Antonio Luna as you’ve never seen before: An Indiohistorian Film Review of Heneral Luna (2015)
Once in a while, a Filipino film on Philippine history comes out that is so well made that it strikes a balance between creative license and historical accuracy.
That is what Heneral Luna by Jerrold Tarog is.
To show you how rare such a film is, take for example the film Sakay (1993), a film based on the life of Macario Sakay who continued on the fight against the Americans after the capitulation of the First Philippine Republic. The film was historically accurate but was quite dragging, especially at the end. The same can be said of Supremo (2012) by Richard Somes, which for the most part is based on the Katipunan accounts available at the time, but succumbed again to a dragging plot. Some films don’t fare better. Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (2010) by Mario O’Hara was based on the accounts of the kangaroo court trial of the fallen hero, but with its postmodern thrust on the film’s second half, it bordered on absurdity, which for me, diluted the historical significance of the injustice of Bonifacio’s death. El Presidente (2012) by Mark Meily was worse for the unrealistic portrayal of Aguinaldo, always wearing the white uniform and who, for the most part fighting, remains clean. Apparently, the film is based on Aguinaldo’s memoir, which understandably is biased, as all memoirs are.
There are those films that take exception, like Amigo (2010) by John Sayles, set in a small Filipino barrio during the Philippine-American War. It was a good film (albeit a disturbing one), but while it showed the nuance of the relations between the Filipinos and the American soldiers at the time, the film is but a historical fiction largely on the perception of fictional characters trapped between Filipino rebels who refused to be under the Americans, and the American forces who captures the village and executes its mayor.
Heneral Luna is different.
Since last year, I have been drumming up the support for Heneral Luna via this blog since aside from its awesome trailer released, the uniforms of the army of the First Philippine Republic were portrayed very accurately, and I am more impressed that the cast of the film was meticulously chosen.
Just click the link here where I made comparisons of both the cast and the actual photos of the historical figures they portrayed, (it has been promoted in the Heneral Luna fanpage last year).
Last August 26, I was privileged to see the film before its showing, thanks to the invitation of Professor Alvin Campomanes. What made me excited about the film was my curiosity on how the director and scriptwriter would attack the material. General Antonio Luna, the Director of War of the First Philippine Republic, was perhaps one of the most complex historical figures in the Philippine-American War. Brother to the famous Filipino painter Juan Luna, and colleague of Rizal, Antonio was trained in European war stratagem, as he was one of the Ilustrados who went to Spain and advocated for Filipino representation in the Spanish Cortes in the 1880s. He was a close friend of Rizal, a writer, and a chemist—a polymath like his contemporaries.
It’s not a surprise that many Filipino historians familiar with accounts of Antonio Luna are also familiar with the general’s legendary temper.
Since the film was based largely on the biography of the general, written by Vivencio R. Jose, I am also reminded of the great historiographical debate that happened in 1976 in F. Sionil Jose’s magazine, Solidarity, where Vivencio Jose and historian Teodoro Agoncillo vehemently debated on Antonio Luna’s position as “hero.” That debate gave two contesting views on Antonio Luna that would definitely give the reader a vivid, balanced and humanizing interpretation of who Luna was.
And as I watched the film, I was not disappointed.
The film opens with an interview of the general by Joven Hernandez (Arron Villaflor), a young journalist for the La Independencia, the newspaper of the First Philippine Republic. The interview was used skillfully, interspersed throughout the film, to push the story to its logical conclusion. We are shown a portrayal of Antonio Luna (John Arcilla), a disciplined general who demanded honor and discipline from a group of ragtag men who were drafted into the army of a fledgling Asian republic, still not internationally recognized. We are taken straight into the sweltering heat of the battlefield, with dugout trenches of bamboo sticks and fallen banana trees, as never before seen soldiers of the First Philippine Republic, clad in uniforms designed by Juan Luna himself, fought bravely, albeit hopelessly, against the technologically advanced American Gatling guns. We are shown of the working complex bureaucracy of the Malolos government, of its telegrams, of how trains were used to carry communications to all the military units, etc. It was truly a government with its own army, a president with his cabinet, and a congress–characteristics of a state.
