Andy Garcia isn’t afraid to admit that, before signing on to star in For Greater Glory, he never heard of Enrique Gorostieta Velarde or the story of how the retired Mexican general came out of a humdrum post-army life in the mid-1920s to lead rebels against the Mexican political regime that was intent on repressing Catholicism.
To play the real-life character, who Garcia refers to simply as Gorostieta, he studied the detail-packed script, poured over the information and letters sent to him by the man’s family, and read the book La Cristiada.
“You begin to research the guy, what he stood for, what his history was,” said Garcia.
One of the things he found, and that comes clear in the film, is that there was controversy around Gorostieta back then, and there still is now. It’s mostly around the question of whether he was a hero or a well-paid mercenary.
“He was a decorated general with the Mexican Revolution, so he is part of Mexican history,” said Garcia, kind of avoiding that question.
“The movie’s not just about him,” he continued. “It’s also about the people that hired him, and about the different factions – the guerrilla groups – that came up in fighting for the right to be able to practice their religion, and how this guy was called upon to organize those groups into an army.”
But, he was asked, could he be called a well-paid mercenary?
“Well, anybody in the army is paid,” he said.
Uncomfortable pause. But was he a mercenary?
“No, I wouldn’t say he was a mercenary,” he said. “I can see that someone might describe him that way. But does a mercenary truly believe in the cause or does he just believe in the cash?”
OK, but did he take the job more because he missed the excitement of his old army life or because he believed in freedom?
“I think he took the cash to provide for his family. I also think he was unfulfilled in his current life. He did miss the old life, and then the opportunity arose – ‘Oh, I can get back in the saddle again’ – and even though he wasn’t religious, he believed in the cause. So I think it’s a bit of both.”
The film gives us a look at both of those lives. The one where, after going into post-Mexican Revolution exile, he’s working as an engineer at a soap factory, kind of coasting along, and the one where he literally is back in the saddle, back on fire, ready to lead a charge against the brutal Mexican government.
Within the film, Garcia, 56, with a large list of film and TV credits – including a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his part in The Godfather: Part III – to his credit, gets to stretch his acting chops. His scenes range from peaceful family interludes to one-on-one discussions with military friends and foes to a grandiose Braveheart-like speech to his soldiers while on horseback.
“It’s all the same,” he said of the art of acting. “You’re living the character. By then, you hope to be inside of it, and you’ve made an emotional connection to what’s going on. The first thing you have to get to is ‘I am Gorostieta.’ You have to completely believe that, have no doubt about it.”
Garcia had ridden horses before, so he just had to get back into the swing of it to look right this time out. He had also fired plenty of guns in previous films (one of his first roles was in The Untouchables), so he just had to get used to the older style weapons in this film.
Oddly, one of the biggest challenges for Garcia, who is a longtime cigar smoker, was to realistically handle and light and smoke a pipe, which Gorostieta does only in the early, quieter parts of the film, before switching to cigars out on the battlefield.
“The first thing you do in pipe smoking lessons is buy a pipe,” said Garcia, laughing. “In fact, the film’s production designer knew about pipes. When we got to Mexico, he had some pipes laid out for me, then we sat down and he gave me a tutelage on the process of pipe smoking. To light a pipe is different from lighting a cigar. It’s much more difficult.”