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In search of the Philippine-American war film

By John Sayles


Director John Sayles (right) with actor Chris Cooper on the set of Amigo

Editor’s note: John Sayles is the director of the film Amigo, which will be screened at Cinematheque, 100 Arthur St. from February 10 to 16. In this essay he outlines the history of the Philippine-American War as portrayed on film while explaining why it is largely unknown to the general public today.

Perhaps no armed conflict in the modern era has received less cinematic treatment than the Philippine-American War. When one thinks of the number of movies inspired by individual American gunslingers or gangsters – Jesse James, Billy the Kid, John Dillinger, for example, have graced the screen dozens of times – this dearth seems hard to explain. The Fil-Am war ran “officially” from 1899 to 1902 (though armed hostilities continued at least until the beginning of WWI) and at least a million Filipinos died violently or through related starvation and disease during its course. When the history of Philippine-American relations is examined, however, this cinematic silence becomes more understandable.

The Philippine conflict was not the romantic “splendid little war” that Americans were presented in the coverage of their Cuban campaign against the Spanish. By the time hostilities broke out north of Manila in early 1899, both the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers were in financial trouble, having over-expanded and overspent to increase circulation during the glory days of Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill. The surprising rise of Roosevelt’s star had effectively blocked the political ambitions of his jealous rival William Randolph Hearst, leaving “boy Willie” with no personal agenda at stake in the war in the Pacific. The duplicitous, bait-and-switch nature of the McKinley administration’s decision to “keep” the Philippines after the Spanish surrender gave rise in the States to the Anti-Imperialist League and much public debate about the morality of the conflict, and none of the superstar correspondents of the day – Richard Harding Davis, Stephen Crane, James Creelman – chose to travel there to immortalize the fight with their prose.

With the beginning of the “American era” in the Philippines, control of public education in the islands was taken from the Catholic religious orders and expanded to serve a much larger (and poorer) percentage of the population. The teachers were American, the textbooks were in English, and in the “jingo” spirit of the day, the uglier aspects of the transition from Spanish to American rule were glossed over or ignored entirely. Generations of Filipino schoolchildren learned of the Treaty of Paris, where the US “bought” the Philippines from defeated Spain, as if picking up an option on a pro basketball player, and nothing about the gruelling, vicious guerrilla war that followed it.

Textbooks in America tended to leave the Philippines out entirely.

Movies were in their infancy in 1899, limited to short “views,” which were often projected on the curtain as part of a live vaudeville show. Notable from this era are a handful of “actualities” (we’d now call them documentaries) that purported to show battle scenes from the early, conventional-war period of the fighting. Advance of the Kansas Volunteers at Caloocan and Capture of the Trenches at Candaba (both 1899) are each about a minute long, depict successful American actions, and were filmed in New Jersey with African-Americans portraying the Philippine insurrectos. Thomas Edison and his imitators had learned in Cuba how impossible their bulky cameras were to maintain in the tropics, and the American public had no idea what a Filipino looked like (by the end of the official war, American cartoonists usually drew them as coal-black, frizzy haired savages in grass skirts), so the idea of staging events with bogus stand-ins met little resistance.

And then long periods of neglect.

By the time the silent movies had grown to feature length, the horrors of the First World War had superseded this colonial adventure in the American mind, and period war films from the new dream factory of Hollywood tended to deal with the earlier dramas of the Civil War, the Revolution of 1776 and the endless winning of the West. The Philippine film industry was relatively small at this time, and many of the features backed by wealthy Spaniards who had remained in-country, and scrupulously avoided subject matter with overtly political content. As the country and the industry democratized (under the watchful American occupiers) and sound was added to the mix, new themes began to be explored.

Two Filipino films have been based on the life of Macario Sakay, an early Katipunero who became one of the last violent holdouts for independence, declaring the Tagalog Republic in 1904 and fighting a guerrilla war against the Americans in Cavite and Batangas. He was lured out of hiding to negotiate surrender with amnesty, arrested, and hanged by the Americans in 1907.

