For Greater Glory
Produced by NewLand Films
Directed by Dean Wright
Screenplay by Michael Love
Distributed by ARC Entertainment


Are you familiar with the Cristeros?  They were Mexican Catholics who rebelled against their secularist government in 1926.  I knew very little of them myself until I saw For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada.

With the kind of grand, sweeping style favored by ambitious historical films of the 1950’s and early 60’s—think Quo Vadis, Lawrence of Arabia, and El Cid—director Dean Wright and scenarist Michael Love present the Cristeros as a courageous, and at times foolhardy, armed force comprising small landowners, rancheros, intellectuals, peasants, and parish priests who refused to submit to the anti-Catholic policies initiated by the revolutionary government that came to power in 1910.  At first, the government’s anticlerical legislation was irksome and insulting, but by 1926 it became wholly intolerable.  Catholic activists resorted to boycotts and strikes to change the government’s mind, but when officials reacted violently to their peaceful protests, arresting and executing priests and Catholic laymen, the more militant among the activists decided to rebel.  They began secession movements in Mexico’s northern states and met with surprising success, defeating the Federales.  The battle cry used by these daring dissidents was “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”), which gave them their name.

You would think a movement that almost succeeded in toppling Mexico’s Marxist-inflected government would be better known today.  Yet it’s not only self-absorbed Americans who remain ignorant of the Cristeros.  Many if not most Mexicans are unaware of them.  But then again, maybe it’s not so surprising.  The subject hardly flatters Mexico’s revolutionary government.  Furthermore, members of the international left have preferred to avert their usually vigilant eyes from the disheartening spectacle of Catholics rising up to defend themselves.  Nor, to speak candidly, does it do much credit for the Church’s hierarchy, whose support for the Cristeros was from the first equivocal.  If the Cristiada hasn’t been actively covered up, it seems fair to say it’s been studiously ignored.

In brief, here’s what happened.  In 1926 Plutarco Calles succeeded Alvaro Obregón as president and promptly began to enforce vigorously the anticlerical laws that his predecessor had been content to leave largely in abeyance.  Calles directed his police and soldiers to make sure that the clergy observed the regulations to the letter.  Foreign priests were deported; Mexican priests were forbidden to appear in public wearing religious garb and were no longer allowed to teach or discuss religion outside their churches.  What’s more, Calles outlawed religious orders and deprived the clergy of civil liberties, including their right to trial by jury.  Those who refused to knuckle under were arrested.  Those who continued to resist were tortured and often killed.  As we see in the film, the Federales favored hanging them from church crucifixes and bayoneting them.  The laity who supported the priests were treated with similar brutality.  By all accounts, Calles was a thug whose impoverished childhood, as the bastard son of a lower-class couple, had left him permanently bitter toward those portions of Mexican society he deemed unjustly entitled, the Church being number one on his list of offenders.

It’s the old story.  Like other ideologues before and after him, Calles had adopted a wonderful political plan ostensibly for the most humane, enlightened reasons, never admitting, perhaps even to himself, the role his personal grievances played in his politics.  He was determined to lead his nation into a rational, antiseptic, and thoroughly streamlined future, free of the encumbrances of oldthink.  It was to be a shiny utopia untroubled by the medieval superstition that abetted the pietistic charade devised by the clergy to gull the ignorant.  He met with a problem, however.  Mexico had been Catholic since the 16th century, and large portions of her population of every class refused to give up their religious and cultural traditions.

The Cristeros, who numbered among their ranks known brigands and armed priests, thought themselves entirely justified in resorting to violence.  So, from 1926 to 1929, Mexico was at war with herself, incurring 90,000 deaths on both sides.  The conflict theoretically ended in 1929 with a peace agreement negotiated between the Catholic hierarchy and Calles’ government, with the assistance of U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow, who had been sent to Mexico to defend America’s oil interests.  (Sound familiar?)  Morrow was somewhat sympathetic to the Catholic cause and seems to have been appalled by the barbarous Calles, but he was serving Calvin Coolidge, and America’s business was, after all, business.  The primary enemy from his official point of view was political instability, which he was determined to end, no matter the cost.  For its part, the Mexican hierarchy had from the first preferred accommodation and compromise rather than violent counterrevolution.  Pope Pius XI thought the same.  The Church concluded that protracting the war would only cost more lives and further undermine the Church’s position in Mexico.  Some historians point to the growing presence of Protestant missionaries in the country, inferring that the Church’s ruling members feared to be caught in an historical pincer movement between secularists, on one side, and (for lack of a more politic term) heretics, on the other.  Tellingly, the Cristeros were not invited to the negotiation table.  By the terms of the peace to which the parties agreed, the Cristeros were supposed to be accorded amnesty, but Calles reneged on this feature of the settlement shortly after hostilities ended.  After the Cristero rank and file had returned to their home villages, he ordered the Federales to track and kill their leaders—a squalid end for men who had fought so well to defend their Church.  Did the prelates sell them out?  Or was this the unforeseen cost of sustaining the Church in a hostile nation?

