For Greater Glory, the US/Mexican film set to open June 1, is a rousing, rollicking epic about a censored and tragic era in Mexican history. The 142 minute show is possibly still not long enough to do full justice to a complex history of something one doesn't see often in cinema, a fight over religious freedom. Between a useful prologue and epilogue are several interwoven stories and a half dozen major military battles and minor raids. The beautifully evoked scene is Mexico of the 1920s, but the feel is that of a sweeping Russian novel. Several lead American actors are joined by a superb Mexican cast, most of whom will be newcomers to US audiences.
For Greater Glory breaks new ground on several fronts. One is the fruitful US/Mexican production team's seamless artistic coperation. Another is the surprising timeliness of the subject matter, which is strictly an accident, since the film has been in the works for a decade, long before President Obama's quarrels with Christians in general and the Catholic Church in particular, and even before the latest persecution of the Copts in Egypt and the Christians in Iraq and Syria. And the film definitely breaks new historic ground in a way that will send many viewers to the internet and history books to study the fascinating events in the films.
Even some Americans who think they know Mexican history are puzzled by the Cristero Rebellion of 1926-29. In Mexico itself the government suppressed study of the era in school textbooks. It is an uncomfortable story for many, since it describes a violently divisive time and raises the issue of religious freedom today.
Over 90,000 people died in the main part of the rebellion that is covered in For Greater Glory, and the last death was not until 1941. Since the perpetrator of the persecution, President Plutarco Elias Calles, was also the founder of today's PRI (Institutionalized Revolutionary Party) that ruled for seventy years, Mexican officials until the last dozen years had no desire to revive recollections of what happened.
Americans, meanwhile, who have taken religious liberty for granted for generations, will become aware when watching For Greater Glory that many in the governing class do, indeed, want to control and even extirpate competing power sources, including organized religion. If they have the will, they certainly have the means, even in a country, like ours, with a revered Bill of Rights and long judicial precedents. Since the 1940s US courts and some politicians have slowly, but inexorably increased restrictions of religious speech and teaching. The struggle between the Obama Administration and the Catholic Church over provisions in Obamacare is only the latest skirmish. We are not facing what the Calles Administration did in Mexico, but its example may prove sobering.
For Greater Glory is going to be hailed by many Catholics and other Christians and by political conservatives in general. Precisely for that reason you can expect it to be panned or ignored by the mainstream press. In a weekend list of summer movies anticipated by the Wall Street Journal this gripping drama for serious history buffs and action enthusiasts alike did not warrant so much as a mention. The kinds of theaters that showed The Chronicles of Narnia and The Passion of the Christ will show For Greater Glory, but others will not.
For Greater Glory has the power of Braveheart and the soul of A Man for All Seasons.
When the film ends, one sees photos of the characters played on screen and then photos of the real persons they portrayed. Several of the martyrs were beatified only weeks ago by Pope Benedict XVI when he was in Leon, Guanajauto, a central Cristero stronghold.
Curiously, another film, The Last Cristeros (Los Ultimos Cristeros), a Mexican/Dutch film, opened this past week at the Seattle International Film Festival. It is a much slower-paced production that centers exclusively on one band of Cristeros who were still fighting in the mountains in 1935. The action is slight, but the acting is poignant in its own deliberate way. The film probably will not escape the film festival circuit. But it has the merit of explaining that the nominal end of the Cristero Rebellion did not result in an end to persecution--or resistance. Religious liberty, like all liberty, as Ronald Reagan said, is never more than one generation from extermination and must be vigorously defended.