En español | Every bit as earnest and ambitious as the characters it portrays, For Greater Glory, a war drama about an uprising against Mexico’s oppressive 1920s-era government, is the kind of movie I really didn’t think they made anymore: a sweeping account torn from the pages of history, driven by conflicted characters based on real people.
As those epics did, For Greater Glory takes a particular side in the story of a war and never gives an inch. Since I’m not versed in Mexican history (and shame on me, and the rest of us gringos, for that), I can only take the word of director Dean Wright and writer Michael Love that Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles (a beady-eyed, sweaty Ruben Blades) sent his Federales around the nation assassinating priests and butchering women and children in the name of wiping religion from the cultural landscape.
In any case, Calles makes for one dandy movie villain. As his good-guy foil the film gives us Andy Garcia playing Enrique Velarde, the national hero and retired general who took on the job of organizing the nation’s resistance, known as the Cristeros, into a unified fighting force.
Garcia gives a knowing, nuanced performance as Velarde, a confirmed atheist who at first tries to turn a blind eye to the oppression around him. But the attacks on helpless civilians intensify, and he finally agrees to take command at the urging of his wife (Desperate Housewives costar Eva Longoria who, much to my surprise, turns out to be an actual actress). Soon, as Velarde witnesses the brutal martyrdom of his countrymen, he begins to contemplate just what these people are dying for…and thus are the first seeds of faith sewn in his own soul. Velarde’s tough-guy persona comes easily to Garcia, who looks mighty cool with a fedora on his head and cigar in his mouth. More impressive is Garcia’s convincingly calibrated performance as Velarde slowy awakens to the possibility that life may have meaning beyond the barrel of a gun or the fine dresses with which he adorns his wife and daughters.
Director Dean Wright, helming his first film, has wisely cribbed from some masters of epic film. He places his cameras on rooftops and distant hillsides so we can understand the unfolding battle strategies—a technique Akira Kurosawa perfected, albeit with a few thousand additional extras, in his classic war film Ran. He tightens the focus to capture human dramas amidst the smoke and blood of battle, a page taken from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. And he sets before his protagonist a personal journey shaped by the wars raging both around him and inside his own soul—a voyage remembered by anyone who’s sat enthralled through David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai or Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.
But it was Lawrence of Arabia that kept coming to mind during the film’s 143-minute runtime—and it was halfway through before I realized why. Of course! The wise old priest we meet in the opening minutes is none other than Lawrence himself, Peter O’Toole. Fifty years after that unforgettable debut, O’Toole is still a consummate screen actor. Here, facing death before a firing squad, his Father Christopher stands, firm in his commitment to his faith yet terrified for his flock, his eyes turned upward, seeming to encompass the entire blue breadth of the sky.
On the other hand, For Greater Glory reminds me a bit of a visit to an old-school Catholic church—one of those dark spaces punctuated by painted plaster statues of suffering saints, blood seeping from their wounds of martyrdom. The film wallows a bit too comfortably in the agony of its victims, particularly in the case of a young boy whose trials have more in common with The Passion of the Christ than The Patriot.
Will For Greater Glory ultimately stand tall among war classics? I have a sad, gut feeling that today’s filmgoers have little patience for a war film that doesn’t involve space aliens or trolls. But it serves as a reminder of how the movies can indelibly shape our view of history. For better or worse, For Greater Glory will, in years to come, become the accepted account of what is now known as Mexico’s Cristero War. We can only hope the filmmakers got it right.
P.S. For epic on a classic scale, get a hold of these three unforgettable war films:
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) In perhaps the greatest war epic ever filmed, director David Lean will have you rubbing sand from your eyes as you watch Peter O’Toole—channeling British military leader T.E. Lawrence—rally Arabs to revolt against the Turks. The politics are all very complicated, but O’Toole is riveting as he traces Lawrence’s simultaneous rise in power and descent into delusional grandiosity.
Ran (1985) Shakespeare’s King Lear is reborn as a Japanese feudal drama in Akira Kurosawa’s sprawling story of betrayal and revenge. The elegantly choreographed horseback battle scenes will perhaps never be equaled in scope and scale, but Kurosawa never loses sight of the human drama at the film’s heart.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) I still have to leave the room during Steven Spielberg’s harrowing re-creation of the Normandy Invasion. After that, though, the saga of a platoon dispatched to rescue a lone paratrooper behind enemy lines becomes a heartbreaking story of wartime selflessness. We root for the guys on their quest, even as one corner of our brain ponders the insanity of their mission.