Poor Mexico, runs the saying usually attributed to long-time Mexican strongman Porfirio Diaz, So far from God, so close to the United States. I was thinking of this, when we went to see the movie For Greater Glory – mostly because I had seen brief mention of it here and there on the libertarian-conservative side of the blogosphere, and the whole premise of it interested me, mostly because I had never heard of such a thing as the Cristero War. Never heard of it, and it happened in the lifetime of my grandparents, in the country right next door … and heck, in California we studied Mexico in the sixth grade. It appeared from casual conversation with the dozen or so people who caught the early matinee at a movie multiplex in San Antonio, only one of them had ever heard of it, either. Was there some cosmic cover-up, or did we have troubles enough of our own at the time … or was it just that Mexico was so constantly in turmoil that one more horrific civil struggle just blended seamlessly into the one before and the one after?
Whatever the reason is, For Greater Glory would be a good introduction to the matter – when Plutarco Elias Callas – an aggressive and a rabidly anti-clerical autocrat took advantage of his position at the top of national authority in Mexico to confound, hamper and severely limit the influence of the established Catholic Church. In this, Callas was in conformity with other progressive secularists both fascist and communist. The church was seen as retarding the advance of Mexico generally into the glories of 20th century modernity … and so it seemed only logical that such an influence should be radically pruned if not eliminated altogether. Existing laws should be enforced to the letter and more, and new ones created. Unfortunately, the government soon ran slap up against the resistance of the sincerely devout, but also of secularists who genuinely preferred that civil authority keep hands off religious matters – that citizens have free choice in the practice of religion. Passive resistance to the civil authority in the form of protests, petitions and boycotts – soon proved fruitless. And very soon, the government began responding with force: hanging priests, wrecking churches, and otherwise waging war on the religious protestors, in the spirit of providing a salutary example to other dissenters. This being Mexico, with a stiff-necked population unaccustomed to suffer violent repression with patient fortitude, the religious resistants soon began organizing and shooting back. Several of the most able commanders were in fact, ordained priests. But contradictions abound; the ostensible hero of Glory is General Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) – a retired veteran of the previous wars, a skilled strategist – and at the beginning, an agnostic. He is hired by the consortium of resistants, for a generous salary and the assurance that his wife and daughters will have security in the event of his death … and he turns out to be worth every penny.
For Greater Glory is an epic, with a magnificent cast, and expertly filmed in locations to match; there is not a cheesy-low-budget corner-cutting moment in the whole thing. That said – there are almost too many characters to deal adequately with their stories, their personalities and their fates. The movie itself ends ambiguously – not with the bang of victory clearly won, but with the whimper of a negotiated settlement brokered by the American ambassador – who shown as being rather torn between horror at the brutality meted out to the Cristeros and worry about American economic interests in Mexico. After coming home this afternoon, I went snorkeling around the internet, looking for background information about the Cristero War, and discovered that the American institution which backed the Cristeros most strongly were the Knights of Columbus … and that ironically, it is claimed that some leaders of the KKK – as ferocious anti-Catholics – sent telegrams of advice and encouragement to Plutarco Callas.
Above all, it is supremely ironic that For Greater Glory is coming out now … just when the Obama administration is running slap up against the religious principles held by many Americans regarding gay marriage, abortion and whether religious institutions or individuals should yield to civil authority … or not. As a minor note; those dangers posed to civil society of laws on the books, which are enforced by the whim of prosecutors should also be made clear, as well as the danger of an autocrat ruling by executive orders. A quick scan of reviews finds a curiously mixed bag – the NY Times loved it with reservations, many other major reviewers panned or praised with faint damns, but many ordinary bloggers or those with a religious orientation seemed to love it.
(Later – Cross-posted at www.ncobrief.com)