On the morning of June 2, 1929, a detachment of federales gunned down a middle-aged former army general outside a hacienda chapel in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Enrique Gorostieta was the commander of a Catholic peasant militia known as the Cristeros, which had been fighting the government of President Plutarco Calles for three years. In 1926, the fiercely anti-clerical Calles had moved to curtail the Catholic Church’s activities in Mexico, demanding the registration of the clergy and stripping the Church of the right to own property. Lay Catholics protested, Calles’s federales stormed local churches, and tens of thousands of the rural faithful rebelled. Gorostieta—himself a liberal-minded agnostic—had been hired to bring a measure of military discipline to the then-leaderless uprising. By the time he was killed in Jalisco, his guerrillas had fought the Mexican army to a near-stalemate.
“I describe Gorostieta as a Mexican William Wallace,” Dennis Rice, CEO of Visio Entertainment, told me, referring to the medieval Scottish patriot portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. It was late on a Thursday night in May, and Rice had called me from a taxi on his way back from the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. He had just spoken at the annual black-tie gala hosted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the conservative legal organization that last year filed the first lawsuit against the Obama administration’s ruling requiring that religious organizations provide coverage of contraceptives in their health insurance plans.
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who led the Catholic Church’s public campaign against the ruling, had given the invocation at the dinner, and Rice had shown a clip from For Greater Glory, a historical drama about Gorostieta and the Cristeros, which he is marketing. For Greater Glory is among the most expensive movies ever produced in Mexico and was the second-highest grossing movie at the Mexican box office in late April. But, in the United States, where For Greater Glory opens on June 1, the hope among conservative Catholic leaders is that the film will deliver a different kind of performance—as a weapon for winning one of this political season’s great culture-war skirmishes.
THE CONNECTION may not be immediately obvious to non-churchgoers. But, for anyone familiar with the air of aggrieved persecution that has permeated the Church, as well as right-leaning Protestant institutions, since President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued its ruling on contraception, the allegorical value of a Western-style epic about rugged God- and gun-loving individualists doing battle with an overreaching federal government is hard to miss. “Freedom is not just for writers and for politicians and for fancy documents!” Gorostieta, played by Andy Garcia, shouts to his men in the scene that Rice showed the Becket Fund crowd. “Freedom is our home, our wives, our children, our faith! Freedom is our lives—and we will defend it or die trying!” Watching the scene at a recent press screening of the movie, I half-expected to see the Cristeros ride off to battle in sweater vests.
After speaking about the administration’s contraception ruling at a mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington in April, Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl urged parishioners to go see For Greater Glory. Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez has praised the film’s “message of the importance of religious freedom [that] has particular resonance for us today.” Organizers of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast invited the film’s producer to Washington in April and screened For Greater Glory for an audience of Catholic thought-leaders. “I don’t think the Catholic bishops are going to let the opportunity pass,” Ed Morrissey, senior editor at the popular conservative blog Hot Air and an early champion of the film, told me. “I think they’re looking at this as a great springboard for discussing the HHS mandate.”
For Greater Glory’s producer, Pablo José Barroso, is an affable Mexico City real estate developer who began making religious films in 2005 after a midlife spiritual awakening. His first film, about the Virgin of Guadalupe, fared poorly at the box office. “I did it in the wrong way,” he says. “People don’t want to be preached to.” After a follow-up effort proved similarly disappointing, Barroso decided to aim more directly at the popcorn market. He reached out to Dean Wright—a special-effects guru who had worked on Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia series—about directing a movie about the Cristeros.
Casting the Cristero rebellion as a parable of secular government against the believers requires a few historical elisions. For Greater Glory portrays Calles, the father of modern Mexican nationalism, as a godless socialist with a sui generis hatred of all religion. In fact, Calles had welcomed American Protestant organizations into Mexico; he mostly resented the Catholic Church as a rival center of earthly power. When I e-mailed Jean Meyer, a professor at Mexico City’s Center for Economic Research and Education and author of La Cristiada—the definitive history of the uprising—to ask what he thought of the movie, he wrote back: “[Y]ou can imagine what I think. I don’t want to be negative, the Mexican producer has good intentions, but not enough for a good film. The Hollywood screenwriter totally deformed the facts and the characters.”
But historical infidelity is not usually a problem at the multiplex, and For Greater Glory’s producers have more pressing concerns—first and foremost, getting people to see the movie. Its reported $25 million budget was enough to pay for most of the trappings of a summer blockbuster: lush cinematography, soaring strings scored by Titanic composer James Horner, and a cast of respectable wattage, including Garcia, Eva Longoria, and Peter O’Toole. But the movie never managed to attract a major U.S. distributor, and its backers have had to figure out how to get the word out on a sub-Battleship promotional budget—which means For Greater Glory’s unexpected political relevance is as much of a gift for the film’s producers as it is for social conservatives.
Earlier this year, Rice hired CRC Public Relations, a Washington-based firm best-known for running communications for some of the most prominent conservative issue campaigns of recent years, including the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004. Garcia has stopped by Laura Ingraham’s radio show and put in an appearance on “Fox and Friends.” “What is happening today with our government,” Rice told the conservative talk radio host Rick Amato earlier this month, “is strangely similar to what seems to have happened in Mexico back in the ’20s.”
For Greater Glory’s promoters are mindful of the hazards of selling their product as a long-form Rick Santorum ad. “The last thing you want people to think is that this is a boring lecture,” Rice says, “or something you could see on CNN.” Rice toned down the film’s original theatrical trailer, which opened with images of soldiers shooting churchgoers in their pews, and booming text: WHEN THE GOVERNMENT OUTLAWED FAITH, THE FAITHFUL BECAME OUTLAWS. And Hollywood, of course, is Hollywood. “It’s a tricky thing for us,” Kevin Hollister, a CRC representative, told me, “because we want to be like, ‘Hey, with the HHS mandate and everything, we’d love you to see this.’ But it’s a little dicey with the actors—I mean, Eva Longoria’s working for the Obama campaign.” Still, the political zeitgeist is a terrible thing to waste. “You’ve got to be able to pick up things you can run with,” Rice says. “And sometimes fate is a wonderful thing.”
Charles Homans is a special correspondent for The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 7, 2012 issue of the magazine.