upstart rebels against an evil empire. The film opens with President Calles making a speech before the legislature, accusing the Church of being a “foreign” power meddling with internal affairs in the hopes of undoing the revolution. He calls for resistance against such forces. But I know as much about his motivations, ideological and otherwise, as I know about Darth Vader’s – in fact, by the end of the Star Wars trilogy I know much more about Vader than I do about Calles at the end of For Greater Glory.
The movie is accurate in portraying Calles as a monomaniacal despot, but it doesn’t show the subtle, powerful way that ideology can transform reasonable people into murderers – a metamorphosis that would be repeated in Spain a decade after the Cristero War, and in Germany half a decade after that, and which keeps happening in world history to this day. It would seem to be an important thing to include in this movie, especially since the moviemakers were angling to reflect contemporary political problems.
Other main characters have more depth to them. A retired general and war hero from the Revolution, Enrique Gorostiaga Velarde (Andy Garcia), will become eventual hero of the Cristero rebellion against the government. Ironically, he’s an atheist, though his wife, Tulita (Eva Longoria), is not. He is, however, also an opponent of Calles’ regime, and even though he doesn’t believe in God, he does believe in religious liberty. Like Luke Skywalker, he begins the film as a neutral bystander to a war that he is mysteriously destined to play a pivotal role in. The Cristeros recruit him – and pay him a lot of money – because he is a great general.
This type of ironic situation – an atheist leader of Catholic rebels – could have been one of the central nodes in a tighter script. The other node would’ve been the travails of American ambassador Dwight Morrow (played by Bruce Greenwood, the best actor in the film). Morrow is sent to Mexico City to implement the dictates of his president – Calvin Coolidge – who wants to make friends with Calles, and secure the holdings of American Big Oil in Mexico. But Morrow also has a conscience, which is bothered by the growing number of human bodies hanging from the telephone poles running parallel to the train tracks in Mexico.
Unfortunately, the actual script doesn’t draw its dramatic energy from these fertile sources. For Greater Glory is not a character-driven movie: it’s an action movie struggling to become a character-driven movie. It has too many shoot-outs which left me with an uneasy sense of guilty satisfaction. And the federales, the enemy troops from the Federal Government, are all as faceless and dehumanized as the masked Storm Troopers in Star Wars: both are cannon fodder filler for extended fight scenes that do not really add much to the plot.
“Enormous energy…has been applied to the task of taming the camera, of teaching it to serve the drama rather than eclipse it,” writes Roger Scruton in his essay, “Surface and Surfeit.” This holds especially true for the use of violence in film. Talented filmmakers like Kubrick, Pasolini, Von Trier, Mel Gibson, among others, have been both fascinated by, and made disciplined artistic use of, violence. To pull it off takes a lot of work. Few have been able to do so.
The scenes which depict the torture and execution of Blessed Jose Sanchez del Rio – a fourteen-year-old Cristero – are accurate and graphic. Yet by the time we got to them, in the third act of the film, I had already gorged on the senseless, easy violence of action-movie variety, and I could not shift into the serious attitude required to contemplate the harrowing suffering of a martyr. The full effect of the scene was, for me, a sentimental sadness followed by indignation, rather than the wondrous sorrow that ought to accompany the slaying of a saint.
Form should follow content. The Cristero revolt is such a complex story that it deserves a form which can do it justice (Graham Green wrote a novel about it, for example: The Power and the Glory). An action flick is not an adequate form. The filmmakers ought to have raised their sights higher – they should have aimed for art, and not for any lesser glory.
Santiago Ramos is pursuing doctoral studies at Boston College.