This, friends, is not your typical Philippine-American War film.
The film does not wait for speculation and dragging narrative, as the viewer is shown the fiery and name-calling debates within President Emilio Aguinaldo’s first cabinet, headed by Apolinario Mabini. It was clear from the debates that the cabinet was divided between the pro-autonomists—those who wanted an autonomous Philippines under the Americans, and pro-independendistas—those who wanted to stick to the 1899 Constitution, and fight the Americans to the death for a freedom that has no strings attached to it.
Indeed, we can hear Luna say in the film:
Buong tapang at buong bangis nilang[Americans] ipinaglaban ang kasarinlan nila [referring to the American Revolution of 1765-1783]. Iba ba tayo sa kanila?
Kaya di ko mapapatawad ang kanilang pananakop.
The film does not even apologize for its treatment of Luna. He was shown, as historical accounts said—as a general with an uncontrollable fury and temper. The film even pokes fun at some of these episodes, and gives a twist of Filipino cultural passiveness, and what Nick Joaquin describes as “heritage of smallness.”
We know for a fact that Luna gets assassinated in the end, and the film is still accurate as Luna indeed received 30 blows of bolos before he fell—proof that his assassination was done out of petty revenge under a conspiracy still unsolved. But what is surprising is how after watching the film and getting soaked into history, one senses a tinge of sadness, on that burning Philippine flag. As flames eat up the fabric and Joven (Joven in Spanish, means ‘Youth’) gazes on, the viewers realize how our own people soiled the honor and freedom that that flag represented.
I can never forget that scene, one of my favorite ones in the film, when the American soldiers retreated for a break, and Filipino soldiers rejoiced thinking that it was a victory.
“Hindi tayo nanalo, Heneral,” says Colonel Paco Roman (Joem Bascon). But Luna, seeing how his troops rejoiced, smiled with eyes of pity, “Alam ko… pero tingnan mo sila.”
The film never tries to put Luna on a pedestal—distant and almost superhuman. But with gritting reality, both by his overkill discipline (that was also his undoing), his patriotism, his honor, and his assassination, we are given a Luna that we can understand, a Luna that historical documents can closely attest to (but not completely), a Luna that we can all acknowledge as the country’s first true military general.
The film’s conclusion and its implication in today’s Philippine institutions and government should also disturb us to the core and quicken us to fight the lonely fight for honor and integrity, for the country. Indeed, Luna’s angry rhetoric on Felipe Buencamino and Pedro Paterno should ring true to us all:
Bayan o sarili?
Easier said than done, as we are replete with people with big ideas and big dreams but fail in the small things, in our personal integrity. Thus the film succeeds in forcing its viewers to look in the mirror and see who we really are.
Jerrold Tarog did it once again, as he did with Sana Dati and Mariquina. A poignant film worthy of its viewers.
And I’m proud to say that this film is truly Filipino.
If you’re a Filipino and/or a history buff, I cannot say this plainly enough.—If this is the only Filipino film you’re going to watch, Heneral Luna is IT!
Giving the film 5 stars for its great cinematography, directing, acting, and good historical accuracy.
It sets the standard for great Filipino filmmaking on Philippine history.
For anyone who’s interested, here is something for your intellectual exercise. I summarized here the points given by Teodoro Agoncillo on Antonio Luna, as the eminent historian debated with Vivencio Jose, whose book (”Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna”) was used as basis for the film:
1. Antonio Luna was not the leader of the Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1896, as Jose wrote, since Luna was never involved in the revolution’s first phase (1896-1897).
2. Antonio Luna never won any battle.
3. The decision for a guerrilla warfare in the early months of the Philippine-American War was impractical, Agoncillo said, because the Americans were just a small force then.
4. Vivencio Jose, Agoncillo said, did not use some documents of the Philippine Insurgent Records, in particular, letters of Baldomero Aguinaldo, documenting the reasons why people were angry at Luna.
Photos (screenshots of the film) belong to Artikulo Uno Productions.