Immediately after watching For Greater Glory, I found myself struggling to appreciate the myriad good intentions, talents and the $40 million that went into making it. Unlike the Cristeros who fought against the Mexican government, however, my efforts ultimately were unsuccessful.

The film opened on a relatively limited 757 screens this past weekend, grossing $1.8 million and earning the No. 10 position of all films currently in theatrical release. Additionally, the film reportedly has been doing boffo at the Mexican box office. Clearly, word of mouth and the temperament of the times are driving folks to see a movie wherein good overcomes evil, and, more specifically, militarily enforced secularism is defeated by religiously faithful armed-to-the-teeth underdogs.

It’s not that the subject matter of For Greater Glory isn’t historically accurate and compelling.  Nearly 10 years after the Mexican Revolution, President Plutarco Calles decides to enforce the anti-clerical laws written into the 1917 Mexican Constitution.  Calles (portrayed blandly if not refreshingly free of Snidely Whiplash mustache-twirling by the otherwise fine actor and recording artist Ruben Blades) forced not only the closure of Catholic schools, but also the expulsion of foreign clergy. His oppression hat-trick was completed by the government confiscation of Church property. When the archbishop of Mexico City expressed his concerns, Calles had his agents bomb the archbishop’s home and the chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Students of literature will recall the Cristeros War as the background of Graham Greene’s masterpiece The Power and the Glory, centered on the felix culpa experienced by the Whiskey Priest. In that novel, Greene personalizes spiritual doubt in the face of secular oppression, allegorizing the larger war with the spiritual war raging within the soul of its protagonist. For Greater Glory, on the other hand, travels the reverse route by largely ignoring the personal in favor of the combined efforts of fighting the Mexican government’s political and military might.

Unfortunately, the movie fails as both agitprop and spiritual allegory – a tricky proposition at best but a common drawback to sweeping epics operating on a broad canvas. Characters in the film flit in and out, looking alternately frightened, piously determined and – fatal to a film with such lofty ambitions – aimless. Some characters disappear somewhere for 20 minutes of screen time and reappear to repeat the cycle. The result is a one-dimensional portrayal of the struggles that claimed an estimated 90,000 to 200,000 lives and where the surviving film characters more or less end the film much as they began.

Andy Garcia, an admirable thespian who lacks the necessary star power to carry a film with War and Peace aspirations, portrays Gen. Enrique Gorostieta Valarde, an atheist married to a devout wife (played in several brief scenes by the beautiful “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria). In the film, Valarde’s spiritual journey is half-heartedly depicted, perhaps because the verdict is still out as to whether he experienced a genuine conversion or was more a mercenary than missionary.

For this critic, however, the film begs an even larger existential question central to Christianity as a whole. Specifically: When are we Christians supposed to forgive our oppressors, and when are we justified in the killing of them? For Greater Glory wants it both ways. On the one hand, it depicts saintly priests, including one portrayed by Peter O’Toole, as beatifically accepting their fate at the hands of Mexican soldiers, and – as did Christ – forgiving those who would deprive them of life. On the other hand, Mexican civilians and clergy unite as an armed insurgency rebelling against their government oppressors. Are we supposed to cheer on priests wielding weapons antagonistically as in a Robert Rodriquez grind-house film?

Or, conversely, are we to adhere to example of the Jesus depicted in The Passion of the Christ? Remember that Jesus, too, lived in religiously oppressed times, but He didn’t enlist armies to attack the Romans who subjugated Him and his followers. Time wounds all heels, to mangle a phrase. The Romans received their just desserts over time, while Christianity rose from the gore of Christ’s crucifixion and the deaths of the apostles and martyrs.

In the end, peace in the Cristero War eventually was determined more by economic and political means than by military victory – as noted all too briefly in For Greater Glory. Calvin Coolidge’s Ambassador to Mexico helped broker the peace by convincing President Calles that American companies were reluctant to conduct business in the country if they persistently witnessed bodies hanging from telegraph poles and butchered in the streets.

For Greater Glory raises a question germane also to The Passion of the Christ, which is how many violent acts are audiences supposed to tolerate in the guise of spiritual uplift? Saving an equivocal defense of the Grand Guignol aspects of the Passion (as the victim was an adult male) the sadistic torture endured by the adolescent Blessed Jose Sanchez del Rio in For Greater Glory is truly disturbing to watch and more than earns the film its R-rating.

On a final note, I realize many readers of this essay and viewers of For Greater Glory will draw analogies between the oppression of Mexican Catholics under Calles and the current state of U.S. public policy designed to circumvent, disregard or neutralize Catholic doctrines, but I hold that this is a false comparison requiring some perspective. As despicable as some of the current administration’s policies are to those who value religious freedom, they hardly match Calles’ deportation of priests and bishops, bombing of chapels and the slaughter of innocents.

