For Greater Glory is a meandering, malnourished epic of a forgotten Mexican civil war, the one after the Mexican Revolution that made Pancho Villa famous.
This period piece, partly financed by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization, is about the Cristeros War, when Catholic priests and peasants took up arms against Mexico's revolutionary government's efforts to repress the Catholic Church.
It's an arch, preachy and violent movie aimed at the faithful, people who won't grimace or roll their eyes at every character who declares, "God save us from these heathens!"
In 1920s Mexico, the leftist administration of President Plutarco Calles (Ruben Blades) takes seriously Marx's maxim that "Religion is the opiate of the masses." It goes after the influence of the Catholic Church. Like the Republicans in Spain, they see the Church, aligned with the conservative status quo, as a weight on the population. Calles introduces "reforms" and edicts ranging from the practical (taking church dogma out of the schools, especially science class) to the more alarming (mass deportations of foreign priests, violence against priests who refuse to leave).
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A coalition of church officials and reactionaries left over from the losing side of the recent civil war rebels. They call themselves "Cristeros," and the revolt rages off and on for years. Priests including Father "General" Vega (Santiago Cabrera) take up arms when Father Christopher (Peter O'Toole, moving in his death scene) and other priests are executed.
But as the revolt roils the country, the Cristeros see that they need a leader. They turn to a frankly agnostic hero of the Mexican Revolution, Gen. Velarde (Andy Garcia). For reasons both righteous and mercenary, he and his wife (Eva Longoria) realize he can make a difference for the disorganized Cristeros.
Visual-effects specialist-turned-director Dean Wright, working from a script by Michael Love (Gaby: A True Story), manages the combat scenes — raids on villages, trains — well enough. But he has no sense of pace and has a hard time keeping the various factions distinct. And if he can't keep them straight, what hope do we have? The film lurches between firefights and arguments over the dinner table as Garcia's Velarde mulls the offer to lead the Cristeros. He cuts a fine figure on a horse, but it's a generally dispassionate turn, not helped by the confusion surrounding Garcia's performance.
Any movie set in a civil war or revolution is going to take sides, and like the Opus Dei-backed There Be Dragons, set during the Spanish Civil War, this one certainly does. Faced with movies including Blue Like Jazz, with its bumper stickers that say "Abstinence makes the Church grow fondlers," and The Three Stooges dolling up nuns in skimpy swimsuits, church backers can be expected to attempt a little cinematic pushback. But they need to make better, less laughably propagandistic movies about recent instances of Catholic martyrdom.
And as with There Be Dragons, the history itself is dodgy. The horrific excesses of a government determined to rein in a church thoroughly allied with the former ruling classes are documented, but there's nothing about the Cristeros' mass slaughter of rural schoolteachers who dared to teach evolution.
If you're tackling a subject this complex, you need to be more careful. You need to aim higher in hiring behind-the-camera talent. If you're making a movie aimed at people of a particular faith, you might want to cut it below an R-rating. And if you're going to attempt an epic, you need to spend more money than this.