The very worthy epic picture For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada, directed by Dean Wright and written by Michael Love, is a good illustration of why I rather resent movies that make claims on my critical judgment by presenting themselves, either explicitly or implicitly as “conservative.” Ideologically, everything is done right in For Greater Glory, and it could not be more timely from the conservative point of view (and my view) of religious freedom, now that Catholic bishops are suing the government over the HHS mandate regarding compulsory provision of contraception. Nor is the movie’s propaganda anything like as crude as that of the anti-Catholic movies with which it makes such a refreshing contrast. But aesthetically it leaves a lot to be desired.
I’m afraid that Mr. Wright turns out to be Mr. Wrong. A visual effects guy who worked on Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia, he is not very successful in this, his first directorial outing, at pacing or making each scene follow naturally from the last. The movie has a clunky, stodgy look that makes it hard to enjoy as much as it should be enjoyed. Partly this is because it tries to do too much. Though the movie is 147 minutes long, it still feels too short to give a full account of all the people and events it is trying to present to us in that time. The story does not unfold in a readily comprehensible form, and parts of it are tangentially related at best to the central matter of an agnostic Mexican general, Enrique Gorostieta Velarde (Andy Garcia), who is hired to lead a rag-tag peasant army of cristeros against troops loyal to the anti-clerical and anti-Catholic Mexican government of Plutarco Elías Calles (Rubén Blades) and who finds his own faith again as a result.
Even Calvin Coolidge (played by Bruce McGill, who doesn’t look anything like our 30th president) puts in an appearance here. He gets in on the act by sending his personal envoy, Dwight Morrow (Bruce Greenwood), to Mexico to look after American oil interests there and, by the way, to make peace between President Calles and the rebels. I wondered if this could have been a sop to the left since, in the movies, American presidents engaged in international adventurism on behalf of oil companies are an even more infallible indicator of wickedness than Roman Catholic clergymen. In any case, however, it has nothing to do with the movie’s primary business and so gets in the way of it. The same is true of another sub-plot concerning the martyrdom of Anacleto Gonzales Flores (Eduardo Verástegui), a pacifist whose relationship to the rebels or their interesting general, if any, remains obscure.
Another historical martyrdom, that of the 14-year-old José Luis Sánchez del Rio (Mauricio Kuri), is made relevant by an attempt to establish a quasi-filial relationship between him and General Enrique which seems not to have been historical. That in itself is not so bad, but it is never made clear to us why this otherwise stoic and unemotional general, after what appears to have been a very brief acquaintance with Josélito, should have looked on the young volunteer as a son and wept at the news of his capture. Saintliness is hard enough to make cinematically believable as it is, but Messrs. Wright and Love add to the difficulties by amping up the emotional energy in what can only be described as this sentimental way. Far better to have omitted the saints and concentrated on the sinner, the aging but engaging general, who deserves a fuller treatment than he gets.
The movie also suffers from leaden dialogue. “I may have issues with the Church,” says General Enrique, employing the sloppy late 20th century American colloquialism for “disagreements” which I’m pretty sure would not have been comprehensible in the 1920s, “but I believe in religious freedom.” On introducing himself to the rebels, he tells them, “I have a gift for military strategy” — which may be true but doesn’t sound like something a real general would say. He certainly doesn’t have a gift for inspiring words, though he attempts them more than once, usually bathetically. “We may die together, but we will fight with honor and dignity and cunning,” he tells his men. Also, “Freedom is not just for writers and for politicians and for fancy documents! Freedom is our home, our wives, our children, our faith! Freedom is our lives — and we will defend it or die trying!”
As this is the bit they put in the trailer, it must be something they’re rather proud of, but to me it sounds as if General Enrique has unexpectedly chosen to make a somewhat difficult philosophical argument — oh? is that what freedom is? are you sure? — rather than appealing, as a genuinely inspiring speaker would do, to what he knows his men already believe. I don’t want to be too hard on a movie that tells a thrilling tale of piety and heroism and from the point of view not of revolutionary utopianism or the latest in groovy “liberations” but of Christianity and traditional values. For such courage and originality the movie deserves to be a success, but it also deserves better writing and directing than it gets.