Andy Garcia can't understand why an episode of Mexican history as bloody as the Cristero War is barely known outside Mexico or even within the country.
That curiosity was part of the reason he accepted the role of Gen. Enrique Gorostieta in "For Greater Glory," a film the Cuban-born actor compares to epics such as "How the West Was Won," "Doctor Zhivago" or "Lawrence of Arabia."
"About 90,000 people died in three years [1926-29]. There was torture, priests being hung from telegraph poles. It was a very ugly moment in Mexican history," Mr. Garcia said of the conflict set off by the government's persecution of Roman Catholics. "The curious thing was I didn't know anything about it. ... And when I started to ask some Mexican friends ... they didn't know anything about it."
In the film, Mr. Garcia plays an atheist and retired decorated general who accepts an offer to lead the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty in the war. He doesn't share their religious fervor, but he does believe in the basic right of freedom.
Mr. Garcia said he was intrigued by "For Greater Glory" from the moment director Dean Wright and producer Pablo Jose Barroso gave him the script and the book "La Cristiada," by French historian and columnist Jean Meyer, who lives in Mexico.
With a cast that includes Eva Longoria as Gorostieta's wife and Ruben Blades as President Plutarco Elias Calles, "For Greater Glory" also stars Peter O'Toole — "Lawrence of Arabia" himself — as Father Christopher.
As a Catholic Cuban-American, Mr. Garcia said, he could see parallels between the film's historical situation and the religious ban in Cuba when Fidel Castro took power.
"It was similar to what happened in Cuba. When Fidel Castro took power, he did abolish all religion. ... The only religion was a 'Papa Fidel' kind of thing. So there is a parallel there that one could sort of tap into emotionally," he said. "But that wasn't the reason to do the movie. ... This is a universal theme about absolute freedom, and when I looked at the movie, first and foremost I said as a filmmaker, as an actor, how was the quality of the material, the scope of the story, what is it going to look like."
The actor said that even though the film is set in the 1920s, its theme of freedom remains current and is universal.
"Well, I think that the overall essence is that freedom is a precious thing," he said. "People are fighting for freedom on a daily basis all around the world in contemporary society, and dying for it. This struggle has not gone away."