"One Man’s Hero is Another Man’s Traitor"
The fight for the San Patricios
Written for the National Catholic Register
By Steven D. Greydanus
It’s a scene you won’t have seen at your local multiplex, and probably haven’t caught on video or DVD: half a dozen Irish Catholic U.S. soldiers, backs bared, bound hand and foot to wagon wheels, defiantly chanting the Hail Mary while being whipped by Anglo officers — singled out for punishment due to their ethnicity and religion.
Even movie-savvy Catholics often haven’t heard of One Man’s Hero, Lance Hool’s 1999 film about the San Patricios, a group of Irish Catholic immigrants in the 1840s who joined the U.S. Army but deserted after suffering religious and ethnic persecution, fled to Catholic Mexico, and wound up fighting on the Mexican side in the U.S.-Mexican War. The film, starring Tom Beringer, never got a proper U.S. theatrical release, and hasn’t been promoted on video and DVD, even in Catholic markets and media.
Thomas Nash is working to change that. Nash is the driving force behind a campaign to get the film One Man’s Hero the exposure he thinks it deserves — and his efforts have resulted in nearly thirty U.S. bishops signing Nash’s petition to MGM supporting a new theatrical release for the film in selected American and Irish markets.
A senior information specialist for Catholics United for the Faith, Nash happened to catch the film on DVD with his father on Holy Saturday, 2002. Impressed with its moral themes, positive portrayal of Catholic piety, sympathetic view of Irish immigrants battling U.S. anti-Catholicism, and refreshing lack of objectionable content, Nash did some research on why the film seemed so obscure — and wound up launching his personal campaign on the film’s behalf.
What Nash learned is that Orion Pictures — which owned distribution rights for the film for most of the English-speaking world — had been bought out by MGM, which showed little interest in the project and eventually wound up dumping it direct to video.
"One Man’s Hero has been unjustly stymied by MGM," Nash told Decent Films. "The film has become a modern-day metaphor for the story it portrays, with MGM’s treatment of the film sadly paralleling that of the U.S. government’s treatment of the San Patricios. Indeed, the St. Pats were not welcome in the good ol’ USA in the 1840s and now a film about them is not welcome here in the Third Millennium. Well, at least not yet."
But not all Catholics share Nash’s perspective. The film’s title — an allusion to the expression "One man’s hero is another man’s traitor" — is particularly apt for the San Patricios themselves: Church leaders in Mexico and Ireland have long considered them heroes, but many others, including many U.S. Catholics, consider the San Patricios traitors, or at least criminal deserters.
"As an Irish-American and Catholic," a Catholic blogger wrote recently, "I utterly reject the attempt to deny guilt and shame that the [San Patricios] brought upon the Irish immigrants… The passage of time does not erase treason."
Nash — also of Irish Catholic heritage — takes exception to that, arguing that it was the U.S. that broke faith with Irish Catholic soldiers by its unconstitutional refusal to provide Catholic chaplains and punitive approach to those who sought to attend Mass or who refused compulsory Protestant services.
Lance Hool, the film’s director, concurs. "There’s a debt owed the Irish who have been mischaracterized as villains," Hool told Decent Films. "The bond was broken by America — not them." Hool finds MGM’s indifference to the film puzzling: "The film got standing ovations in Dublin and Belfast," he noted, and would likely be a money-maker in Ireland, so why not release it there?
In the U.S., too, Hool stated that the film was positively reviewed in a number of publications, and had been promised a positive write-up in The New York Times — though the review never ran, since the film wasn’t released in New York. He also claimed that a screening for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, was very well received — but MGM didn’t follow up by pushing for awards consideration.
Is MGM sitting on a pro-Catholic masterpiece? You wouldn’t get that impression from the handful of generally lukewarm reviews available online from websites like RottenTomatoes.com, Metacritic.com, and IMDb.com. (For my take on the film, see my review.)
Audience response also has been mixed; some viewers have responded positively to the film’s passion and conviction, while others are unimpressed with its dialogue, battle scenes, and historicity. Sticklers for accuracy have objected, for example, that the film’s hero, John Riley (played in the film by Berenger), deserted the American army not as a sergeant, as depicted in the film, but as a private.
But Nash isn’t the only one who believes the film deserves a chance to connect with theater audiences. After a screening last year for a number of U.S. bishops at the national bishops’ conference in Washington, D.C., 29 bishops signed Nash’s petition to MGM "respectfully exhorting" the studio to release the film theatrically in selected markets in the U.S. and Ireland — or to consider selling distribution rights for those areas. Episcopal signatories include Bishops Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, NE, Jose Gomez of Denver, and Emilio Allué of Boston.
On January 9, MGM responded to Nash’s petition, acknowledging the "impressive signatures" and promising to "direct" the request to "the appropriate executives on our management team."
How likely is the film to get a theatrical release, given its availability on video and DVD? Neither Hool nor Nash could think of any precedent for a film being successfully released in theaters after first going direct to video. (A small number of Evangelical-produced films, such as Left Behind, have deliberately followed this release strategy, with less than stellar results.)
But Hool, who said he found the campaign on his film’s behalf "flattering," said that there was hope, since it wouldn’t cost the studio much money and could potentially be a windfall, especially in Ireland.
And Nash — whose campaign website includes a survey of the film’s history as well as his petition to MGM — was also hopeful, adding, "Either way, the campaign should help get the film the attention it deserves."