Movie: Heneral Luna

My blog has seriously been lacking posts related to movies. Not that I haven’t been going to the cinemas but I find it do depressing that the only movies I can write about are foreign ones. There is such a dearth of decent Filipino movies that I can’t write about movies in general (or else it would be a very negative post about our local films). It’s even harder to find good historical movies. The last one about Bonifacio had noble intentions but Robin Padilla’s serious lack of acting talent was too distracting, and while the source material was rich, the movie’s plot was…blah. It had been years, even decades, since we’ve had a decent historical movie but if Heneral Luna is any indication, then we are about to experience a renaissance.

So when we started seeing those posters about Heneral Luna, the hubby and I were really excited. It is quite interesting to note as well the choice of subject: Antonio Luna. We all know about Luna’s fiery temper but he is one of those heroes who somehow get overshadowed by Rizal’s intelligence, del Pilar’s good looks, and Aguinaldo’s sly, political maneuvers. What we all know (I hope) is that he was the younger brother of Juan Luna, whose brilliance in art Antonio equalled with his mastery of the art of war and guerilla warfare. But beyond those information, we know very little of the man.

That the movie starts with a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction based on facts should not dissuade Filipinos from flocking to it – yes, certain liberties were taken, especially with the chronology of events, but on the whole, it stayed largely faithful to what our history books and biographies tell us. In fact, it was so truthful that for the first time in many years, we have an epic historical/action film that depicts one of our lesser known heroes for the man that he is, instead of glossing over his flaws and presenting him as more of a deity on a pedestal.

The first thing you notice about the movie is the lush cinematography and the painstaking attention to detail to evoke the aura of the late 19th century. The only flaw are the numerous images of the Our Lady of Fatima, which was out of place as the Marian apparitions happened more than a decade after the events of the film. Despite this not being considered a mainstream/commercial film, no expense was spared – indeed, its reported budget of Php80MM (some sources suggest as high as Php200MM) is one of the largest  budgets ever for a Filipino film.

The movie starts with an interview of the general against a backdrop of the Philippine flag. As the movie progresses, his uniform gets more tattered, bloodstained, and the actor’s face more anguished and pained. The flag hanging behind him mirrors the travails the general endures – it eventually gets riddled with bullet holes and blood spatters. The next scenes switch between Cabinet meetings and battles against the American forces, different battlefields in which Luna excels. He comes off as a man possessed, perhaps his penance for having declined joining the 1896 revolution, since he belonged to that generation of heroes who preferred to push for reforms and representation in the Spanish government. The interjections of Spanish curse words, while distracting in most movies, serve to stress the enormity of the situations in which they were used. 

It deviates from the usual storytelling from the hero’s childhood to adulthood, and instead injects “throwbacks” by way of anecdotes told by the general himself to his loyal soldiers, such as when he tells how he and Rizal almost had a duel in Europe – a reference to when they courted Nellie Boustead, a half-Filipino, half European woman who favored Rizal. Luna, presumably incensed that he was rejected, made unsavory remarks about her that eventually led Rizal to challenge him to a duel. Fortunately, their friends intervened and the duel never happened. Imagine what tragedy it would have been. His mother’s visit before his fateful journey to Nueva Ecija also gave us insights to his brilliance as a chemist and doctor, proven by his first place finish for his college paper “Two Fundamental Bodies of Chemistry,” at the Santo Tomas, his being commissioned by the Spanish to study tropical diseases, and his eventual appointment as Chief Chemist of the Municipal Laboratory of Manila (a position he won by placing first place in an examination for the post).

Even the precious few minutes devoted to his love story with Ysabel didn’t feel forced and an unnecessary accoutrement to the movie. It is a vaguely alluded to the relationship he had with Ysidra Cojuangco, a matriarch of the  Cojuangco clan. There were unverified  rumors at the time that Luna had entrusted the revolution’s funds to Ysidra, and upon his death, the money was never heard of again, and formed the foundation of the Cojuangco weath.

