For Greater Glory
by Richard von Busack
As per Zhou Enlai’s famous comment about the French Revolution, it’s too soon to sum up the Mexican revolution. For Greater Glory (For Greater Glory tickets and showtimes here) concerns one stage of the crisis, the Cristeros War of the late 1920s, which claimed 90,000 lives. President Calles (played by a debonair Ruben Blades) triggered the fighting by taking on the power of the Catholic Church. He expelled foreign-born clerics and tried to enforce the property seizures outlined in the constitution.
As For Greater Glory tells the story, a general, Enrique Gorostieta Velarde (Andy Garcia), a vet of the Revolution—and an atheist—is hired to lead the religious guerrillas. General Velarde’s work is cut out for him. His troops are either green, volunteers or priests like the armed Father Vega (Santiago Cabrera). Also in his ranks are sombreroed, bandolier-covered bandits. One chief (Oscar Isaac) is nicknamed “El Catorce” for killing 14 federales in a single skirmish.
For Greater Glory mentions the heroic women who smuggled the bullets to the rebels, although one of the most exciting exploits of these women is left unfinished right in the middle of the story. The film also remembers the clerics who were executed—Peter O’Toole evokes melancholy tenderness as Father Christopher. For Greater Glory evokes the outrage it seeks when the ancient priest goes to the wall. The wantonness of his death is surprisingly effective: “worse than a crime, a blunder.”
But to expand on that reference to Napoleon: watching For Greater Glory is like going to see a film about the emperor and discovering it’s actually about his favorite drummer boy. Everything stops (particularly in the third act) to follow young Jose, an altar boy who becomes a Cristero warrior. He’s played by the appallingly sweet Mauricio Kuri.
Director Dean Wright is a visual-effects supervisor who worked on The Lord of the Rings, and scriptwriter Michael Love is a norteamericano raised in Mexico. (The film is in English, with Spanish subtitles in some markets.) Mexicans might feel slightly miffed about the casting of Blades, Cabrera, Garcia and Isaac (born in Panama, Venezuela, Cuba and Guatemala, respectively), but James Horner’s soundtrack is a worse form of de-raza-ination. Does Horner actually watch the movies he’s scoring? Such audio swill in a film about a nation responsible for some of the best music in the world …
The scenery is sweeping, from the spiny Chihuahua ridges to the mossy, whitewashed campaniles. The art direction and the costumes are handsome. El Catorce refers sneeringly to Velarde as “catrin” (a dude), and he is just that dapper.
Garcia can be a little passive and abstracted, like William Hurt. So his attack on this role (firm, with a smoker’s burr in his voice) is as interesting as his bemusement about religion, however much he gets nagged on the subject by his wife (Eva Longoria).
For Greater Glory (the title echoes Graham Greene’s novel about the religious persecutions, The Power and the Glory) stages battle scenes with the technical finesse of late-period John Wayne films. The heroes here are certainly the best marksmen since the Duke died. Unfortunately, there’s also the kind of slow-mo glory-and-sadness of war tableaux Edward Zwick wore out years ago.
The film’s production company, New Land, has as its logo a Spanish ship with a cross on its sail. This suggests where Velarde’s spiritual journey will end. “You declared war on freedom!” the general tells his president, nudging today’s crusaders in the audience.
Like all serious revolutionaries, the Cristeros were tough customers. Here, they only commit one of their atrocities, and that one by accident: a train-burning occurs during what looks like Father Vega’s absence of mind.
If Garcia’s general murmurs something about his problems with the Church, exactly what those problems are is strictly off the table. Also missing in action are Calles’ reasons for chasing out the clerics, and the Vatican’s reasons for not getting officially involved.
While U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow (the able Bruce Greenwood) arrives to cool things off, the oil politics remain quite murky. For Greater Glory pays homage to the beatified, but it’s the sinners who could better explain what happened during the Cristero war.