A reflection on the brilliant ‘Heneral Luna’ film
Rick Olivares (Philstar.com) - September 24, 2015 - 10:30pm

Right before the Irish band U2 performed “Helter Skelter” during their live concert recording for their Rattle and Hum album, lead singer Bono told the audience, “This is the song (murderer) Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. Well, we’re stealing it back.”

I am glad that Jerrold Tarog’s film, Heneral Luna was made because it “steals" back something precious from the way history is written by the victorious Americans.

You see, the Philippine-American War has always been viewed as an insurrection by the American government than a genuine war. If we follow that train of thought then theirs too is an insurrection against British rule during their own war of independence. They formed their own Continental Congress and declared themselves free and independent states in July of 1776 (although the war ended in 1783). How different is the Philippines' Declaration of Independence made in Kawit, Cavite?

From the jaws of victory, independence was cruelly snatched away from the Filipinos who fought so hard for independence from Spain. And for $20 million, the country was sold by Spain to America. It wasn’t an insurrection. It was a war of independence from two colonial masters and this film pays honor and respect to Antonio Luna, one of the men who boldly stood against imperialism.

Tarog’s film has generated a firestorm of interest and admiration, and it not only puts Luna on the pedestal he deserves but venerates him (and short of vilifies Emilio Aguinaldo who was indirectly or directly involved in the deaths of two strong-willed military leaders of that era — Luna and Andres Bonifacio).

Having said that, “Heneral Luna" is a masterpiece and here is why.

First and foremost, it is a historical biopic done the right way. It is as accurate as it can be. There are embellishes here and there but never to the point where it spins the story into something altogether different. The casting is spot on, the production design a marvel to behold, and the cinematography, a pleasure to watch.

A wonderful script that flows

The script is clever and it flows. Scenes do not drag especially in the long exchange between Luna and Tomas Mascardo.

Here’s where Tarog hits it out of the park — the humor in the dialogue, although used sparingly like a well-laid ambush, isn’t contrived and is priceless. Its usage is so totally unexpected like how it was so the Guardians of the Galaxy film that makes it more memorable or even quotable.

And it brings something so Filipino to the film — finding humor in the bleakest of situations. For example, the train station scene was absolutely hilarious! But it never gets out of hand, never trivializes the incident or the story and it quickly veers back on course. They were in the middle of a war after all.

And John Arcilla, in the titular role of Antonio Luna, delivers his lines with aplomb and never in that overacting manner that seems to come with Filipino films.

The manner of how Luna dissects the problems of the nascent republic resonate and touch a chord because they hold true even to this day. Remember that famous quote by Spanish philosopher George Santayana — “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A lot of the problems that plagued those early patriots still face us today. Whether it is a message or a sermon, it doesn’t come across as preaching. In fact, it is an incredible comparison that should leave you thinking that we have learned nothing.

Now we all know what befell Luna. And throughout, there are subtle reminders. However, the impending doom as imparted by his mother, Laureana (and not his brother, Joaquin, in real life) makes it even more tragic. What parent wants to bury their child? And it was made all the more poignant as Luna’s family life is briefly told in a beautifully executed flashback.

A deadshot of a cast

Remember the scene where Luna asks for a volunteer and a certain “Garcia” stands up and makes his way close to the American lines where he takes some shots just to send a message that they aren’t as safe as they’d like to think? Well, that Lieutenant Garcia in real life commanded Luna’s Black Guard and like the deadshot that he was so is the cast of Heneral Luna.

It’s a large cast and most everyone is given proper time to flesh out their personalities.  

Based on all the historical reports about Luna, John Arcilla captures the fiery officer’s personality perfectly.  When he shifts from that gruff exterior to a gentler person when around the ladies, he does it so well.

As a child who keenly devoured anything and everything related to our Revolutionary War of Independence, I have strong feelings against Aguinaldo. Yet I like how Tarog doesn’t exactly make out Mon Confiado’s Aguinaldo to be the power hungry leader many believe him to be following the deaths of Bonifacio and Luna at the hands of his men. He leaves that to the audience to decide.

I thought that Epi Quizon was magnificent as Apolinario Mabini. Like Confiado’s Aguinaldo, he is pensive but he is quick to make his thoughts known. In spite of Mabini being rendered immobile due to the ravages of polio, Quizon brought a regal bearing and sage-like aura to the Prime Minister.

Although not much is known about Luna’s two aides, Colonel Paco Roman and Captain Eduardo Rusca, I love how Tarog depicted them like the ying and yang of Luna’s personality.

Joem Bascon’s Roman was the more serious and pensive one while Archie Alemania’s Rusca brought a light-heartedness to an otherwise grim situation. Sort of reminds me of Ron Livingston’s portrayal of the fun-loving alcoholic Captain Lewis Nixon in "Band of Brothers" as an opposite to Damian Lewis’ serious Captain Richard Winters.

Mylene Dizon, who brought in a fictional love interest for Luna, showed that Isabel was strong in her few minutes of screen time.

Oh those delicious homages

I love how Tarog borrows from scenes from “Saving Private Ryan” where Luna is momentarily shellshocked before he regains his wits and wades right back into battle. There’s that “Braveheart” scene where Luna sits atop the mountain lost in his thoughts with Celtic-like music playing.

When I saw the part where the bodies of Luna and Roman are dragged in the Churchyard, I thought it was a great geek moment, “Hey, that’s a neat way of paying homage to Juan Luna’s 'Spoliarium.’”

An excellent bookend framing sequence

The fictional biographer/journalist of Joven (as played by Arron Villaflor) provides an excellent framing sequence as does the Revolutionary Flag that seems to grow darker and dirtier as time passes. I figure it also signifies the assassination as a dark time in our nation’s history. And Luna was proven correct all throughout his short life — from the duplicity of the Americans, to the need to conduct guerrilla warfare and to build that fortress up in the north.

Tarog freely admits during the film’s introduction that he took some liberties to heighten the story. I am fine with that. One of these incidents was Luna’s famous charge atop his horse. In the film, that takes place early in the war against the Americans. In reality, it happened three months after his first battles with the Americans in La Loma.

However, I wish though that Tarog gave more screen time to the death of Jose Torres Bugallon who dies in that battle in the trench. Bugallon led a charge on the American lines and though fatally shot, continued to advance. Luna rescued Bugallon and before he passed away, promoted him to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

I wish that they had placed a date to the assassination that would have showed that there was indeed a conspiracy to murder the general. For on the very day of the assassination, Felipe Buencamino, the Secretary of Development in Aguinaldo’s cabinet and a Luna foe, says that the President had left Cabanatuan for Tarlac. Yet around the same time Luna is murdered, Aguinaldo shows up at Angeles to disarm General Venacio Concepcion and his troops who were loyal to the former. Luna’s other aides, the Bernal brothers are also brutally murdered.

The scene between Aguinaldo and his mother and the subsequent slaying where Trinidad, the President’s mother, asks from the window if Luna is still moving has me thinking, “Oh, there’s a Cersei Lannister and Joffrey Baratheon!"

They say that history is written by the victors. But if my recollection is correct, those Philippine history books weren’t exactly written by Americans. The murder of Bonifacio and then Luna leaves everyone hanging as if it refuses to bring down a so-called venerated hero of the revolution.  As a kid (and I still feel the same way now), I felt that these historians did someone a great disservice.

Thanks to Jerrold Tarog, Heneral Antonio Luna is given his due.

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