For Greater Glory is the type of film that gives the screen epic a bad name. From its solemn speechifying to its overstuffed cast of characters and its battle set pieces, everything about Dean Wright’s film not only announces itself as blandly “epic,” but declares itself content to ape the tired tropes of numerous predecessors rather than build fresh interest into these cinematic standbys.
Perhaps the sheer rightness of the cause for which the film’s protagonists fight should be enough to put over the half-baked material, but in dealing with a little-known historical event, the Cristero War that rocked Mexico for three years in the late 1920s, the moral superiority of these characters’ positions is by no means a given. While the Cristeros fought against the repressive regime of President Plutarco Calles (Ruben Blades) for religious freedom, the fact that this religion is specifically Catholic and that the film seems to take that creed’s excellence as a given makes the material a tough sell.
It’s also a tough sell for the film’s central character, General Gorostieta (Andy Garcia), coaxed out of retirement by the Cristeros, and who, despite his own atheism, agrees to fight for the cause because his wife is a staunch Catholic—because he hates injustice, and because he’s longing to return to the battlefield. The film’s central conflict at the level of character, then, becomes whether Gorostieta will ultimately embrace Catholicism for himself. But isn’t it enough that he serve the cause for religious freedom? Of course, that would assume that the film is simply about the liberty to pray to whichever god one chooses without being strung up by the federales and not specifically about a specific dogma. As it is, it’s only a matter of time until the good general sees the light.
For the rest, the film is awash in blandly brown-toned cinematography, action scenes more violent than rousing, and a whole host of bathetic subplots (its martyrdom fetish reaches its grotesque nadir when a young boy dies rather than make the most token anti-Catholic gesture). Only a narrative strain about the negotiations between the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico (well played by Bruce Greenwood) and President Calles, mostly having to do with American interest in their southern neighbor’s petroleum, generates any socio-political interest, temporarily lifting the film out of the realm of narrow-minded death-and-glory melodrama. But then Garcia delivers one more ponderous monologue while slowly inching his way toward the white light of religious conversion and we’re back to embracing a worldview where the implied mandate to practice Catholicism feels nearly as onerous as the inability to do so.