Saturday, July 04, 2009
Los Ultimos de Filipinas (Last Stand in the Philippines, Antonio Roman, 1945)
Last man standing
For years now Instituto Cervantes has been presenting Antonio Roman's Los Ultimos de Filipinas (Last Stand in the Philippines, 1945) and no matter how many times I have seen it it's still a hoot, a real jaw-dropper. Imagine this: it's the middle of the Philippine Revolution in 1898; the Filipinos are winning the war on land, the Americans winning the war at sea. In the town of Baler, formerly of the province of Nueva Ecija (since re-allocated to the province of Aurora), fifty soldiers abandoned by their hard-pressed government (Spain was too busy surrendering to the United States) hold out in a yearlong siege, representing the country's last stand in the country (hence the title).
Any Spaniard watching this film will probably discover a quaint but nevertheless stirring hurrah for Castilian courage; any Filipino watching will stare, wide-eyed, at the way Filipinos are portrayed--as a tireless, implacable, near-invisible enemy, quick to exploit any mistake or risks taken, and willing to wait out a desperate opponent running low on food and ammunition. To find a more recent and familiar equivalent to the picture's view of the unstoppable foe, one might look at American movies on the Vietnam War. In films like Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986), and John Irvin's Hamburger Hill done a year later (my personal favorite of the genre), the enemy is faceless and mysterious, an unknown quantity that will pull down and kill the unwary given half the chance. In each of these as in Roman's film the emphasis is on the American (or Spanish) soldier, on his crisis of faith and morale, his physical and spiritual suffering, his eventually bitter Pyrrhic victory.
Strange to think we Filipinos--who are rarely implacable and who almost never give the impression of being quietly mysterious, not when there's a chance for food and drink nearby--should be seen this way; stranger still to look at the landscape behind the Spaniards as they fight their lonely, drawn-out battle. Never mind the studio sets, one can forgive those for their airless, artificial quality, but when the action moves outdoors the countryside, while recognizably hot, has plenty of palm trees--no end of palm trees, from the towering kind to the chest-high variety, roughly half of them visibly drooping. One wants to ask--where are the forests of coconut trees, with gracefully swooping trunks? Where are the banana trees with their oar-like armsand heavy necklace of fruit? Where are the mango trees with their spreading limbs and distinct spearhead leaves? One badly wants to believe the film is set in the Philippines, but every once in a while you see a palm frond with dried-out leaves and your fingers twitch, wanting to reach for a hose or watering can. Actually, American films about Vietnam look more persuasively like they were shot in Southeast Asia, and no wonder--most of them were shot in Southeast Asia, in the Philippines to be specific, with perhaps the most notable exception being Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (made the same year as Hamburger), which was shot entirely in London, with (what else?) visibly drooping palm fronds.
Still! Antonio Roman is a formidable craftsman who directed most of his thirty-plus films in the '40s, and is a friend of horror master Mario Bava. Watching the film one thinks of Michael Curtiz, and his way of advancing and retreating with the camera for dramatic effect; one also thinks of Curtiz whenever Roman uses shadows expressively--to add mood or atmosphere, or throw a cruciform shape on soldiers, suggesting the comforting presence of Christ.
The film isn't so much a war film as it is a siege drama (think Cy Endfield's Zulu (1964), only not as claustrophobically confined, and with less emphasis on siege tactics)--instead of drawn-out battles, we have men standing around, looking wearier and more dispirited with every passing minute; instead of flag-waving, we have mournful musical interludes. At one point the hymn "Ave Maria" is sung while the camera trucks past a sea of melancholic soldiers wearing a scraggly collection of 5 o'clock shadows, pans past the walls of the distinctly dilapidated church, comes to rest on the figure of the Catholic priest saying mass--again, the film reminds us of the invincible, unyielding hand of the church, sustaining its supplicants (Roman, one might dare observe, is no Bunuelian skeptic, at least not here).
A later and more affecting sequence is of a beautiful lass sitting by the window, singing a melancholic song. The camera pulls back, taking in the small nipa (dried grass) hut she inhabits, then cuts to several men in various stages of exhaustion and despair, listening to her sweet voice. Cut to the camera descending from its vantage point back to a more intimate view of the girl as she ends her song, bowing her head in quiet resignation.
I said the film is a hoot to watch, and it is; part of the pleasure is in watching a Spanish filmmaker struggle to portray a country he obviously has not once visited (and probably received little support from) during the length of production; part of the pleasure is in watching ourselves as the bad guys, the Implacable Other seen in so many Hollywood-made Vietnam war movies. But the keenest pleasure, I suppose, is in watching the Spanish ultimately hold their heads high as they leave their beleaguered fortress, finding victory in defeat and honor in humiliation; in a way it's a left-handed compliment to the Filipino freedom fighter, and the dismay he is capable of inspiring.
First published in Businessworld, 6.26.09