You can't blame director Dean Wright for casting Peter O'Toole in a small but significant role in the historical epic For Greater Glory. Nearly 80 years old, O'Toole remains an iconic movie star and commands the viewer's attention as Father Christopher, an elderly priest in Mexico who sets a young ne'er-do-well named Jose (Mauricio Kuri) on the straight and narrow. When Father Christopher falls victim to the anti-Catholic persecution of 1926, O'Toole gives the scene more weight than would the interchangeable character actors that make up the rest of the cast.
Unfortunately, O'Toole also evokes memories of some of the richest and most insightful historical films ever made, including Lawrence of Arabia and The Lion in Winter, which makes For Greater Glory look meager by comparison. For Greater Glory takes a powerful, neglected subject — Mexico's Cristeros War of the 1920s — and gives it the most bland, one-dimensional treatment imaginable.
For Greater Glory provides little religious or political context for the conflict, which begins when President Calles (Rubén Blades) institutes harsh restrictions on Catholicism and sanctions violent suppression of the subsequent protests. The film's first half hour follows so many brave Catholics and villainous military figures, it's like watching a season's worth of a "For Greater Glory" TV series boiled down to an extended montage.
An organized resistance called the Cristeros develops into a full-fledged rebellion and For Greater Glory sporadically follows some representative members. "El Catorce" (Oscar Isaac), a ranchero turned guerilla fighter, single-handedly kills 14 federales in a genuinely exciting scene worthy of a classic Western. Eva Longoria plays Tulita, one of several female supporters who smuggle ammunition and supplies under their clothes. An image of Tulita and friends in their undies wrapping bullets to their skin under lengths of cloth injects a little humor and eroticism to an otherwise sexless, humorless film.
Andy Garcia plays Enrique Velarde, a former general coaxed from his boring job running a soap factory to take up the Cristeros cause even though he's not a Catholic. For Greater Glory conceives of Velarde as an Oskar Schindler figure, a bourgeois, politically neutral man inspired to fight against injustice. Garcia brings the gravitas the film sorely needs, but the script only gives the actor a bare sketch to work with. When El Catorce questions Velarde's qualifications to lead the rebellion, Velarde basically just recites his CV: We don't get a sense of his passions or spiritual evolution.
Wright was the visual effects supervisor for the second two Lord of the Rings films, and oversaw the splendid photography of For Greater Glory's rugged locations. If the people had half the character of the places, For Greater Glory might command more interest. But the film is less interested in exploring personalities than presenting repetitive episodes of martyrdom. The scenes have historical precedent but come across like manipulation in the name of propaganda. Instead of seeing For Greater Glory, read Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. It also depicts a fugitive priest in nearly the same time period, but manages to find the personal in the political.
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