If your freedoms were taken, your rights undermined,
To worship, to write, or to speak your own mind?
Would you flee?
Would you fight?
Would you stay out of sight?
Would you trigger a war?
Would you pray less or more?
Would you just play along,
With no thought to the wrong,
And in fear knowing well
That one word could bring hell?
Would you plot and resist?
Would you cease and desist?
Would your final resort
Be but silent support?
Would you bear the blood spilt
And accept your own guilt?
Would you think yourself smarter
As traitor or martyr?
Now ask what must happen, what action or vision,
To weigh on your conscience and change your decision?
MPAA rating: R (for scenes of war and torture, could be PG-13)
This is my contribution to the Remembering James Horner Blogathon over at Film Music Central, where the music of the late great film composer is being celebrated. I’d wanted to see For Greater Glory for years now, and this gave me the perfect opportunity, while illustrating how Horner was equally at home scoring small-budget historical dramas as well as multi-million-dollar blockbusters.
I’ve been waiting for that moment when Christian filmmaking manages to keep up with Hollywood, because despite the inspirational appeal of movies like Fireproof and Miracles from Heaven, Christian films always tend to lack the polish of their secular counterparts. Thankfully, For Greater Glory has that polish, boasting cinematography, editing, and a name-recognized cast worthy of Hollywood while telling a story at once faithful, gritty, and timely.
Most people have probably never heard of the Cristero War, a Mexican revolt from 1926 to 1929 caused by the viciously anti-Catholic policies of President Plutarco Elías Calles (played by Rubén Blades). Because of the history of devout Catholicism that seems synonymous with Latin America, it came as a surprise to me that anti-religious positions were written into the Mexican constitution, and when Calles began enforcing them by deporting foreign priests and killing priests and parishioners alike, the people rose up against him with the battle cry of “Viva Christo Rey!” It’s a struggle largely forgotten but comprehensively recounted through the experiences of various freedom fighters: famed general Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia), lone wolf Victoriano Ramirez (Oscar Isaac), priest-turned-general Father Vega (Santiago Cabrera), peace-seeking lawyer Anacleto Flores (Eduardo Verástegui), and pious youngster José Sánchez del Río (Mauricio Kuri).
The entire cast deliver excellent performances, from Garcia’s conflicted attitude toward defending a religion he doesn’t share to a brief but impactful role for Peter O’Toole. Garcia as General Gorostieta is the most intriguing, an atheist like Calles who nonetheless staunchly believes in religious freedom; his calls of “Viva Christo Rey” encourage the troops as they become perhaps more heartfelt, reminding me that impartial atheists can do wonders with spiritual material. (For example, Amazing Grace was directed by Michael Apted.) The sporadic action is also tense and visceral (though more worth a PG-13 than an R), with ambushes, battles, and an especially cool one-against-fourteen shoot-out with Oscar Isaac. As for Horner’s score, it’s not among his most memorable soundtracks but one which masterfully complements every scene, rousing during the war scenes and suitably intense in the most emotional moments.
Despite the epic scope that the film mostly achieves, it’s rather slow-paced overall, and one might have trouble telling the various characters apart at first. What makes For Greater Glory worthwhile, though, is its commitment to telling a story that has been swept under the rug of history, an injustice explained by the fact that history is told by the winning side. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that this is more tragedy than triumph, and sacrifices toward the end bring to mind death scenes in The Passion of the Christ and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even if none of the characters are deeply explored, the historical notes before the end credits give them the depth of reality as we learn that many have since been beatified or canonized as saints.
With ever-growing distress over religious freedom in America and throughout the world, it’s important to see where religious intolerance can lead. Again, it’s hard to imagine that, in the country of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Christians were hanged from telephone poles less than a century ago, like crosses along the ancient Appian Way. Some have considered the film to be one-sided in its blessing of the rebels who committed some glossed-over atrocities of their own, but the heroics and devotion on display are still worthy of admiration, remembrance, and prayers that such abuses may never happen again.
Best line: (Calles, speaking of Gorostieta) “Filio Diaz used to say, ‘A dog with a bone in his mouth doesn’t bark and doesn’t bite.’ In politics, everything has a price. Go find his.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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