Well, at least religious themes were mined for gold. But not everyone was in it for just the money -- or the fame. Men like Cecil B. DeMille ("The Ten Commandments," "The Sign of the Cross," "Samson and Delilah"), Frank Capra ("It's A Wonderful Life"), Leo McCarey ("Bells of St. Mary's" and "Going My Way") and others also used the medium as a way of expressing their Christian values.
There's not a lot of that going on in Tinseltown these days, but occasionally a new release will explore more than the mental and physical aspects of the human condition. "For Greater Glory" is the latest to do so, harkening back to the days of "El Cid" and "A Man For All Seasons."
To be released June 1, For Greater Glory is a compelling, thoughtful homage to religious freedom, set in the context of a little-known civil war in Mexico more than 80 years ago.
This action adventure, based on true events, has style and heart, and forthrightly depicts the need for faith. And what impressed me during a recent press tour when I was able to interview the filmmakers is that it is a production encompassing men and women who believe that religious freedom needs to be defended.
"There are certain parallels to this movie and my own life," said Andy Garcia (The Godfather 3, Ocean's Eleven), one of the film's stars. "I come from a country where religious freedom for many years was completely taken away. So that parallel makes it easy for me to champion that cause."
For Greater Glory is produced by Arc Entertainment and, in addition to Garcia, features Peter O'Toole ("Lawrence of Arabia," "Becket"), Bruce Greenwood ("Capote," "Racing Stripes," "Star Trek" 2009), Oscar Isaac ("The Nativity Story"), Eva Longoria ("Desperate Housewives") and Eduardo Verastegui ("Bella").
For Greater Glory chronicles the Cristero War (1926-29), which was touched off by a rebellion against the Mexican government's attempt to secularize the country. In the film, an impassioned group of men and women make the decision to risk all for family, faith and the very future of their country. General Gorostieta (Garcia) is a retired military man who hesitates in joining the cause but eventually becomes the resistance's most self-sacrificing leader as he sees the cost of religious persecution on his countrymen.
For Greater Glory broke all records in Mexico, Garcia said. "It's the second highest grossing film there, after 'Titanic.' And although it was made in Mexico and financed there, it's a movie for the world. It needs to be told because it's a beautiful story."
Of those interviewed, perhaps Eduardo Verastegui was the most outspoken for his faith. Not only was he willing to speak of such things, he was downright verbose about the need for prayer and about studying history in order to prevent the repeating of mistakes of the past. Growing up in Mexico, he hadn't known about the Cristero War, as it had been an embarrassment to the government and therefore not taught in school. But when he learned that more than 200,000 people died during that civil war, he felt a responsibility to make it known to the world.
"We need to learn from history so we don't commit the same mistakes. And we need to show some of the heroes of Mexico who were not afraid to stand for something bigger than themselves -- to the point that they gave their lives, becoming martyrs for what they believed," Verastegui said.
"For many years, my faith was not the center of my life … until a series of events happened while here in Los Angeles. I became aware that Latino men were not being seen in today's films as noble, or as men of faith and integrity. I began to realize that I wasn't a part of the solution as an actor. That's when I made a promise. I would never again use my talents to do anything to harm my faith or my Latino culture. At the same time, I realized that I needed something bigger than myself to accomplish this. I needed help with the temptations found in my industry. How can I do this, knowing that I am a weak person? I understood that it was humanly impossible. So, at 28, I knew I needed something bigger than myself to fulfill this promise. That's when I went back to my faith. And I started learning more about my faith. I began working on a spiritual discipline, a spiritual structure. Like anything else, if you don't have a structure or an order, you can collapse very easily. My faith helped me to find true freedom in the middle of even the worst moments in my life. I learned how to be free and at peace.
"At one point, I asked myself, 'Are you willing to die for your faith?' Of course, humanly, you say no. You see a knife and you know you're going to get cut to pieces, then you want to run for the hills. But then these people we are portraying were receiving a supernatural strength. A power and grace that helped them in a way that's not logical. Someone is torturing you and you're loving them back; humanly that doesn't make sense," Verastegui said.
Hey, I said he was verbose. But what a pleasure to interview a person who makes his living in the motion picture industry yet isn't guarded about his personal faith. What's more, Verastegui's words are backed up by his actions. His recent film work and several upcoming projects reveal his desire to aid as well as entertain. After further questions about the production and prayer, the handsome, intelligent actor concluded:
"This is the 'Schindler's List' of Mexico. We need to be reminded of what we are capable of, and of what happens to us when we don't center God in our lives."
Though this storyline centers around Catholicism and many of those involved in the movie are themselves Catholics, the film's lessons can benefit those of any theological persuasion.
And while it's a true story, it's also a parable that reminds viewers that Christians, like the Jewish people and so many others, have been persecuted for their faith throughout the centuries. It also sends a message that a right to worship can easily be threatened by a corrupt government.
A clean film, with no exploitive sexual scenes and only two minor expletives, it receives its R rating for violence. There are many battle scenes, with lots of people dying for a cause. There's some blood, but not excessive. While there are explosions, shootings and hangings, it is used to point out the evil man is capable of. And while some of that violence is difficult to view, especially when seen inflicted upon a child, it reminds us of what others have endured because they wouldn't turn their backs on Christ.
"The character of Jose was a real-life 14-year-old freedom fighter who was brutalized in a way that we only hint at in the film," director Dean Wright said. "We see the boy walking after he's been tortured. It visually shows what he was willing to do for Christ. It is somewhat symbolic, representing his step of faith as he follows a path that Christ took."
Along with being grand scale entertainment, the film reminds us that a person's life is fulfilled only when he is willing to stand for a greater glory.
Phil Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective for Baptist Press and is the author of "Movies: The Good, The Bad, and the Really, Really Bad," available on www.Amazon.com. He also writes about Hollywood for www.previewonline.org and www.moviereporter.com. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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