John Sayles may be this country’s most idiosyncratic independent writer-director, though his personal films and novels often look suspiciously Sol Alinsky-ish. Many of Sayles’ films are of a left leaning historical nature and have ranged from early 20th century miner’s strikes (‘Matewan’) to the complexities of geographic racial identity (‘Lone Star’).
So it was with caution that I approached his new independent film ‘Amigo,’ very loosely based around 1901 events during the Philippine Insurrection in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. The Philippine Insurrection was a kind of American Victorian Vietnam where issues of friendlies mixed in among foe, bolo knife ambushes and waterboarding interrogations (yes, it’s been around that long) reared their uncomfortable heads.
‘Civilize ‘em with a Krag,” the standard American military rifle of the period, was a lyric to a song popular with American troops of the time, and ugly racial epithets like “GuGu” were a common reference to the native Filipinos.
‘Amigo’ is not a bad film, and surprisingly nowhere near as Anti-American as one would expect.
The story revolves around the benevolent mayor of an island village who finds himself caught between the occupying American troops and opposing local guerillas that include his own son and brother. ‘Amigo’ does labor under an obviously limited budget. Sayles learned his early filmmaking trade under the same “B” movie legend that I did – we both wrote scripts for Roger Corman.
Despite its small budget, ‘Amigo’ has some excellent performances mainly by the Filipino actors, including the film’s star and co-producer Joel Torre. The best known member of the cast, Sayles’ stock company member Chris Cooper, draws the unfortunate part of a fictionalized version of a ranting U.S. Army general that seems typical, though in this case is a somewhat fair depiction. Two of my favorite characters in the film are a pair of crusty Filipino villagers who delight in facing off with each other during the villages’ annual fiesta cock fight. The loser’s rooster winds up in the cooking pot of the winner.
Oops, you think Sayles may have lost the PETA crowd at this point in the film?
Sayles’ previous independent historical films show he usually buys into some of radical left-wing historian Howard Zinn’s take on America. Zinn was the biggest proponent that minorities and the disenfranchised completely built America on the backs of the over-privileged elites, a class warfare theme that sounds suspiciously contemporary and familiar. Not that there weren’t social, racial and labor inequities in our past, but someone had to come up with all of those new innovative industries and businesses to employ much of the population. Some of the wealthy supposed robber barons were actually fair-minded generous philanthropists, and others were not. These were the days when even the richest had no air conditioning, modern medical services and God forbid – no cell phones, laptops or the Internet! How did the rich ever cope back then?
Sayles’ American soldiers in ‘Amigo’ are not a bunch of grossly inaccurate, evil fools and crazed killers like in so many other Vietnam and modern war on terror films. His Victorian-era troopers are real flesh and blood human beings a long, long way from home. Garrett Dillahunt’s young American lieutenant even does what good officers in hostile foreign lands have always done, he sincerely attempts to understand the locals and their culture. When one soldier is ordered to fashion a noose for an execution because he claimed to have taken part in the lynching of black American back home, he embarrassingly admits that he didn’t actually participate in the lynching.
Though structured well, ‘Amigo’ is a very slow film without much explanation or context of roots of the actual conflict. Its small budget and storyline unfortunately give it a discounted look and feel. My guess is that all of the costumes, props and weapons were made on the cheap, and it shows. I worked as director John Milius’ historical advisor and produced the opening credit sequence for the 1997 TNT ‘Rough Riders’ mini-series on Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish-American War. I know the period well, and even have two original Krag rifles and other period artifacts in my own collection.
The real reason America was in the Philippines after kicking Spain out of the islands was not just to get in on the end of the last of the imperial land grabs by the European super powers, but also to stem the tide of German, French, British and Japanese ambitions in the Pacific. The common Victorian racial attitudes of the European powers at the time, as well as our own, dictated that it was the “white man’s burden” to bring civilization to their “little brown brothers.” That is just the way it was in those far less enlightened times.
‘Amigo’ is actually quite the lost opportunity, and the talented Sayles’ personal focus and left-wing views wouldn’t allow him to pursue the real epic story he very loosely based his film around, but not on – the 1901 Balangiga Massacre. On the morning of September 28, 1901 forty-eight American soldiers were ambushed in their tents and killed by 500 Filipino villagers and guerillas many disguised as women. Balangiga was then the worst such incident since Custer’s loss of 212 men at the Little Bighorn in 1876.
The American retaliation by Major Littleton Waller’s battalion of U.S. Marines, and that officer’s unjust court martial and his subsequent acquittal, are an incredibly unsung and dramatic story. Waller refused to carry out killing Filipino males over the age of ten; illegal orders directly given to him by Chris Cooper’s real life inspiration, U.S. Army General Jacob Smith. Waller’s rugged battles and eventual starvation march through the dangerous interior of the island of Samar became such a legend in the Marine Corps that whenever a Marine who served there was present at a function the order was always given, “Stand gentlemen, he served on Samar.” Waller stood the course, stood up for what was right, was brought to task for it and proved his innocence. General Smith was then court martialed, convicted and finally dismissed from the army.
Now that’s the other, far more fascinating side missing from ‘Amigo.’