Column: What we (still) don’t know about Antonio Luna

Published on September 29, 2015.

In “Heneral Luna,” the actor Alvin Anson portrays Jose Alejandrino—the revolutionary general whose memoirs serve as a supplemental source for the acclaimed movie. Those memoirs, published in 1933 and translated into English in 1949, offer the fullest portrait of his good friend, the mercurial Antonio Luna. It gives us vivid impressions (to borrow Luna’s favorite literary style) of his student days in Europe, his tumultuous year with the Army of the Malolos Republic—and, in 1896, his hour of treason and cowardice.

A two-paragraph section in Alejandrino’s “The Price of Freedom” and titled “Antonio Luna in the year 1896” makes for necessary reading.

“It appears in official documents that in this period Luna committed the greatest error of his life in denouncing the existence of the Katipunan and in revealing, during his imprisonment after the first outbreak of the rebellion, the names of some of his friends affiliated with the Society. Later, he explained however to me his aforesaid acts by saying that with the physical and moral tortures which he suffered during his imprisonment, and upon being assured by the Spaniards that he had been squealed upon by his own friends, denouncing him as an accomplice in the rebellion, his violent character made him lose his better judgment. And having fallen for the scheme woven by the Spaniards, he declared that those who had denounced him were more guilty than he.

“The events of 1896 separated us from each other, he having been prosecuted and later on sentenced to suffer imprisonment in Spain, while I left the country for China and Japan [on official missions for Emilio Aguinaldo to procure arms for the revolution]. We were able to see each [other] again in Kabite toward the month of July, 1898. He was returning home after having served his sentence in the Model Prison of Madrid, and he brought with him in his baggage books on military strategy and tactics and treatises on field fortifications. Above all, he brought with him a desire to atone for his past mistakes.”

Like Jose Rizal and Apolinario Mabini, Luna did not support the first phase of the Philippine Revolution (from the Cry of Balintawak until the Pact of Biak-na-Bato). Like Katipunan member Pio Valenzuela, Luna was subjected to Spanish torture, and cracked under severe pressure. But like Mabini, he joined the second phase of the revolution (from Aguinaldo’s return from exile in Hong Kong in May 1898 until the outbreak of hostilities with the Americans in February 1899). And like Mabini, he served with distinction in the third phase, the war against the Americans—until his death in June 1899 at the hands of Aguinaldo’s presidential guards.

Luna’s atonement is not part of the movie’s backstory (although on viewing the movie a second time I imagined it would easily fit the movie’s main narrative). Does this lessen director Jerrold Tarog’s work, or lead actor John Arcilla’s art? I do not think so, because the movie approaches the Luna story on its own terms. (On second viewing, I saw much more in the movie to admire—even though I remain convinced that its treatment of Aguinaldo is essentially unfair. I believe this will be rectified in the other movies of the projected trilogy; otherwise, Gen. Gregorio del Pilar’s noble sacrifice in Tirad Pass, a rear-guard action to help Aguinaldo escape the American pincer, would not make sense.)

Does Luna’s treachery of 1896 disqualify him from the honor we confer on those we call our nation’s heroes? Again, I do not think so, and I hope the record bears me out. He had atoned “for his past mistakes”—and Alejandrino provides us copious detail on how he did so. Luna never won a battle, and yet Alejandrino is entirely convincing on why Luna was the best general of the revolutionary era. A complicated man, exactly like Mabini or Aguinaldo.

* * *

Viewers will remember a dramatic scene in the movie where Mabini seeks to calm Luna (who has just tendered his resignation to Aguinaldo as the Army’s chief of operations) by assuring him that the general did not know (and by implication did not need to know) the wheeling and dealing of politics. But, again, Alejandrino shows us that there was more to Luna’s character than old blood and guts.

“Antonio became also a member of [the Malolos] Congress …. Eloquent speeches from each group were pronounced but there never was a voting because both groups were afraid of the result of the balloting. Luna broke the situation with one of those tricks peculiar to his character and which made him famous later. He assembled all those delegates of the radical faction who had confidence in him advising them to keep away from the sessions of the Congress but requesting them to remain within call at a moment’s notice. With the radicals absent, the Conservatives constituted a majority during the sessions. Having made a careful counting and thinking themselves sure of victory, the Conservatives asked for a vote while the few radicals present registered a token opposition. The motion to call a vote was carried. Then at the precise moment of balloting, Luna immediately called all his advisers to enter the session hall en masse to the surprise of the confident Conservatives. The voting was taken and we won, if I remember right, by one or two votes. [In fact, they won by one vote.] In this manner [the] provision in our Constitution for the separation of the Church and State was secured.”

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in History, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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