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‘Salamat sa Alaala,’ filming Philippine history in cinema

A POINT OF AWARENESS - Preciosa S. Soliven - The Philippine Star

(Part II - Trofeo’s Lure to Digital Photo Journalism)

Last September the Cinemalaya exhibition of Philippine and Asian films took place at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, just before the whole country became smitten with the film Heneral Luna depicting our Filipino hero’s rise and fall during the Philippine-American war. Film/video producer-director and photographer Ricardo “Dik” Trofeo unveiled the one-hour film of the complete works of National Artist for Film, Gerardo “Gerry” de Leon. Entitled Salamat sa Alaala, it acclaimed the stellar productions of Philippine filmdom for three and a half decades, between 1940 to 1975, with top movie stars evoking the poignant episodes of our country’s history and culture.

Born into a family of artists

Gerardo “Gerry” Ilagan was born into a family of artists in July 1913, the era of zarzuelas, which his father Hermogenes Ilagan directed while his mother Icasiana de Leon was a singer. His love for the movies began when, as a teenage piano player at Cine Moderno in Quiapo, he played the music for the silent films being shown there. While studying Medicine at the University of Santo Tomas, he played bit parts in the film, Pusong Dakila. After graduation and placing 7th in the board exams he went on to practice his profession, but his heart was so drawn to movie making that he eventually gave it up.

The birth of Philippine movies

By 1917 the zarzuelas ended and the birth of Philippine movies began with the 1919 rural-themed silent film Dalagang Bukid, directed by Jose Nepomuceno. This led to a slew of films acted in by Gerry. Then in 1939, at the age of 26, Gerry made his directorial debut in Bahay Kubo with Fely Vallejo, who became his wife in real life. They had three lovely daughters one of them the actress Liberty Ilagan. With so many relatives in the movie world like Angel Esmeralda, Conrado Conde, Robert Arevalo and his brother the music arranger Tito Arevalo, Gerry decided to replace “Ilagan” with “de Leon,” his mother’s name. The first films he directed were country romances like Ilang-Ilang, Ama’t Anak, Ang Maestra with Rosa del Rosario and Rogelio dela Rosa. This was followed by a thriller 48 Oras (1950) with Rogelio de la Rosa, who played a vengeful husband after the murderer of his wife. In 1954, Gerry’s film Ifugao won three major awards in the 1955 Asian Film Festival in Singapore, and drew the admiration of British director David Lee and French director George Sadoul.

A prolific film production of legendary heroes, history, comic characters

Gerry went on to direct a variety of 75 films, ranging from classic stories of Filipino heroes and legends to well known comic characters. His aim was not just to entertain but to teach, so he made films like Padre Burgos, Pedro Penduko, Sawa Sa Lumang Simborio, Mar Ravelo’s Dyesebel with Edna Luna, which to this day inspires telenovelas. From Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, he drew the violated character Sisa and reinterpreted her life as a symbol of Inang Pilipinas.

When World War II broke out, he was made to direct the 1944 propaganda anti–American film Liwanag sa Kalayaan (The Dawn of Freedom), which he co-directed with Abe Yutaka. This film was starred in by Fernando Poe Sr., who also worked with him in the film Intramuros (renamed “Walls of Hell”), which Gerry co-directed with Eddie Romero. Intramuros had a very realistic scenario of bombing, shooting, bayoneting with Filipinos fighting together with the Americans, played by Jack Mahoney and Mike Parsons.

Between war and peace he made historical films that touched the hearts and conscience of the Filipinos. Who can forget his direction of Rizal’s Simon the illustrado (Eddie del Mar), threatened by the peasant rebel Elias dynamically portrayed by Leopoldo Salcedo? Another version featured Pancho Magalona. Nicanor Tiongson of the UP Institute for Film admiringly reviewed the movie, noting the rare talent of Gerry to see the pathos of life beyond the camera lens giving tribute to our country.

The top drama actors, actresses adored Director Gerry

One can still see the vibrant beauty of veteran actress Anita Linda as she remarked, ”If you are directed by Gerry, you become somebody. He will not stop at anything until he perfects a scene. Even when I fell from my horse at Sta. Maria, Ilocos Sur, dazed and bleeding from a head wound, he called me back to continue filming. Wala siyang pakialam. Sadista talaga!”

