Film Review – For Greater Glory
When I was in high school and college, one of my favorite classes to take was history. U.S. history, European history, Asian history, and so on—you name it, I was interested. I saw history courses not so much as classes where the main skill to have was memorization, but rather as an experience of all these different kinds of cultures and stories. I was fascinated by how people evolved or devolved, how one event affected another, and how it all ties in to the world we see today. In a way, you can almost describe it like watching movies. You have your main characters, the various struggles they go through, and the results of their decisions. A film like For Greater Glory (2012) would seem to be something that would fit right into my wheelhouse. Unfortunately, it’s not in my wheelhouse. It’s not even in the same vicinity. Hell, it’s not even in the same state.
That’s too bad, because there seemed to have been a really interesting story to be told, one that hasn’t been told in the mainstream before. I had never heard of the Cristeros War before, so I was looking forward to seeing a film that detailed this true-life event. A quick Wikipedia search describes the Cristeros (or Cristero) War as “an uprising and counter-revolution against Mexican government in power” from 1926 to 1929. After the Mexican Constitution of 1917, the government set strict laws and other anti-clerical provisions against Roman Catholics, banning them from openly praying or wearing religious clothing in public, or even getting married. After peaceful resistance, violence finally broke out, led by rebels who named themselves “Cristeros” because they believed that they were fighting for “Cristo Rey” (“Christ the King”). This is a fascinating backdrop for a film. Whenever you have people fighting for what they believe in, it makes for high drama. It’s just too bad that it wasn’t portrayed in a better film.
There’s certainly good intentions going on here. It’s important to have films such as this to shed light on a subject matter that may go unseen by others. But the issue is that this film, while earnest in its intentions, has zero spark or life within its story. The film revolves around General Enrique Velarde (Andy Garcia), a Mexican war hero who finds himself siding for the Cristeros against the government’s ban of religious practice. Velarde, himself an agnostic, believes that people should be free to choose their own way of living, and adds his brilliant strategic mind to a rebellion that began with very little structure. As an actor, I have respect for Andy Garcia, but his performance here feels muted and stale. He comes off as if he’s simply going through the motions of his character, not really having much enthusiasm for what is happening in the scene. The chemistry that he is supposed to have with his wife, Tulita (Eva Longoria), is non-existent, and whenever he tries to rally the troops with an inspirational speech, it feels as though director Dean Wright (and writer Michael Love) were trying to make a parody of such a moment instead of an actual one.
Every scene that was meant to draw emotion from the viewer felt forced and insincere. The film strains to win us over, and as a result we’re left disengaged with it. The worst instance of this is with the second main character, Jose (Mauricio Kuri). Jose is a young boy who witnesses first-hand the harsh reality of his world, as he watches soldiers violently remove his friend and mentor Father Christopher (Peter O’Toole) from his church. As a result, Jose takes it upon himself to leave his family and join Velarde and the rest of the Cristos in the rebellion. Now, the most interesting parts of the film are when we see and learn how Velarde manages to lead this small group of people to various victories in warfare. When Jose enters the situation, the film goes on a tangent in a direction that drags the film down to a slow crawl. Instead of focusing on how the rebellion is putting pressure on Mexican government officials, we see a relationship between Velarde and Jose begin to develop. I see what the filmmakers were going for here, trying to add a more human element to both Velarde and to Jose. The problem is that it does not feel earned; the bond that the two have is written only as a means to generate an emotional response from the viewer. This is further seen when Jose is used as a pawn by the enemy to attack Velarde and his men. Putting children in danger is an easy and manipulative means to gain sympathy, and unfortunately it feels as though that is shoehorned directly into the screenplay.
A story as interesting as this one deserves to have a film made well enough to present it. Yes, there are some good things at work here, but mostly it’s on a surface level. The production value of the project feels accomplished; there does seem to be an air of authenticity in the way the film looks. Period details such as the costumes and the environments appear accurate to an untrained eye. But other than that, the script doesn’t allow the movie to have any sense of energy or enthusiasm. It kind of goes through the basic routines of a period war movie, as if it were running through a checklist of requirements a film of the genre has, never trying to do something new or different with the material. There are a good number of speaking roles here, but other than Velarde and Jose, none of them really stand out on their own. Even Eva Longoria and Peter O’Toole, two names that are well established in the film and television worlds, fade into the background, never having enough development to be truly memorable. As a historical document and an attempt to introduce new people to this period of time, For Greater Glory should be commended for its effort. But in terms of technical skill and storytelling ability, it falls flat before getting a chance to get on its feet.
Final Grade: C-