In 1926 the secular government of Mexico, led by atheist president Plutarco Elías Calles, launched a nationwide crackdown on Catholicism. Though laws restricting the freedoms of the Catholic Church had been in place since 1916, Calles aimed to silence churchbells, expel priests and make Catholicism subservient to the state—with the ultimate aim, perhaps, to eliminate it altogether.
But in Mexico's most pious regions, the people rose up. Thousands rebelled, taking up arms to restore faith's traditional place in the culture. They were called, collectively, Cristeros.
For Greater Glory tells us that these Cristeros were a disunified rabble at first: farmers, ranchers and priests with scarcely a professional soldier among them. That changed when the rebellion hired Enrique Gorostieta Velarde. Enrique was a cagey general with an eye for strategy and an ability to lead. He seemed the perfect man for the post—with one important qualifier:
"I'm not what you would call a devout believer," he admits onscreen. In fact, Enrique's an atheist.
No matter, the Cristeros tell him. Lead our troops, and we'll pay you handsomely. He accepts, and begins to fight not for religion, but religious freedom; not to defend his own faith, but for that of his wife and children.
"Maybe by doing it, you will [believe] too," his wife says.
For Greater Glory is based on historical events. Enrique, Calles and many of the other characters in play here were real people. As heroes, they weren't always heroic, but this inspirational retelling (and at times reimagining) gives us plenty of characters we can sympathize with and root for.
Take Enrique, for example. Historians suspect that he accepted the Cristeros command because it offered a shortcut to becoming Mexico's president. But For Greater Glory shows us another side of the man, giving us a brave, inspirational leader—albeit a pragmatic, calculating one—who tells his soldiers that they will "fight with honor and dignity." And while he may not believe in the Cristeros' religion, he does believe in religious freedom and will fight anyone who tries to take that away.
History also tells us that Father Vega was a Catholic priest in name only—one who didn't take many of his vows very seriously. But in the film he's a God-fearing pastor who makes a horrible mistake (burning a train still filled with passengers) and spends the rest of his life trying to make up for it. "I will pray every day for our merciful God to forgive me," he says.
There are other, more clear-cut heroes too. Adriana braves discovery by federal troops to deliver bullets to the Cristeros. Eduardo refuses to shed blood, deciding to resist the government through more peaceful means. Father Christopher helps turn around the life of a young boy named José Luis Sánchez del Rio—taking him under his wing and teaching him Christ-based morality. When troops come to kill the elderly priest, he tells José to be strong and of good courage:
"Who are you if you don't stand up for what you believe? There is no greater glory than to give your life for Christ."
José takes those words to heart—as we shall see in the next section. He's also shown to turn his back on stealing and lying: He swipes a pocket watch he finds while cleaning and lies to Father Christopher about it. But when the priest makes him an altar boy, José sheepishly hands it over. "Well done," Christopher says. "I'm proud of you."
For Greater Glory begins with a religious poem and ends with a tabulation of how many Cristeros were eventually beatified. The entire epic is pinned to the themes of faith and religion, particularly as they're manifested in Roman Catholicism. We see icons, crucifixes and religious medallions. We're privy to celebrations of Mass and rites of confession. Spiritual content isn't just present here, it's pervasive.
In the beginning, Enrique mocks belief, calling it "holy nonsense" to his devout wife. Even when he signs on with the Cristeros and participates in Mass with his men, he shows little respect. When Father Vega, both a spiritual and military leader by this point, tells him he must confess to God before accepting the sacrament, Enrique mockingly replies, "Wouldn't He already know?"
He grudgingly wears an oversized crucifix. And when he speaks to his men, he speaks using religious language ("Men may fire bullets, but God decides where they land"). But still he doubts. It's only when he grows close to José that he seems to sense a longing for God.
"I wish I had your faith," he tells Adriana. "José's faith. I don't know where to find it."
"If your heart is open," Adriana answers, "it might find you."
José wasn't always a boy of particularly deep faith either. He falls under the influence of Father Christopher after he beans the guy with a piece of fruit. He's sent to clean the church as punishment, but Father Christopher senses a teaching opportunity and promotes him to altar boy. Through the father's teaching, José grows to love God, eventually leaving his family to join the Cristeros. There, his piety, hard work and self-sacrifice impress everyone, particularly Enrique.
Father Vega says that God can work through the worst of circumstances, and we see that concept illuminated through José. He's beaten and tortured, and through his sufferings we're intentionally reminded of Christ's Passion and the stations of the cross. José is told several times that if he just renounces his faith he'll be released.
One priest's last words, before being executed, are, "May God bless. I forgive you, sir. I do."
We see Enrique and his wife share a bed.
For Greater Glory earned its R rating for violence. While not particularly gruesome, that violence is vicious and the body count is sky-high. Scenes can be pretty difficult to watch.
It's particularly hard to see José, who looks all of 10 or 12 years old, suffer so. We see his face covered with cuts and bruises. We see him tied to a table as a soldier carves into the soles of his feet with a knife. When he's then forced to walk, blood oozes onto the concrete and dirt.
Another kid—even younger than José—is hanged for a minor offense. And, in truth, very few of the Cristeros make it to the credits alive. A man is shot through the head (the bullet leaving behind a small hole). Another is felled by a machine gun (dying as blood seeps from his mouth). A rebel pacifist is stabbed in the gut by soldiers. Priests are shot or hanged or stabbed.
Federales break into a church and slaughter those barricaded inside. Blazing guns claim the lives of countless Cristeros, and the casualties of war are seen everywhere, from the women and children massacred to the bodies of rebels left hanging from telephone poles across the country.
Victoriano, a rancher turned revolutionary, earns a degree of fame for single-handedly killing 14 Federales, one of whom he shoots in the back as he runs away. As mentioned, Father Vega torches a passenger train, killing 51 people—people we hear screaming as the fire consumes the cars. While we hear Vega (distracted by the death of his brother) asking if all the passengers were off the train before he sets it ablaze, we get the sense that perhaps he could've done more to save them.
Crude or Profane Language
One improper use of "h‑‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Enrique, Calles and many others smoke cigars and cigarettes. Several characters imbibe wine or down shots of tequila.
For Greater Glory begins with a poem:
Between heaven and earth
Between light and dark
Between faith and sin
Lies only my heart
Lies God and only my heart
While the film tries to be many things—historical epic, rollicking Western, treatise on religious freedom—that poem, and the sentiments behind it, sum up its very crux. For Greater Glory salutes the Cristeros, acknowledging as it does so that while their violent resistance might've been necessary, it might not have been altogether good. Those who took part were, by and large, lodged between faith and sinful ambition, imperfect men paradoxically killing for a Savior who died for them.
It's telling, I think, that scenes of sacrificial martyrdom mingle so closely with frenetic shoot-outs—priests forgive their killers before the killers are themselves killed. And while we see Cristeros fight for God, the film only truly sanctifies them—absolves them from their cinematic sins, if you will—when they die, not kill, for their cause.
Remember that rollicking Western label I gave the film earlier? The kind of film in which you could tell the good guys from the bad guys by the type of hat they wore? Well, you won't see many white hats here. The ones these characters wear are dirty—stained by years of toil and turmoil. But they're not merely gray. The people who wear them at least know they can be made white again—if not in this life, then the next.