For Greater Glory dramatizes the Cristero War (1926-29), a mostly forgotten populist rebellion in Central Mexico that protested the federal government’s restrictions on religious expression. As the film has it, anti-government demonstrations are initially peaceful and scattered, but turn violent when the federales start shooting civilly disobedient priests and massacring pro-Catholic villagers. Their organization is bolstered when the rebels hire retired general Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) to lead the untrained and undisciplined cristeros, or “Christers.”
Bankrolled by Mexican real estate developer Pablo José Barroso, For Greater Glory boasts a huge budget (reportedly the largest in Mexican film history) and an American director (first-timer Dean Wright) and screenwriter (Michael Love). The cast features international stars—including Eva Longoria as Gorostieta’s wife and Peter O’Toole as a doomed priest—who speak in English-language dialogue.
The result is underwhelming. The movie looks professional and painterly, and draws attention to a little-known episode in Mexican history. But Love’s lazy, improbably plotted script depicts the war in broad, often implausible strokes. Worse still, Glory‘s invocation of Catholic identity has nothing to do with faith and everything to do with victimhood.
This begins with its version of how Gorostieta comes on board. Despite being an atheist, he agrees to a contract, the film suggests, because his wife is a believer and he sees an opportunity to do right by his daughters (and earn a lavish salary). Though he encounters initial resistance from two of his subordinates, the priest-general Father Vega (Santiago Cabrera) and the smug gunslinger Victoriano Ramirez (Oscar Isaac), he soon proves himself a master strategist against the forces of President Plutarco Calles (Rubén Blades), quickly winning his men’s respect. In turn, and even less convincingly, Gorostieta himself is inspired by (real-life) boy-saint José Sánchez del Río (Mauricio Kuri)—rendered in slow motion and heartrending close-ups—as well as the participation of women in the uprising, their number reduced here to one speaking part, played by Catalina Sandino Moreno.
Apart from José‘s scenes—in which he is frequently in tears and abused—the film doesn’t bother to explain what motivates the cristeros, for example, how they feel about the Bible’s teachings, the role of the clergy in their lives or the moral uplift that the Church can provide. It takes their utter devotion for granted. For most viewers, even religious ones, the cristeros’ zealotry is not just the film’s raison d’être, but also its most exotic element, which suggests it is in need of at least some explanation. Instead, the film focuses on the sufferings of the devout, with gory scenes lifted straight out of medieval saint books, in an apparent attempt to rouse the faithful’s sense of righteousness.
Given its sermonizing, the film’s account of the Cristero War is inevitably ahistorical and one-sided. The scholarly consensus about the rebellion emphasizes modernization: President Calles tried to limit the powers of the Church to strengthen national unity after the decade-long, three-front civil war known as the Mexican Revolution. To do so, he promoted the secularization of education, placed restrictions on Church land holdings, and restricted Catholic influence in politics. He also facilitated the growth of Protestant sects in the country.
Glory ignores this political context and glosses over the crimes that the cristeros committed (with a cursory nod to one massacre of civilians, which looks almost accidental here). Curiously, the film appeals to an anachronistic, contemporary American conservative outlook, where a fuzzy notion of “freedom,” including religious freedom, is prized above all else, and the person single-handedly ruining the country is a godless socialist.
In a film more willing to entertain religious and moral uncertainties, the Cristero War might serve as supremely interesting subject matter. Gorostieta is based on a fascinatingly conflicted man, who didn’t take up his sword so that others may pray in peace, but to use the cristero troops to claim the presidency for himself. But since Glory‘s preaching takes precedence over historical accuracy and believable characterization, Gorostieta has a bedside conversion right before he is shot to death by government soldiers.
Amid such contrivance, Gorostieta displays some recognizably human qualities, as when he indulges in faux philosophical discussions with Vega and manly competitions with Ramirez. But the cloying storyline focused on José is so over-determined that the film has nothing for his parents to do but give him their blessing when he decides to join the cristero troops, and, later, gaze lovingly at him with proud smiles and tender eyes, as he if were graduating from sixth grade, when he is about to be murdered five feet away from them.
If this situation is over the top, Glory does feature battle scenes that might have been its saving grace. But these, too, disappoint, providing discrete moments of excitement but no sense of the cristeros’ changing fortunes or the war’s progress. The end of the war arrives suddenly and anticlimactically, arbitrated by two minor characters who have little to no connection with Gorostieta and the cristeros. The clunky dialogue occasionally veers into unintentionally hilarious territory, as when one soldier says to another, “Get up! War is no place for bums!” As such, it only compounds the embarrassment.
I’m not a huge fan of Mel Gibson fan, but For Greater Glory made me miss him. For all his personal faults, Gibson the director has an undeniable talent for making epic films like Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ that showcase dramatic spectacles of blood-spilling in a compelling, meaningful, and idealistic way. In For Greater Glory, Wright apes such themes and tropes, but without Gibson’s strange knack for balancing proselytizing with entertainment. Like The Passion, Glory is sure to recoup much of its $25 million budget through DVD sales, since the film seems readymade for churchgoers to watch and re-watch for years to come (already, Catholic bishops are publicly praising the film). For Greater Glory is a propagandistic call-to-arms that has little to offer nonbelievers—or believers—in terms of historical education or entertainment value.