It’s always a guilty treat to watch a film in which America is the bad guy. There aren’t that many, probably because most nations that villainize America usually have other things to worry about besides competing with the Hollywood juggernaut. Though not from some place like North Korea, the 2015 Philippine blockbuster Heneral Luna is one of those films that star Americans as enemies.
While the Philippines are a staunch US ally today, they were also America’s first foray into colonialism. After losing the Spanish-American War, Spain handed their Philippine colony over to the United States in the Treaty of Paris. Taking control of the Philippines, however, was more complex than putting a signature on paper. The Philippines already had an independence movement and, taking advantage of Spain’s weakness and early tacit American support, they managed to establish a Republic over most of the archipelago before the Treaty of Paris took effect. As it became apparent that the Americans were going to be new colonial masters and not liberators, this First Philippine Republic decided to fight back, kicking off a war in which hundreds of thousands of Filipinos died at America’s hands. Then man who led Philippine forces into this conflict was General Antonio Luna, a former scientific researcher who quickly rose to become chief of the Republic’s army.
However, though there are scenes like when US soldiers kill women and children amidst a voiceover of John O’Sullivan’s famous essay on “manifest destiny”, America is, arguably, not the film’s primary antagonist. Instead, it focuses on conflicts of a more internal nature: Filipino v. Filipino, and those within Luna’s mind. This choice elevates the story from a simple patriotic gorefest (though there’s still plenty of patriotism and gore) to something more complex.
Yes, the film lionizes General Luna, but not to the excessive, almost heart-throbby extent of something like Simon Bolivar from The Liberator. The film shows Luna has deeply flawed — prone to anger, overly aggressive, and infected with a fatal stain of hubris. He gives no heartwarming speeches, no exhortations to “we happy few, we band of brothers”. Rather, he rallies troops with threats of arrest and “Article One” of his military code — ” anyone who disobeys the general’s orders will be executed immediately without trial.”
Luna’s most pernicious physical enemies are not Americans but his fellow countrymen. There are the deserters who flee right before his eyes. There’s the politicians who want to negotiate with the Americans. People like this are traitors; he can neither stomach nor compromise with them. At one point he even flies into an unprovoked rage, promising to defend the nation even if it means going against the President, Emilio Aguinaldo. It’s almost as if Luna’s patriotism blinds him to the realities of human nature — greed, self-preservation, fear. We do see some moments of clarity though. In a quieter moment with a journalist, Luna acidly resigns himself to the senselessness of his world — “it’s just Filipinos being Filipinos”.
Pronouncements like these make Heneral Luna a brave film. Like its namesake, it is unafraid to speak its mind. It goes through the pantheon of Filipino revolutionaries — the people today’s boulevards and warships are named after — and puts their imperfections on display. Revolution is not a dinner party, and Heneral Luna makes that all the more clear.
Heneral Luna — Philippines. Dialog in Tagalog and English. Directed by Jerrold Tarog. First released September 2015. Running time 1 hr 58min. Starring John Arcilla, Epy Quizon, Paulo Avelino, and Arron Villaflor.
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