  • http://www.forgreaterglory.com/ Dean Wright

    Hello Bruce, 

    I think your reaction to the film is one I expected many would have. In the course of this conflict, which dealt with more than just religious freedom, the difficult question of whether or not it is ever justified to pick up arms to defend one’s faith is explored. I show both sides because – frankly -both reactions actually happened, some fought, some didn’t. I don’t try to tell you which side was morally right, l leave that to the audience to decide for themselves. The fact that you are asking these questions means I’ve done my job. (I’m guessing you didn’t have these thoughts lingering in your mind after The Avengers dispatched all the nasty aliens attacking NYC – it’s a fine film and you’re not supposed to really).I do display my admiration for those individuals depicted who fought both peacefully and otherwise to preserve their freedom; to me – whether or not you approve of their methods – they are all inspirational. After visiting Mexico, meeting the descendants of the conflict, and discussing it in depth, one could reasonably make the case that if not for these brave ordinary citizens standing up to a repressive regime, another Nazi Germany or Soviet Union might have evolved on the other side of the Rio Grande. Perhaps some may be troubled that violence was used to preserve religious freedom, but if not for their efforts, all the freedoms we as Americans value and often take for granted (Free Speech, Free Press – like this blog, etc.), would have become just a distant memory for all Mexicans.As someone who has helped create many blockbuster films, I can assure you that the violence depicted in the film is far less than many PG-13 movies. It’s just that it feels so real here that it’s difficult to watch without having a strong emotional reaction. That was intentional. Think about this – if you can’t watch the sacrifice these individuals made in the form of a movie, imagine how hard it would have been to be there and witness it first hand.Dean WrightDirectorFor Greater Glory

  • BruceEdwardWalker

    Thank you, Dean, for your comments and clarifications. It’s indeed an honor to write something that prompts a reasoned response from the auteur. Here’s hoping your efforts are successful and open the door to yet greater cinematic triumphs!

    • http://www.forgreaterglory.com/ Dean Wright

      I appreciated your thoughtful essay. Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to respond (and for the comment that you thought the film had a $40mil budget – it was a fraction of that – but I tried to make it look like a film that cost $100mil)!  For the most part, the critics that haven’t been kind usually can’t get past the basic premise that some people might be willing to sacrifice their lives for their faith, or for freedom for their nation, suggesting that Jose should have just renounced his faith in order to save himself (which is a sad commentary), forgetting that the events depicted in the film actually happened. Also, for the record, I’ve significantly toned down the brutality Jose was forced to endure, and carefully avoided showing anything too graphic (ala Hitchcock), but the performance of Mauricio Kuri is both heartbreaking and indelible, so I can understand why you felt it was more violent than it actually was. 

  • http://www.jordanballor.com/ Jordan Ballor

    Is there a similar dynamic here as appears in “The Mission” by Roland Joffe? What if it was the right thing to do in the case of both priests? Maybe one person is called to die the pacifistic death of a martyr, the other fighting for a cause…

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  • Roger McKinney

    I haven’t seen the movie yet but intend to. I don’t think it has made it to Tulsa, yet.

    Actually, the idea for the movie prompted me to think about the US revolution and the Dutch struggle against Spain. Both faced the same question that Bruce introduces.

    Huguenot  theologians wrote a tract called “Against Tyranny” after the French king massacred many protestants in the Reformation. Later, the Church scholars at Salamanca wrote something similar in regard to Spanish oppression of their own people and those in the Americas. Both inspired William of Orange and the leaders of the Dutch rebellion.

    Both considered more than just Jesus’ example and I think we must, too. They looked at the example of government set by God in the Torah and God’s response to tyranny in the OT. They considered God’s purpose in establishing government and the role it should play today, neither of which the Bible has much to say about.

    But at some point we have no choice but to build upon the meager foundation the Bible lays and use reason to arrive at the rest. That’s what the Church did with natural law theory beginning with Aquinas.

    A lot of protestants get hung up on Romans 13, but Paul and all of the disciples proved by their preaching of the gospel and rejection of the Caesar cult that they didn’t take the principles of Romans 13 as absolutes.

    The decision to resort to violence against a tyrannical government is never an easy decision to make, so I think we should rarely criticize those who are forced to make it. But natural law does provide guidance.

  • David Theroux

    Bruce, Thank you for your thoughtful review but I believe your critique is misguided, and Dean Wright well discusses some of the reasons. For Greater Glory is a stunning, beautiful, and inspiring film that does not suffer from the sensationalist, formulaic, politically correct or cheap syrupy tendencies of most major films. Moreover, the story is a powerful and indeed important one for indeed the reasons you downplay. The rebellion is in fact one we can learn from today, not just for Americans but people worldwide who are suffering from government repression. In the case of the West, the secularist project is an authoritarian one that seeks to impose a materialist culture on society and the resulting statism is no accident. Perhaps the following review by me may be of interest? “See For Greater Gory”: http://blog.independent.org/2012/06/04/see-for-greater-glory/

  • Dad of eight

    Saw movie and thoroughly enjoyed it. The answer is yes – one can kill for the greater glory. The Church does teach to turn the other cheek – if it is you yourself who is being slapped. In other words, only I can allow someone to injure me – and only I can forgive them. just like Jesus. But what if it is not me who is being killed but my family. I HAVE to protect them. The Church teaches that those who are in positions that are to protect others commit a sin if they do not protect. It is a duty to protect others – not a choice – someone one must do. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2265: “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.”  Some theologians spread this duty to fathers protecting the household, etc.