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I happened across Salvador Calvo‘s, 2017 movie 1898: Our Last Men in the Philippines / 1898: Los últimos de Filipinas   by my usual sifting through movies of historical events that interest me.  1898 is of course the infamous year in which American Manifest Destiny leaped the continent’s shores into Cuba and the Philippines.  As this rising new power rose, Spain’s centuries old Imperium fell back, and into ruins.  So great was the shock that the men of literary-intellectual circles in Spain became known as the “Generation of 98,” all appalled and distressed by the loss of power and status in the coming new century.

Now the movie, though with good production values and reasonable facsimiles of life, suffering and battle, is not a particularly good movie.  Or, it’s good, but it doesn’t call out to be seen unless, as for me, there is historical interest.  What is worth a brief comment,  is what I read out of it, and what I later found that others read and was intended by the film makers.

The story itself is simple.  A small unit of 50 Spanish soldiers in July, 1898, is under attack by much larger Tagalog independence force.  The town is Baler, a small locality with a church and 300 years of Spanish presence on the North East coast of Luzon, the big island of the Philippines, north of Manila by 225 kilometers and separated by a rugged cordillera.  The unit, realizing they are outnumbered, retreats into the church, digs a protective trench around it and prepare to hold out for reinforcements.

All this is true, by the way

Eventually word arrives that America has declared war on Spain, that the Spanish battle fleet has been destroyed at Manila Bay and that the Spanish are pulling out.  Unfortunately, this is not official word. Even though the news is in bold newspaper headlines it is, in the minds of the Captain and Lieutenant in charge, mere rumor and trickery.  They will stay put.  Even when the leader of the Tagalogs comes under a white flag to say, they are no longer his enemies, the Americans are, and they can leave with an escort, the two officers, and a third, the top sergeant, refuse to believe.  What else can you expect from a native, but duplicity and treachery?

And so the movie is entirely about their deteriorating condition in the church as the siege extends –from three months to nine months to 337 days.  Occasionally forays to get food don’t much help the devastating appearance of beriberi and its deadly effects. Much of the story is told from the beds of the hospital, men bleeding from wounds, men suffering from food poisoning, men dying from disease. The Tagalog get a cannon and for several nights do serious damage to the church walls, until  a desperate counter attack manages to blow it up.  Not even a visit from an actual Spanish officer with a copy of the rendition to the Americans will persuade the leadership.  His uniform is too old to be real: another trick.

Beckoning Tagalog women persuade only one soldier to desert, though ample screen time is given to their wiles.  Some individual heroics give hope of rescue or reality seeping in, but on the whole it is eleven months of stupidity at the top level and obedience — Viva la Muerte!– among the ranks.  That’s how I read the movie, anyway — as a filmed representation of actual events that show, once again, the stupidity of certain kinds of men, often in uniform, their judgment and creativity and will to live crippled by a set of dicta they regard as immutable and unchanging as the rising and setting of the sun.  Even as they finally march out, the commanding officer makes demands of his enemy, which are graciously granted — though Teniente Cerezo is oblivious to the grace and pride of the Philippinos.   I read the movie as a condemnation of all this, as one reads Kubrick’s Paths of Glory  or Dr. Strangelove.


It turns out, the siege of Baler is to this day celebrated in Spain as a mark of men’s heroic devotion to duty, to God and the King, as what it means to be a true man, and a fine leader.  The movie was  based on a radio script by Enrique Llovet; Los Héroes de Baler; and novels by de Enrique Alfonso Barcones El Fuerte de Baler (The strong of Baler); and Rafael Sánchez Campoy El Fuerte de Baler.

Everything I took to be criminal negligence is meant to be heroic resistance.  Goes to show.  It’s very hard to see things as others see them, and vice versa….  I should have known, however.  Apocalypse Now (1979) understood by most as an enormous statement of the stupidity of war has excited more than one young man into joining up.  A young Canadian soldier interviewed by Gwynne Dyer in his On War, is one.  That much bang! bang! has to be good!


Seeing it made me wonder what American movies have been made of this most horrible beginning of the American Empire — it was here that water-torture was first used by American soldiers against native defenders.

John Sayles, made a 2010 movie titled Amigo, which is likely to be fairly true, if sometimes a bit purple.

“When U.S. troops occupy his village, Rafael comes under pressure from a tough-as-nails officer (Chris Cooper) to help the Americans in their hunt for Filipino guerilla fighters. But Rafael’s brother (Ronnie Lazaro) is the head of the local guerillas, and considers anyone who cooperates with the Americans to be a traitor. Rafael quickly finds himself forced to make the impossible, potentially deadly decisions faced by ordinary civilians in an occupied country.

In 1939 Gary Cooper starred in The Real Glory, which without having seen it, I can tell you the Americans are cast as the good guys…

Director Henry Hathaway’s gung-ho 1939 historical war adventure movie stars Gary Cooper and David Niven as an American army doctor and an American military lieutenant among those caring for distressed inhabitants of the Philippines in 1906 after the violent US-Spanish war.

The American contingent also helps military matters along by suppressing Filipino insurgents in Hathaway’s exciting, fast-moving action film with a heart and what now seems like a too-pat anti-fascist message.

Even more interesting would be to find a few Philippino movies, taking up their war for independence first against the Spanish then against the Americans who had betrayed them.  As it turns out, a fairly recent effort, 2008, is set in exactly the same town and time as the above movie.  Titled Baler, it is apparently a mess.  Nevertheless, if I can find it I might like to see how the incident is treated by those descended from the invaded.

Two others from the Philippines are 2014, Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo and Supremo in 2014.  Both seem to be serious movies by directors with historical interest and good technical skills.