Hell on earth
Gerardo De Leon and Eddie Romero's Intramuros (The Walls of Hell, 1964), a fairly big-budgeted (for a Filipino production; as far as Hollywood goes it's in the B movie range) war epic set inside the actual Intramuros, outlines the story of how Japanese soldiers made a suicidal last stand within the walled city during the final days of the Second World War. Perhaps not that suicidal--Intramuros was designed and built to act like a massive city-sized fortress, with walls of solid rock twenty feet thick; as one American officer so vividly describes it, they hurled a hundred thousand shells against those walls, and still haven't breached them.
It's standard war melodrama, with standard stock characters--stolid American soldiers standing tall and godlike among their Filipino compatriots; white man and brown brother fighting heroically to liberate the oppressed Filipino from their Japanese tyrants. If there's any breath of fresh air to be had from this picture, it comes literally from the city's sewers--out of a metal trapdoor in the ground that leads to the sewers: an extremely young Fernando Poe Jr., complete with Elvis Presley curls and a James Dean attitude. Fernando Poe Jr. leans on one leg and lets his curls fall over the other way; he lets his Latinolike arrogance speak for him, outshining all the blandly blonde gods pointing rifles in his direction (you believe they will shoot him, but you can't believe the bullets will do any harm). Poe has important information for the Americans: the Japanese are holding a thousand civilians as hostage inside the city, and might kill them all if an assault is ever launched. Among the hostages, we learn, is one of the officers' Filipina wives...
And so it goes; De Leon and Romero succeed in making the city itself a character--an elaborate labyrinth of tunnels and chambers and blasted ruins from which a continuous rain of dust (from the constant shelling) falls. Behind every treacherous corner hides a Japanese soldier with a stick grenade in one hand; at any particular moment a shell might fall, blowing you into a thousand atomized pieces.
The climax is where most of the not that considerable budget (not to mention loud and effective sound effects) were probably expended, in a non-stop barrage of pounding shells, chattering machine guns, and heroic derring-do. De Leon and Romero stage the exhaustive (and exhausting) battle sequences cleanly and coherently, with not a little inventiveness (there's this heartstopping moment when the Japanese round up the hostages in one corner to train guns on them--then Fernando Poe Jr. goes into action...). Intramuros is wonderful popcorn entertainment, set within the unforgettably immense presence of the city's ancient walls. Not to be missed if it's ever shown again. Also available online, on video and DVD.
First published in Businessworld, 2.21.03, reposted for the Gerardo de Leon Centennial, 2013