"One man’s hero is another man’s traitor," says John Riley (Tom Berenger). To many Catholics, especially in Mexico and Ireland, Riley and his fellow San Patricios — Irish soldiers who deserted the U.S. Army and then fought against it in the U.S.-Mexican War — are heroes; to many Americans, they are traitors.
Who is right? The issues are complex, and historians and faithful Catholics disagree (see related article). One Man’s Hero is sympathetic to the St. Pats and critical of American "Manifest Destiny" expansionism and anti-Catholicism.
The film depicts Irish soldiers, many signed up right off the boats from famine-stricken Ireland, as second-class citizens in the U.S. Army, harassed for such offenses as wanting to go to Mass. It shows the connection they felt with Mexico, a Catholic country that, much like Ireland, they saw encroached upon by its English-speaking Protestant neighbor.
For what it’s worth, my own take on the matter is mixed. As far as I can tell, the U.S.-Mexican war — also referred to in Mexico, like the Civil War in the South, as "the war of Northern aggression" — was unjust on the U.S. side. It seems to have been essentially a land grab by an expansionist president, Polk, who claimed that the war was merely to resolve the status of Texas but actually seized half of Mexico’s land, including California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona.
A soldier’s oath of loyalty cannot bind him to obey orders to do immoral things, or to endure treatment that gravely violates human dignity. Such reasoning might possibly be used to justify going AWOL or even deserting, if one’s mistreatment were sufficiently harsh. However, that is not the same as dissolving the oath itself and claiming that one owes no duty whatsoever to the party to whom one has taken the oath; and taking up arms against the army to whom one has sworn allegiance remains in my view morally problematic.
As a partial point of reference, the marital oath cannot obligate a wife to remain with her husband if he beats her, but it’s one thing to say that she can leave the house, and another to say that she has no more duty to her husband and is free to marry another.
It’s only a partial point of reference, of course, since the marriage oath brings about an indissoluble union and a soldier’s oath does not. I’m not saying the St. Pats were traitors. But I think they make problematic heroes — and One Man’s Hero portrays them in as heroic a light as possible.
In spite of this, One Man’s Hero is most worth seeing for its remarkably positive depiction of Catholic piety and sobering reminder of a shameful hour in America’s past. In fact, there is a campaign to get the film a proper theatrical release in at least some markets — and a number of U.S. bishops have signed the petition to MGM (see related article).
Unfortunately, the film also suffers from heavy-handed dialogue and characterizations — and overzealous attempts to find rationales for the protagonists’ actions. It even trots out the cliché, seen lately in such films as Black Hawk Down and The Four Feathers, that soldiers fight not for a flag or country but for each other. It’s an earnest, flawed film for thoughtful, critical viewing.
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.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.