Three years ago, when director-producer Dean Wright agreed to helm a historical film about a pivotal but little-known Mexican conflict, he had no idea how closely its subject matter would mirror some of the fiercest political debates making headlines today.
For Greater Glory, which reaches theaters on June 1, relates the events surrounding the Cristero War, a people's revolt that was sparked in 1926 after a socialist Mexican government enacted anti-clerical legislation limiting the freedoms of the Catholic Church. The administration of President Elias Calles began by restricting how and where Mass was celebrated, then moved on to closing religious-affiliated schools and expelling foreign priests and ministers, before eventually seizing church property and putting Catholic dissenters to death.
At first, religious citizens protested peacefully, organizing economic boycotts and passing out literature condemning the new laws and Calles' methods of implementing them. But as Calles' enforcements grew more brutal, including hanging the dead bodies of executed priests and dissidents on telephone poles as warnings to would-be rebels, many faithful banded together and took up arms. But it wasn't until they recruited retired military mastermind Gen. Enrique Gorostieta (played in the film by Andy Garcia) to organize and lead them that the motley assortment of farmers, students, wives, and even some lay priests became a viable threat to Calles' power, going to war with the battle cry, "Cristo Rey" (Christ the King).
As part of his preparation for the film, Wright met with Gorostieta's children who told him that while their father was not the most devout Catholic, he believed ardently in religious freedom. "He believed if you were Jewish, if you were Protestant, if you were Catholic, you had the absolute right to practice your faith and not have that taken away from you," Wright says. He describes Gorostieta as not just a brilliant tactician, but a man with a broad understanding of what Calles' targeting of Catholics could mean for other civil liberties in Mexico.
"[Gorostieta] understood that throughout history the first step of an oppressive regime is to shut down the church in order to take away that support for potential dissidents," Wright says. "The aim is to cut you off from God. That's what oppressive governments do. The daily Mass, confession, the sacraments-they were part of the fabric of the culture in Mexico, and the president tried to tear that fabric away. So you can imagine the reaction."
Eventually the American ambassador to Mexico brokered a peace treaty between the two sides. But because Calles' anti-clerical party maintained power for another 70 years, it went to great lengths to erase the uprising from the annals of national history. "It wasn't discussed and it wasn't taught. If it was in the school books it was from a very specific point of view," Wright explains, adding that the movie's release is sparking a lot of controversy in Mexico. "It's a huge topic of debate right now, and we expected it, frankly, because we are showing a history that many younger people have never heard of."
In his experience with filming the movie, Wright says that whether people were aware of the story or not largely depended on how urban they were. "I grew up in Arizona and live in Southern California, and I had never heard of this. So when I started working on it, I went down to Mexico, because it was really important to me to go to the places where this actually happened. And in these little communities hours from any major city you would find in some church or some home a shrine or a picture of a priest or family member who wouldn't recant their faith and were killed because of it. But then I would go into Mexico City or Guadalajara and people would have no idea about it. They lived in Mexico and had no idea this happened. It's been a shock to many people."
Wright had years of experience working on epic-scale films like Titanic, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia, so the sweeping, historical nature of this project didn't daunt him. But while he understood that its themes of freedom and the balance between religious rights and government regulation would resonate with some audiences, he says he had no idea it would prove so timely. "There are lines in the script," he says with a laugh after I ask him about proposed contraceptive mandates in the United States, "that you could pull out and put in the newspaper and you'd think it was a conversation happening today."
Nevertheless, he is quick to point out that he did not approach the project with an agenda to push or a moral to teach, believing that events in the film speak for themselves. "Whether you believe [the Cristeros] did the right thing or not is for each person to decide. Would it have all worked out if they had just been pacifists, or would they all have been shot dead?" Wright asks. "I don't know and I didn't want to impose an answer. On the one hand our Lord is the Prince of peace, on the other there's a time for peace and a time for war."
He also explains that he took pains to avoid making a purely religious film and instead tried to maintain the story's larger context. "Yes, it's about people fighting for faith, but that's the same thing as fighting for freedom," he points out. "Because the next freedom to go is the right to protest, then the next freedom to go is the freedom of assembly. It's a slippery road and before you know it you're under a totalitarian government. Neighbors turn on neighbors, and that started to happen [under Calles], like you saw in Nazi Germany, and other fascist regimes."
Star Andy Garcia agrees, arguing that regardless of whether you'd be inclined to support the actions of the renegade Catholics, their story is worthy of attention. "There are debates going on in contemporary society about the role of the government and religion and where the line should be drawn over how deeply religion should be involved in politics and how much government should be involved in religion. So just like Braveheart wasn't just a movie for Scots or Schindler's List wasn't just a movie for Jewish people, this is not just a movie for Mexicans or for Catholics. This is a universal story that is still going on all around the world."
Garcia says he's glad For Greater Glory is bringing up events that were for so long a taboo subject in Mexico because he believes they have something to contribute to current debates. "It's the old cliché," he says. "If you don't know history you're in danger of repeating it."
See Megan Basham's review, "Rigteous rebels."