Government Gone Wild: For Greater Glory and the Cristeros
by Ryan McMaken
Recently by Ryan McMaken: Ron Paul's GOP Battle Reveals Some Truths About Political Parties
I'm not one to automatically like a movie just because its politics agree with mine. The Lost City, for example, an anti-socialist historical drama about Cuba, while not horrible, left me wishing it was a much better movie, and less of a long slog through 45 minutes that should have been edited out of what could have been a great 90-minute movie. So, I was a bit worried that I might be in for a similar experience in watching For Greater Glory. Like The Lost City, For Greater Glory has been lauded to the skies by some libertarian and conservative reviewers while being absolutely, and predictably, vilified by many critics in the legacy media. So, as For Greater Glory started to roll on the screen, there was a nagging fear deep down inside me that maybe, just maybe, this movie deserved the bad reviews.
I am happy to report, however, that For Greater Glory is an entertaining, well-crafted and well-acted film about a historical episode that is apparently unknown to most Americans. The film covers a period of Mexican history during which there were a series of anti-clerical purges following the Mexican Revolution which led to a harsh repression of Catholic laypeople and clergy in Mexico. This led to the desecration of churches, widespread executions without trial, and the brutal suppression of Catholic resistance. Eventually, a group of rebels, called Cristeros, took up arms against the central government and demanded the free-exercise of religion under the leadership of the initially-atheist Gen. Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia).
Dramatically, the film is dominated by Andy Garcia, who delivers some of his best work here as the religiously-ambiguous General Gorostieta who is known for his military prowess in previous Mexican wars. Garcia provides the gravitas necessary for a film, which lacking good acting, could easily have become something resembling little more than a series of historical re-enactments. Also key to the dramatic arc of this film is José Luis Sánchez del Rio, played quite competently by young actor Mauricio Kuri. Sánchez del Rio, also a historical figure from the war, was a flagbearer for some of the Cristeros and was eventually captured, tortured and murdered by the Calles regime.
The film is punctuated with portrayals of the sheer brutality of the Calles regime, and it shows the torture, the firing squads, the hangings, and the desecration of churches which so characterized the tyranny of the period.
This has led some reviewers in the legacy media, who apparently know nothing of Mexican history, and who are clearly programmed to regard Catholics as always the oppressors and never the victims, to describe the film as heavy-handed. This description clearly shows a certain bias, since For Greater Glory is decidedly less heavy-handed than, say, Amistad or Dances with Wolves, to name two similar historical dramas. Those films, however, expressed political ideals that are politically fashionable and thus received much critical acclaim, while For Greater Glory expresses ideas that most journalism-majors-turned-film-critic will regard as quaint at best.
If anything, For Greater Glory contains more moral ambiguity than many films like Dances with Wolves or Amistad. Following Sánchez del Rio's death for example, Gorostieta is left wondering how God could allow such things to happen, while the character of Father Vega, a priest who has taken up arms, is a highly conflicted character.
Many critics simply won't allow themselves to believe, however, that governments can and do behave like the Calles regime, and that some things, such as the right to peacefully practice one's religion, really are absolutes.
It's this sort of raging naïveté, of course, that gave us an America in which we have presidents who can legally kidnap, torture and even murder Americans at will while the public declares itself to be free.
Also scandalous in the eyes of some reviewers is the obviously pro-Catholic slant of the film. The movie is hardly some kind of course of Catholic apologetics, but it is pro-Catholic in the same way that Braveheart was pro-Scots or Thunderheart was pro-Sioux. It portrays the victims of government oppression for what they were: victims. However, while we can all agree the Scots and the Sioux got the shaft at the hands of their oppressors, Christians in film are rarely afforded the same treatment, unless the victims happen to be murdered by other Christians as in the case of the excellent film The Mission.
Roger Ebert even went so far as to declare that the movie's themes of religious liberty should have included other religions in the discussions. This is a ridiculous statement, given that this is a movie about the Cristero war, after all. Insisting that this film include a discussion about other religions, which had virtually no relevance to the historical topic at hand, is like suggesting that a movie about Oliver Cromwell include a few conversations about Buddhism.
The worst part of this movie, by far, is the overuse of the musical score which, early in the film, is used to add drama to even the most basic scenes of exposition. Fortunately, this overuse tapers off, or at least ceases to be noticeable, as the film progresses. However, this movie delivers what's promised. It's a historical drama which delivers moments of suspense, some high drama and some well-done battle scenes. It's not a short film, but the early scenes are necessary to allow the audience to get to care about the characters before half of them are killed off.
If nothing else, this film does us a service by entertaining while highlighting a historical period that few Americans know about, although they should. Those who have read Graham Greene's 1940 novel The Power and the Glory will be somewhat familiar with post-Revolutionary suppression of the Church in Mexico, and For Greater Glory may now be counted as perhaps one of only two well-known dramatizations of this period which are easily accessible to English-speaking audiences.
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.