Amigo: A Tale from America’s Forgotten War

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Thursday August 18, 2011 - 05:31:00 PM

The respected indie director John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus 7, Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, Lone Star) has written and directed a potent and poetic film about the personal struggles of people trapped on both sides of the all-but-forgotten Philippine-American war. 

Sayles decided to focus a story around this 1900 guerilla war while working on his latest novel, A Moment in the Sun (published by McSweeney’s in May). Working with a largely Philippine crew, Sayles filmed Amigo entirely on location on the island of Bohol, northwest of Mindanao, and finished all the post-production at studios in Luzon. The result is a film that looks and feels fresh, real and live-in. The Philippine Secretary of Education has praised the film for “portraying the real-life drama of ordinary Filipinos” caught in the crossfire of war. The fact that Amigo was filmed in English, Spanish and Tagalog adds more authenticity to its message. 

As Sayles points out in his essay “In Search of the Philippine-American War Film” (see accompanying article), “no armed conflict in the modern era has received less cinematic treatment than the Philippine-American war.” But even in its earliest days, Sayles notes, cinema was being used as a propaganda device to promote America’s burgeoning experiments with imperial war. (One 1899 film called “Capture of the Trenches at Candaba,” was actually filmed in New Jersey with African-Americans hired to portray the Filipino “savages” routed by America’s might. The filmmakers figured most Americans wouldn’t know what a real Filipino looked like. They were right.) 

Amigo takes its title from nickname adopted by Rafael Dacanay, the wise and principled leader of a village occupied by US troops. Dacanay (movingly portrayed by the beloved Philippine screen star Joel Torre, who also co-produced the film) tries to protect his people by finding negotiating space between the irreconcilable demands of the foreign troops and the guerilla fighters. 

The film makes subtle use of parallel scenes to propel the story. In the garrisoned village, Lieutenant Compton (Garret Dillahunt) reads an order warning that fraternizing with the enemy is forbidden while, in the mountains, a dictum from General Aguinaldo warns that cooperating with the invaders will bring retribution. As the US troops approach their first deadly skirmish in the mountains, there is a parallel scene of a cockfight being staged in the village. As order begins to break down among the occupying troops lodged inside the village, rebels hunkered in their mountain caves complain about their own leaders and start to question each other. We see racial stereotyping exercised on both sides of the battle lines. 

There are echoes of future wars. The soldiers (many of them poor and uneducated farm kids) call their Chinese workers “Coolies” and categorize the local Filipinos as “goo-goos.” (In Vietnam, this derogatory term would evolve into “gooks.”) Most notoriously, we are shown the origins of the Bush-Cheney-Yoo practice of American-style “water-boarding.” In the Philippines, captives had water forced down their throats through bamboo pipes — like geese being stuffed with foie gras. Once their stomachs were sufficiently distended, US interrogators would stomp on their bellies. In a written memoir, one soldier boasted that he could send a plume of water six feet into the air. 

We see a perfect example of media manipulation in the form of Padre Hidalgo, an opportunist who is able to steer events because he is the only one available to translate (or intentionally mistranslate) conversations between the US military and the village leaders. Big Brother arrives in the form of telegraph lines that link the villages to US military leaders in Manila. Intelligence is gathered in the sticks and piped hundreds of miles to Central Command. And, like today’s Internet, this novel communications system was hacked (literally) by Indigenous resisters who climbed the wooden poles on a weekly basis and easily snipped the wire lines. 

Sayles, of course, is a master screenwriter. Some lines seem to Sayle out and hang in the air, as when Padre Hidalgo, a duplicitous Spanish priest, tells Lieutenant Compton: “I warn you: the moral path is not the most obvious.” Or when Dacanay fears for his son (who has fled to join the resistance) and is forced to acknowledge the hard truth that “the revolution burns any fuel it is fed.” 

Amigo is filled with a trove of small scenes that play beautifully. The idle chatter of the Americans reveals their ignorance, vulnerability and longing to be back home. A soldier’s wistful courtship of a young village girl who cannot understand his words is poignant. The recurring comic commentary of two Chinese laborers helps to frame the cultural divides between the occupiers and the occupied. In one scene (intentionally reminiscent of Shakespeare’s grave-diggers) the Chinese workers are digging a latrine to bury their wastes. “Why do the White Ghosts not use the fields? What a waste of good shit!” 

The longer the Americans stay with the villagers, the more acclimated they become. They relax and begin to enjoy the natural rhythms of the rural life and honor the local traditions. This turn of events is beneficial for the troops and the villagers but it is anathema to the “war ethic,” personified in Amigo by Colonel Hardacre (Chris Cooper) as a hard-charging Indian fighter impatient to roust the rebels at all costs. 

“The gloves are coming off, gentlemen,” he instructs the garrison. “We are done with the carrot… it is time to employ the stick.” 

Gazing angrily at the relaxed attitudes of the soldiers who have been guarding the village, Hardacre sneers: “You’re getting pretty comfortable here.” “I have to live with these people,” Compton replies. “No, Lieutenant,” Hardacre screams, “You gotta make war on these people.” 

And all the futility of America’s foreign wars ensues — detentions, torture, pillage, the slaughter of livestock, the execution of civilian leaders. And because the US “won” the war, the US wrote the history books — in the Philippines and at home — assuring that the lies and brutalities of this war were safely buried. Sayles is to be commended for a film that exhumes the ghosts and pays homage to the human suffering on all sides of this terrible war. 

Advisories: The film contains scenes of roosters in combat and pigs disembowled, but the images are not gratuitous. And, in the opinion of this reviewer, the film’s conclusion is flawed by a terrible editing decision that “telegraphs” a conclusion and an unsatisfying fade-out that sacrifices authenticity for cinematic artifice. 


Note: The film’s lead actor, Philippine superstar Joel Torre, will appear at a benefit screening for Bindlestiff Studio to be held at San Francisco State University on August 20. For information and tickets, contact http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/191964