Skip to comments.Yankees Abroad: John Saylesís surprisingly evenhanded new film on the Philippine-American War
Posted on 10/14/2011 6:26:39 PM PDT by neverdem
Skeptics of Americas engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq have frequently drawn comparisons to Vietnam as a reminder of the futility of far-flung military interventions. Rarely do they mention the Philippines, the site of one of our first forays into nation-building. A recent film, however, uses that mostly forgotten war as a backdrop for a meditation on the wisdom of sending Americans abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Written and directed by John Sayles, Amigo, which arrived in a handful of American cities last month, is set in 1900 amid the three-year Philippine-American War.
In the spring of 1898, shortly after Americas declaration of war on Spain, Commodore George Dewey cruised into Manila Bay and defeated the Spanish fleet in a matter of hours. America, which had originally gone to war with the intention of saving Cuban rebels from Spanish savagery, had now netted a possession in the Pacific. President William McKinley subsequently redirected U.S. troops to the Philippines to provide guidance to a better government and establish peace and order and security.
Humorist Finley Peter Dunne made clear how unfamiliar the Philippines were to most Americans when he said, via his literary creation Mr. Dooley, that many were unsure whether they were islands or canned goods. And yet Americans went off by the thousands to this distant land to accomplish McKinleys goals and, in the process, fight Filipino revolutionaries led by Emilio Aguinaldo, self-appointed president and would-be George Washington of the First Philippines Republic—an insurgent government determined to force the Americans off the islands.
Amigo offers an account of this period, told from the perspectives of the American soldiers, the Filipino revolutionaries, and the ordinary citizens affected by the conflict. The story, set in the barrio of San Isidro in the largest of the countrys 7,107 islands, Luzon, centers on village leader Rafael Dacanay (Joel Torre). When the Americans arrive in the rural rice-farming community, they quickly rely on Dacanay, whose brother and son have joined the rebels, as a conduit and guide. As the story unfolds, Dacanay struggles to maintain a balance between the Americans, and their goal of establishing an embryonic form of democracy in the village, and the insurrectos, who, following Aguinaldos orders, wage guerrilla warfare against the occupying Yankees. Matters are further complicated by an imperious Spanish priest with murky motives and by Dacanays treacherous brother-in law, who, while covertly conspiring with the rebels, unfairly accuses Dacanay of doing the Americans bidding.
Sayles uses Dacanays dilemma to present empathetic portraits of all involved. The young American soldiers, led by the amiable, architecture-loving Lieutenant Compton (Garret Dillahunt), are indeed strangers in a strange land. But theyre also earnest, well-intentioned, and humane. The usual Hollywood stereotypes are avoided. Their Filipino adversaries, hiding and plotting in caves or in the jungle while awaiting instructions from Aguinaldo, are not celebrated or deified but portrayed neutrally. Caught in the middle are the villagers, who gradually begin to bond with the Americans without necessarily losing sympathy for the rebels cause. A U.S.Filipino cast employ their respective native languages (English would become the second official language of the Philippines later in the twentieth century), adding a sense of realism to the proceedings.
These intersections make for a relatively agenda-free film on a loaded subject. This is surprising, given that Sayles was a vocal critic of the Iraq War and has directed a number of left-leaning films, including the quickly forgotten Silver City, a satiric bashing of President George W. Bush. True, as the Americans strategy evolves, and the pitiless Colonel Hardacre (Chris Cooper), one of the few cartoonish figures here, takes the reins in San Isidro, the tone grows darker at the occupiers expense. One scene shows Dacanay being subjected to the water cure—a coercion method used during the war that will, of course, remind viewers of waterboarding. Its worth pointing out, too, that the movie does not quite capture the full reciprocal brutality of the conflict. Consider the Balangiga Affair, in which rebels massacred 40 unarmed Americans on the island of Samar and subsequently generated a ferocious U.S. response. But for the most part, Amigo is a compelling and mostly impartial piece of historical fiction.
It is also a timely one. American troops have been bravely fighting terrorists and encouraging democracy in both Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly a decade. But increasingly, many Americans, of all political orientations, question our foreign commitments and wonder if the costs are commensurate with the benefits.
Some history not included in Amigo is also worth considering. After the rebellion ended in the first years of the new century and William Howard Taft was appointed governor of the Philippines, Americans advanced the archipelagos infrastructure, public education, and health services, vastly improving the quality of life for its occupants. And though independence would not come until 1946, the Philippines would eventually emerge as a sovereign nation. A partial snapshot of the cost: over 4,000 Americans lost their lives. The cumulative toll for the Filipinos is believed to have been in the hundreds of thousands. Though the history that Amigo depicts in no way makes for a direct comparison to our current wars, the film nevertheless provokes a welcome consideration of Americas complicated role abroad.
