Although movies with a religious theme have a long history in Hollywood, modern Hollywood is uncomfortable with religion in general and Christianity in particular. Indeed it is often openly hostile to Christianity, which makes watching For Greater Glory a pretty jarring experience. Your reviewer quickly got the feeling that he wasn’t in mainstream Hollywood anymore.
For Greater Glory tells the story of Las Cristiada, also known as the Cristero War, an armed revolt that broke out Mexico in 1926 when the government of President Calles tried to suppress the Catholic Church. Despite being in only limited release, it managed to crack the box office top ten in it’s opening week.
The movie begins with President Calles (Ruben Blades) announcing his intention to enforce laws strictly limiting the religious freedom of the Catholic Church. When this is met with protest and peaceful resistance, Calles escalates, using troops to arrest, expel, or murder Catholic clergy and to close or vandalize churches. Soon open war has broken out, with religious rebels known as Cristeros fighting it out with government troops.
The Cristeros quickly realize that they need training, organization, and leadership, and offer command of the Cristero army to retired General Enrique Velarde (Andy Garcia). Velarde, now working for a soap company, isn’t Catholic, or even religious, but he has proven himself in combat, knows how to fight., and misses military life. Velarde demands (And gets) a rich compensation package, and becomes a mercenary nonbeliever leading an army of Christian soldiers.
Garcia holds the screen with authority and makes a believable commander. The supporting cast is uneven, ranging from generic to outstanding. Ruben Blades does a really good sanctimonious bullying Leftist, and we don’t see those cast as villains every day. Mauricio Kuri shows impressive talent and real promise as a young boy named Jose del Rio, who goes from throwing fruit at an elderly priest (Peter O’Toole, who looks to be at death’s door) to laying down his life as a martyr for the Church. This young man might just have a great future ahead of him as an actor. Unfortunately, neither Garcia nor Blades spends enough time on screen. Despite it’s good intentions, For Greater Glory has a lot of problems.
At nearly two and half hours, the movie is too long and badly bloated. There are too many secondary characters, few of whom can be given enough screen time to be developed. Far too much of the movie is taken up with speeches of one sort another that slow things down, and mostly they aren’t very good or interesting speeches. In all of this long and talky movie there is not one memorable or quotable line of dialog. The soundtrack is syrupy and overwrought. The fault doesn’t lie with composer James Horner, but with director Dean Wright who insists on having noble and sentimental sounding strings in the background every moment to emphasize how noble his characters are. The result isn’t noble, it’s just distracting and annoying.
For Greater Glory has been called a war movie. This isn’t entirely true, and that’s too bad because it could have been a good one. The movie is actually a Christian religious drama set against the background of a war. The battle scenes aren’t really battle scenes so much as they are action scenes of the sort you’d expect to see in a Western, and they’re fairly mechanical and routine at that. Mexican Federales seem to spend a lot of time either being shot off the tops of walls, or being shot down in bunches by good guys who fire their guns a lot faster. Velarde assures his subordinates that his strategy is sound, but we never get a clue as to what that strategy is. We see far more of Velarde’s relationship with young del Rio, whom he comes to think of as the son he never had, than we see of him as the commander of an army.
In a way, this is too bad, because the Real Velarde was a fascinating character with more contradictions than any General this side of George Patton. He was a liberal, anticlerical atheist and a 33rd degree Mason leading an army of Catholic rebels. Michael Love’s screenplay has him fighting because he believes in religious freedom, though in fact he seems to have aimed at setting himself up as President of Mexico. But of course in the movies, heroes have to be champions of universal human freedom, whether they really were or not. Otherwise they get their hero license revoked. . The best that can be said of For Greater Glory as a war movie is that it’s a missed opportunity.
The real focus of For Greater Glory is faith, and how it can inspire people to do remarkable and courageous things, even at the cost of laying down their own lives. However laudable this may be, the fact is that’s done in a heavy handed and often tedious way. Cecil B DeMille used to make movies like this back in the days, and if he were still around, he would probably have enjoyed directing For Greater Glory. The result might have been a lot cheesier, but it also might have been a lot more entertaining.