Erap Estrada, although a leading star then allowed himself the subordinate role of a contravida in the poignant political story of Moises Padilla, violently killed by a political traitor that he likened to Jesus being betrayed by Judas. Erap recalls, “To be directed by Manong Gerry then was indeed a big privilege.” Commissioned by Diosdado Macapagal to deal with the issue of land reform, Ang Daigdig ng Mga Api (1965) was challenging to Director Gerry as he used unknown and untrained Jet del Mundo and Mona del Cielo. Newcomer Lani Alano recalled his raspy voice call the cast to action and suddenly there would be complete silence for everyone listened to make out what he was saying. His voice box was damaged in an accident after Liberation when a truck driven by an American bumped the vehicle his wife and he were riding in.

Interviewed today, the senior beauty of Gloria Romero maybe in great contrast to the times when I saw her frequently as “the queen” of the silver screen in the 60s. Yet I never saw her as a genteel and glowing barrio lass in Trofeo’s film clip, Juan de la Cruz. Gloria recalled, “Sinabi ni Mang Jerry, ‘Gloria Romero, hindi ka na Gloria Romero. I-ibahin kita.’ Ninerbiyos ako. Ano ang ibig sabihin niya?“ And it did happen. Voila! – a noteworthy rural beauty, no longer Gloria, radiated in the country life. “He was very particular with costumes and props – and we had so much of them. So many old irons were put out for me to use for my laundry but he wasn’t content. In spite of the actors and many waiting extras, he decided to pack up.”

From Banaue Rice Terraces, Japanese time to Asian films

Amalia Fuentes talked glowingly about Director de Leon, “He was so good. Ang sarap mag-direct! I felt like putty in his hands as he made me play the lead role in the horror film Kulay Dugo ang Gabi (1964). The sets and props were realistic that it became a box office hit. This film was followed with Ibulong Mo Sa Hangin.”

In the documentary, Nora Aunor vividly recalled her role in Banaue where she was matched with Christopher de Leon, who could not help but reveal the precious “secret” Director Gerry taught him on how to perform a love scene: ”Don’t look at her straight in the eye. Slowly look adoringly at her eyes, cheeks, lips, forehead . . .,” and the film clips showed close up shots of Nora so enamored. Could this have led to their marriage?

Anyway, Christopher loved Gerry de Leon’s exaltation of the brave, of the country’s political champions, highlighted in the battle of the tribes that were shot in the famous Rice Terraces.

7 FAMAS Awards

“Gerry was ahead of his time,” stated film historian Nick Deocampo. He won seven FAMAS awards for best pictures, best direction and three were won within one year.

Peque Gallaga considers Gerry de Leon as the icon in the Philippine movie history who progressively helped redefine the high standards of professional acting, and lifted it up to world standards. Sanda Wong, co-produced in Hong Kong, exhibited cinematography skills more advanced than the Chinese cinema in the 60s. About the same time Director Gerry also made Saigon in war torn Vietnam, even assisting the famous American volunteer Dr. Tom Dooley with his medical skills. (In 1959, the Filipino doctor volunteers of Operation Brotherhood International (OBI) so inspired Dr. Dooley that he started the US Peace Corps. Oscar Arellano, OBI president made me the OB project manager for the children’s nursery school at the Sapang Palay relocation site for Taal Volcano and Intramuros squatters.)

Dick Trofeo walks us through the memory lane of our beloved old movies

Dik Trofeo wrapped up his one-hour film Salamat Sa Alaala with a haunting and romantic sound track. I imagined Gerry de Leon composing it while sitting on his wheelchair, from where he continued directing films until he died in 1981 at only 68 years old. Tears fell during his necrological service led by wife Fely and his three lovely daughters, Liberty, Vicky and Baby, their husbands and children.

Dik skillfully showed the evidences of what made “Mang Gerry” a legend by interviewing almost 40 veteran actors and actresses, and showing their old film clips; along with a number of movie experts, directors and scholars who acknowledged his rare gifts, patience, humility and his unstoppable passion. MAY HIS TRIBE INCREASE in this digital age where Freedom of Information is vital to preserve our freedom.

Nicanor Tiongson, Raymond Red, Lav Diaz and the UP Institute of Film lament the loss of 95% of Director Gerardo de Leon’s valuable films. Who can recreate them? (For feedback email at precious.soliven@yahoo.com)

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