Wright’s film dramatizes many of these events with energy and conviction.  He shows us the bitter consequences of Marxist ideology and the strife it precipitates among people who despise its alien premises.  Obeying orders, soldiers desecrate churches, slaughter priests, and terrorize parishioners, often firing into crowds indiscriminately.  The Cristeros fight back with courage and cunning but are themselves not without fault.  In one unnerving scene based on a real event, a Cristero priest, having been assured that all civilian passengers had been removed, orders the burning of a captured train, not realizing until it is too late that he had been lied to.  As harrowing as these episodes are, there’s also room for humor.  When Cristero women risk their lives carrying stolen ammunition in their undergarments to supply the fighters, the odd shell inconveniently drops out at the wrong moment.

Then there’s Ruben Blades, giving needed heft to the narrative.  In another one of his quietly intense performances, he plays Calles as a leader out of his depth, seething impotently at each new report of Federale humiliation.

At the heart of the film there is the embroidered story of Enrique Gorostieta Velarde (Andy Garcia), the retired general retained by the Cristeros to lead their ill-prepared army, and 14-year-old José Luis Sánchez del Rio (Mauricio Kuri), a martyr whom Pope Benedict XVI beatified in 2005.  Inventing a relationship between them, Wright introduces his central theme: the redemptive power of sacrifice.  Gorostieta was an agnostic who joined the fight because he was bored with his peacetime occupation running a soap factory, and also because his wife was an ardent Catholic aggrieved by Calles’s treatment of the Church.  The boy’s steadfast spiritual conviction moves him to reconsider his own lukewarm commitment.  When he learns that under torture José repeatedly refused to renounce his faith, crying out with each new atrocity, “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” Gorostieta comes to rethink what he thought he knew about life on earth.  Although there is no evidence that this happened as Wright has dramatized it, there is good reason to suppose Gorostieta may have been inspired to respect the Cristeros’ willingness to sacrifice themselves for their faith and reconsider his own.

Having said this much, I wish I could also report that For Greater Glory is a great film.  It’s not.  For all its virtues—and they are many—it is nevertheless a slog through a diffuse and poorly organized narrative that frequently left me confused as to what was what and who was who.  In his commitment to the story, Wright seems not to have been able to distinguish the essential from the incidental.  He’s put everything he has learned about the Cristeros on the screen, including their immense mustaches, which render them almost indistinguishable one from another.

The original edit of the film ran well over four hours and had to be cut severely to reach its two-hour-and-twenty-three-minute theatrical release.  This reveals the problem.  The film is at once too short and not long enough.  As released, it is filled with abrupt transitions meant to connect disparate episodes populated by men and women who rarely or never meet one another.  Even an audience thoroughly familiar with the events will likely find this scattered account confusing.  In short, the film needed a different treatment.  For once Hollywood’s standard sprawl-controlling formula would have been preferable: At the cost of historical accuracy, dramatize a few leading figures in the foreground and leave everything else in the background.  Another approach would be to give the events the far greater scope afforded by a television miniseries, in which there would be time to investigate the story’s many characters and subplots without the risk of losing the audience.  On television, the film would lose some of its visual impact, but the story would gain in narrative logic and dramatic point.  And this may happen.  Garcia has reported there could be a DVD release in which the cuts would be restored and the entire film edited for rhythm and fluency.  If so, I hope Wright reconsiders the glutinously sentimental score.  The music is meant to add drama to the scenes, but it only serves to remind the audience of Wright’s overwrought desire to manipulate us into what he conceives to be the correct response to his story.

For more information on the Cristeros, you can consult Ruben Quezada’s book, For Greater Glory, published by Ignatius Press to accompany the film.  I haven’t read it yet, but I am told that it fills the movie’s many lacunae.