Ryan L. Cole writes on politics and culture from Indianapolis.
Wasn’t that the Spanish-American War and the Philippines went from being a Spain colony to an American semi-colony. I bet they still think the US was far better as a suitor than Spain too.
I worked with a physician several years ago who was from the Philippines. He told me "we like America and Americans. When Spain owned our country, they kept the native people down. When the Americans came in, they built schools and educated people; they built hospitals. America did a lot for my country."
He was very sincere in his statement.
off topic but I lived in an apartment in Hoboken in the 90s that John Sayles once lived in. I would get some of his mail, including an invite to a private premiere of a remastered version of El Cid hosted by Martin Scorsese at the Joseph Papp theatre. I took the invite and went with my brother. Sat in the theatre with Charlton Heston, Sohpia Loren, Marissa Tomei, Martin, John Tutorro and others. Drank free wine. It was great. True story.
First off, it’s not ‘amigo”, Every Filipino I know are absolutely pissed that even they are looked upon as the “mexicans from Asia”.
No one speaks Spanish in the Philippines.
It just happens that they were occupied by the Spaniards for 300 plus years yet rebelled against the occupiers by speaking the native tongue of Tagalog as an FU to the Spanish. Unfortunately, thru those hundreds of years...spanish words just crept into the tagalog language like “coche” or “mesa”.
My best bud in my circle is a rarity: Filipino, right-wing and works for Conservative Club for Growth. He detests mexicans who starts speaking to him in Spanish...and he blasts them with Tagalog expletives in return.
This is timely. This Iranian “plot” reminds me of “Remember The Maine!”.
Sounds like a good movie. My fave historical figure is Douglass MacArthur. I believe he is still revered there.
More to the point, in Army History magazine there is a very good article (Issue 79, Spring 2011), about the very hard men who were General Pershing’s subordinates, in the article The Violent End of the Insurgency on Samar 1901-1902.
(The pdf is for the full magazine so takes a while to load, but is well worth it.)
It should be noted that they took full advantage of General Orders 100, aka The Lieber Code, drafted during the US Civil War.
“In the event of the violation of the laws of war by an enemy, the Code permitted reprisals against the enemy’s recently captured POWs; it permitted the summary battlefield punishment of spies, saboteurs, francs-tireurs, and guerrilla forces, if caught in the act of carrying out their missions. (These allowable practices were later abolished by the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949.)”
There’s a great book on our nation building effort in the Philippines titled In Our Own Image. It has quite a bit of info on the Insurrection.
Interesting looking film. After the fighting the Moros, the US looked to ditch the .38 revolver and adopted...wait, what was that they adopted?
The film concerns the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902), which occurred following the Spanish-American War. From 1902 to 1917, American soldiers also battled Muslim extremists in a separate conflict, the Moro War, on the island of Mindanao. This conflict, arguably America's longest, has been largely forgotten today.
Once the Philipines became US territory in the Spanish-American War, we fought a very brutal insurrection described in the post. Our victory in that war opened the door to US-style colonialism, which laid the foundation for that country’s development, which Philipinos remember culturally. We then shared the horror of WWII as allies - forgotton allies to a large degree. Our bond with the Philipino people is something Americans should be proud of.
Whenever I hear someone repeat the WWII canard that those islands in Alaska and Guam were the only US territory taken by the Japanese, I remind them about the Philipines
Isn’t Mindanao pretty much Islamic these days?
I was in an auto parts store last month where a couple of Hmong were attempting explain in English what they needed. A Mexican store regular walked in and the clerk asked him to interpret.
The Hmong was pissed to be confused as Latin and said in a loud voice, “WE ARE NOT SPANISH”.
My friend runs a jewelry store online and has 1-800 line. Sometimes, his staff don;t show up si he handles the calls himself on occasion. You won’t believe the number of calls he takes where the caller in normal English asks..for Spanish-speaking agents. He already took out the “press 1 for English” option and these clowns still ask for it.
Well, I hope they show the muslims all hopped up and drugged out charging our forces and being shot numerous times by our Navy .38 caliber revolvers...and how that led to the need to develop the M1911 .45!
The .38’s didnt STOP them at all! Or at least, not until you hit the target multiple times
We actually fought the muslims then, and DID NOT lose the war before it was over by allowing the Filipinos to write a constitution installing Islam as the State Religion. This was done in Iraq and Afghanistan under the Bush administration’s watch!
I am married to a Philipina. She told me the Spanish gave the Philippines religion. The Americans gave them education.
It is fair to point out that the alternative to American conquest and rule was not independence, it was rule by some other colonial power.
This was the high tide of colonialism, and no attractive territory occupied by brown people would have been allowed to go free.
Most likely it would have been the Germans moving in, as they were the most aggressive at the time, being late out of the gate in the colony race and desperate to catch up.