If the point about the study of history is to learn enough about the past so as not to repeat it, it should be more than obvious that what happened in Philippine history has never been quite understood or even widely known, the present being so obviously a repetition of the past. Those students’ wonderment after they had seen “Heneral Luna” over why Mabini was always sitting down speaks volumes about the current state of historical awareness among Filipinos—and condemns the country’s schools for their failure to impart to the young even the most basic information about the past.
Watching one movie won’t change that. But “Heneral Luna” is enjoying an unexpected, continuing run in cinemas across the country, hopefully indicating some interest in Philippine history, particularly that part of it that historians generally describe as the “second phase” of the Philippine Revolution.
Not that it’s entirely a historical movie. As the opening credits declare, liberties have been taken with events as they actually happened, and the protagonists freely characterized. Among the former is Emilio Aguinaldo’s refusal to accept Luna’s resignation as overall commander of the revolutionary forces (it was accepted, although Luna later asked to be reinstated, which he was). Aguinaldo, however, seems haphazardly drawn, while Luna’s characterization often comes close, though not quite, to being a stereotype—that of an arrogant bully who uses his voice rather than reason to win an argument.
“Heneral Luna” is a semi-fictional account of the life of Antonio Luna as a soldier and commander-in- chief of the revolutionary army in the context of the differences among the leaders of the second phase of the Revolution, and the subsequent ascendancy of those who favored compromising with the new colonizers which proved fatal to the struggle for independence.
It basically makes two points, one implicitly, the other given voice by the movie version of Luna himself. The first should be self-evident, but for some reason isn’t to some Filipinos especially the young. Heroes are not perfect, and while driven by great causes, are subject still to the limitations of their humanity. Rizal had a girl in every port, Bonifacio was not above dreaming of the possibility of becoming the country’s President—and Luna was short-tempered and impulsive, as well as extremely sure of himself, though a brilliant military leader, who at the same time was capable of great compassion and even love.
The second point Luna makes himself. At least twice during the two-hour movie, he declares that the American invaders are not the Filipinos’ worst enemies; it is themselves—about which most movie-goers seem to agree, but with which one can and should take issue. One could hear those watching the movie saying in the darkness how true Luna’s observation is, even as, while watching the brutal murder of Luna, some clucked their tongues, attributing the deed—and missing the point—to Luna’s being “cruel” to ordinary soldiers (“malupit”).
While no one would take issue with the theme that heroes are not perfect, both that and the second point tend to reduce what happened to Luna—as well as to the Revolution—to defects in personalities as well as personality differences. While betrayal was a constant theme not only in the course of the Revolution (the Katipunan was betrayed by one of its recruits, and Bonifacio and his brother betrayed by their supposed allies) but also throughout Philippine history, “Heneral Luna” suggests that it’s a national rather than a class affliction that is somehow uniquely Filipino.
It’s neither. But the movie nevertheless implies that the defeat of the revolutionary forces during the Philippine-American war was due to the dissonant voices of certain individuals in the Aguinaldo Cabinet whom the movie describes as “ businessmen,” and identifies as Pedro Paterno and Felipe Buencamino, under whose influence Aquinaldo had succumbed.
They weren’t only businessmen, although their argument for capitulation-as-best-for business sounds as if they were. The Paternos and Buencaminos—and Aguinaldo himself—were members of the principalia, descendants of the old datus of pre-Spanish royalty, who, during the Spanish colonial regime served as gobernadorcillos and cabezas de barangay.
Aguinaldo’s father was a gobernadorcillo of Cavite and Aguinaldo himself a cabeza de barangay. On the other hand, Luna was middle class, or Ilustrado, as Rizal was, although he was closer to Bonifacio in his passionate commitment to independence and the means to obtain it. The movie thus depicts Luna as describing Paterno, Buencamino and their allies as traitors, although it makes a point about his trusting Aguinaldo, which proved to be his undoing: the telegram he received supposedly from Aguinaldo inviting him to form a new Cabinet was a ruse to get him to Cabanatuan so Aguinaldo and his principalia cohorts could be rid of him once and for all.
Luna had sided with Bonifacio in the latter’s conflict with Aguinaldo, although the movie is not clear about this point. Both the Bonifacio execution on trumped-up charges, and the Luna assassination had Aguinaldo as a common element, suggesting that the first was part of a successful attempt to seize control of the leadership of the Revolution from the urban workers represented by Bonifacio, whom principales like Paterno and Buencamino derided for his lack of formal education.
On the other hand, the second was a means of assuring continued control of it by members of the same class that had collaborated with the Spaniards, and who, in furtherance of their familial and class interests, were early on urging a halt to the war for independence and coming to some kind of agreement with the US forces and the Philippine Commission, in their proclaimed, but probably insincere hope that rather than fighting for independence, the Filipinos would get it as a gift from the US.
Luna knew better, as did Apolinario Mabini, who, in his account of why the revolutionary forces were defeated, La Revolucion Filipina, excoriates Aguinaldo for his bad, self-serving leadership. Moreover, said Mabini, Aguinaldo was so pre-occupied with fears that Luna was plotting to replace him that he allowed Luna to be assassinated—or very likely had him killed. The killing of Luna cost the Revolution its most capable commander—its “only general”—whose military skills even the Americans themselves acknowledged.
The Revolution was lost not because Filipinos are their own worst enemies, but because the principalia—with its long history of collaboration with colonizers, whether Spanish conquistadores or Yanqui imperialists—hijacked its leadership and subsequently that of the nation through the bloodiest means they could muster including murder. They proceeded to collaborate with the Americans in the decades that followed the defeat of the Revolution, and they proved even truer to this tradition when the Philippines was invaded by the Japanese: Aguinaldo was among the first, though not the only one of his class, to urge Filipinos to cooperate with the new conquerors. Luna would have roared invectives at that outrage—and at the continuing dominance of the same class and their foreign patrons today.