The first, Sakay (1937) directed by Lamberto Avellana and starring Leopoldo Salcedo and Arsenia Francisco, is one of those tantalizing works that may have been lost forever (I’ve seen a poster but never heard of a print still existing). It’s intriguing to wonder what the treatment might have been during the beginning of the Commonwealth period. As period films often tells us as much about the period they were made in as the period they are set in, Raymond Red’s 1993 Sakay is bound to be a very different movie, both in political awareness and the fact that it is an early Filipino “indie” made with much passion and little budget. Though director Red has bemoaned the effects of the disparity between his movie’s ambition and the means he had to make it, this was a production that helped spark a new wave of Filipino filmmakers to try working outside the mainstream system.

Pinoy film burst into life at the end of World War Two, developing its own studios and star system in the Hollywood mould, popular entertainment made by and for Filipinos. And though the textbooks maintained the US government-approved version of the Fil-Am war and the revisionist historians of the 60s were not yet active, folk history is hard to suppress. Bayani sa Pasong Tirad (1947), starring Jose Padilla Jr. and Tessie Quintana, eulogized Gregorio del Pilar, the “boy general” whose romantic and military exploits cry out for the big screen. A much more TV-quickie version of the young hero’s last sacrifice, Tirad Pass: the Story of General Gregorio del Pilar (1997) was directed by Carlo Caparas and starred Romnick Sarmento as the titular hero and Joel Torre as General Emilio Aguinaldo.

By the end of the ‘50s, taking advantage of the relatively low costs and concentration of English-speaking talent, there was a move to make “B-movies” for the American market in the Philippines. One of the first of these was The Day of the Trumpet (1958), produced by Cirio Santiago and directed by the legendary Eddie Romero, and featuring some actual American actors in the featured roles. These were B-movie stalwarts John Agar and Richard Arlen, supported by Filipino star Pancho Magalona, and the movie succeeded in gaining US distribution (as Cavalry Command) in 1963. It concerns a cavalry detachment sent to occupy a village in the boondocks, which do their best to win the hearts and minds of the hostile locals. Romero later broke out of the rut of horror and chicks-in-chains flicks he had become stuck in with his well-received Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (1976) made solely for a Filipino audience and featuring Christopher de Leon and former Miss Universe, Gloria Diaz. De Leon plays a Candide-like village youth sent to the big city of Manila around the turn of the century, who survives the war with both Spain and the Americans to discover something of what it means to be Filipino.

Most highly regarded of the Filipino films treating the US war is Peque Gallaga’s Virgin Forest (1985), which deals with the treacherous capture of the revolutionary Supremo Aguinaldo by American officers and Macabebe renegades. Shot in Atimonan, Quezon, with sensuous cinematography by Conrado Balthazar and music by Jaime Fabregas, the movie blends historical drama with the sexploitation so dominant in Filipino cinema of that era (most likely the condition for getting it produced). Featuring Sarsi Emmanuel as the allegorically and graphically violated virgin, it is a Heart of Darkness-type journey into human perversity and betrayal. Nothing epitomized the hypocrisy of the American campaign more than this event that officially ended it, a breach of honour that roused Mark Twain to pen some of his most controversial public essays.

The only American film I’ve encountered that deals with the conflict is The Real Glory (1937). Brought to the screen by man’s-man director Henry Hathaway, this seems like a spin-off of the better known and more lavishly produced Gunga Din, released in the same year. Set in Mindanao in 1906, it ostensibly deals with the formation of the Philippine Constabulary, with the Americans teaching the good (Christian) natives to defend themselves against the bad (Muslim) natives. It stars Gary Cooper, David Niven (as an American – maybe he was under studio contract) and Broderick Crawford, and was filmed in California with nary a Filipino in the cast. In fact, the evil “Datu” (equivalent to Italian immigrant Eduardo Cianelli’s “Guru” in Gunga Din) is played, with great skill and much make-up, by Vladimir Sokaloff, a veteran of the prestigious Moscow Art Theater. Perhaps the producers, faced with the shortage of exotic settings in which to place American rather than British soldiers (the British being the undisputed champions of imperialism) summoned up the forgotten war in desperation.

Hollywood’s fidelity to historical accuracy is notoriously weak, but film producers assume, correctly, that Americans’ knowledge of that history is even weaker. Popular movies, for better or worse, often replace recorded facts with a kind of mythic history that people accept (and often prefer) as truth.

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