The first of five columns provoked, or inspired, by two viewings of Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna.” Published on September 22, 2015.
Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna” is a masterpiece of filmmaking; we should all see it. But it is, primarily, art; only, secondarily, history. Learning to distinguish one from the other is an exhilarating, necessary, education.
The “but” in the lead is a testament to the movie’s persuasive power. Much of this power lies in the astute casting, in the sweeping cinematography, in the compelling pace of the storytelling; some of it rests on the familiar structure of the narrative: of one against many, of country before self, of nation above class, of good versus evil.
The movie begins, and ends, with a disclaimer about creative license. Tarog’s reimagining of parts of Philippine history has inspired spirited discussion in the classroom or animated conversations over coffee or beer, about the shape of our history and about our own role in the shaping. (I overheard one conversation between early-twentysomethings; they were hoping that, perhaps, just perhaps, box-office results would lead to a trilogy of movies—a trilogy about Philippine revolutionary heroes, not comic-book or Young Adult characters!)
But the movie is so vivid some of its images burn through consciousness right to conscience. The lone general charging on his horse, Aguinaldo’s Cabinet assembling and dissolving in fractiousness, the dragging of the bodies in homage to and as commentary on Luna’s brother’s famous Spoliarium. No wonder a new college graduate blurted out on Facebook: Let’s remove Aguinaldo from the five-peso coin!
One unacquainted with Philippine history might be forgiven for thinking after seeing the movie that, after Luna died, the remote Emilio Aguinaldo all but surrendered to the Americans. But in fact Aguinaldo continued to lead the nascent republic in its war of resistance against the US military. He spent the last year and a half of his presidency waging a guerrilla war, falling deeper and deeper into the Luzon interior to avoid American troops. He was finally captured, with the help of Filipino traitors, in March 1901.
I realize that Apolinario Mabini, in his history of the Philippine Revolution, wrote scathingly of Aguinaldo’s role in the deaths of Andres Bonifacio in 1897 and of Antonio Luna in 1899. But Mabini himself originally approved of Luna’s death. Bonifacio’s widow wrote the foreword to a 1928 book, which features five of Mabini’s letters unfavorable to the general; the whole argument of the book is summarized in its title: Si Apolinario Mabini Laban Kay Hen. Antonio Luna.
Two other letters, both written to Isidoro de Santos in Hong Kong in July, about a month after Luna was assassinated, show exactly how Mabini felt.
The letter from July 2, 1899, sets the context:
“Luna, who aspired to the Presidency of the Council of Government with the War portfolio, seeing that, despite the scandal, the present Cabinet [Pedro Paterno’s, after Mabini had been forced out] would not resign, indicted Colonel Arguelles, whom he wanted shot by musketry, for favoring autonomy, but the Council of War condemned him only to 12 years of imprisonment. Luna summoned the son of [Cabinet member Felipe] Buencamino, a Major, who disappeared a short time later, murdered, according to some, and killed in combat, according to the newspaper La Independencia. Lastly, Luna ordered Paterno and Buencamino arrested, but in this he failed.
“Finally, on June 5th, Luna went to Cabanatuan at a time when the President was away, and he died there with Colonel Paco Roman, murdered by the Presidential guard. I still do not know the causes of this tragic end; but I suppose that, somehow, the hatred that the companies of Kawit felt towards him contributed to it. The deceased had these companies disarmed twice, once in Tuliahan and again in Calumpit, for infractions of discipline, according to the deceased, and out of hatred towards the Caviteños, according to the punished.
“I do not know how much truth there is in this. But impartial persons see in Luna dangerous tendencies, because, while he wanted to impose obedience on everyone by force, he did not like to obey anyone; and he did whatever he fancied without consulting anybody. Anyway, I deplore his sad end; it would have been less painful had he died in the battlefield and not at the hands of his own countrymen.”
The letter of July 22, 1899, revisits the scene, and serves to confirm Mabini in his original perception:
“I have already informed you in my previous letters of the truth of the murder of Luna and Paco Roman. According to a circular of the Department of the Interior, Luna insulted the guards, kicking and slapping them and hitting them with the butt of his gun, for which reason the soldiers killed him. As I was in Balungaw on the date of the murder and from there I came to Rosales where I still am now, I cannot tell you anything definite. What there was to it was that Luna, as Undersecretary of War and ad interim Secretary in the absence of Don Mariano Trias, using as a pretext the tendency shown earlier by the present Cabinet to look for a settlement with the Americans on the basis of autonomy like that of Canada, moved the Department to Bayambang and there he ran matters all by himself completely disregarding ‘Puno’ [Aguinaldo] and his colleagues in the Government. He acted thus because he wanted the Paterno Cabinet to resign, so that he could take charge of forming another Cabinet retaining for himself the Presidency with the Department of War. He announced thus in his newspaper when he was called by the President to Cabanatuan. You add to all these data the scandal against Buencamino and Paterno and the death of the son of the former, and you have enough to break your head if you try to imagine what took place.”
The facts of history, occasionally uncongenial, can break our head; the details of art can heal it.