Perhaps the most clever tool used in the movie to cover long stretches of time in one go is a black and white montage of important events, reportedly completed within a single take: the Luna family’s traditions, the Ilustrados’ studies in Europe, Rizal’s execution, the establishment of the Sala de Armas (a fencing club) by the Luna brothers in Manila.

Luna’s death, its gruesome depiction notwithstanding, stayed true to historical accounts: the general received a telegram from Aguinaldo purportedly asking him to go to the his office in Nueva Ecija, presumably to discuss the establishment of a fort in the mountains and the use of guerilla warfare. Nearing his destination, his entourage encountered difficulties and were delayed, forcing him to proceed only with his two trusted men, Capt. Rusca and Col. Roman. On his way to Aguinaldo’s office, he encounters Pedro Janolino, the captain of the Kawit Brigade who he had earlier disarmed for insubordination. He finds out Aguinaldo had left and finds instead cabinet member Felipe Buencamino, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, who he previously had arrested along with Pedro Paterno for their pro-American leanings, seated on the president’s seat.

Arguments ensued until a single shot outside prompted the already enraged Luna to investigate. This scene is perhaps the most talked about and bloody sequence in the movie, showing how the general was felled by a bolo swing from Janolino, followed by subsequent gunshot and knife wounds inflicted by members of the Kawit brigade –  most accounts agree that Luna sustained more than 40 wounds, calling his assassins cowards and murderers. Even the short quip by Aguinaldo’s mother, asking “nagalaw pa ba yan?” (Is he still moving?), is based on the most consistent eyewitness accounts. His two comrades came to his aide but were overwhelmed, with Roman being killed and Rusca severely wounded. For those familiar with Antonio’s elder brother Juan’s masterpiece, Spoliarium, the scene where his body and that of  Roman were dragged by the  Caviteños pays tribute to that painting.


It is quite interesting that the filmmakers cast known comedians in serious roles: Leo Martinez as Pedro Paterno, Ketchup Eusebio as Janolino, and Epy Quizon as Apolinario Mabini. But perhaps this added to the charm of the movie and rendered the comedic lines more natural. Epy was a revelation, as he proved he could be a serious actor, quite like his father actually. I remember quite clearly how Dolphy made me laugh hard in his movies, but when he turns dramatic, he slays. Paulo Avelino’s random appearances as General Gregorio del Pilar drew cheers from the crowd.

To be honest, I am not quite familiar with John Arcilla’s work. I heard he’s a good actor but I don’t think I have watched him in a large role such as this and he was brilliant. There were many instances when his raging outbursts and jokes threatened to turn the movie into a comedy, but the way he delivered his lines took the film from borderline slapstick to art.


Despite the overwhelming evidence against Luna’s killers, no one was jailed or punished; Aguinaldo denied any involvement, though newspapers at the time, both here and in the US, largely pinned him as the mastermind behind the brutal assassination, as he felt threatened with Luna.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

Even Mabini, Aguinaldo’s loyal former prime minister and advisor, embittered and disillusioned, had this to say later on (taken from Nick Joaquin’s A Question of Heroes):

“The revolution failed because it was badly directed, because its leader won his post not with praiseworthy but with blameworthy acts, because instead of employing the most useful men of the nation, he jealously discarded them. Believing that the advance of the people was no more than his own personal advance, he did not rate men according to their ability, character and patriotism but according to the degree of friendship or kinship binding him to them; and wanting to have favorites willing to sacrifice themselves for him, he showed himself lenient to  their faults. Because he disdained the people, he could not but fall like an idol of wax melting in the heat of adversity. May we never forget such a terrible lesson learned at the cost of unspeakable sufferings!”

On a sidenote, it was quite frustrating to hear moviegoers asking either why Mabini was seated the whole time or who the paralytic was – I watched the movie twice and heard seatmates ask these questions out loud. What are we teaching our kids nowadays? And those asking appear to be college students, some even look to be working professionals. One even had the gall to comment that he didn’t know that the Bonifacio brothers died such gruesome deaths.

Inadvertently, the movie brings to the fore the dubious motives and flawed character of Aguinaldo – one need only be reminded of how he usurped power from the plebeian Andres Bonifacio, then had him brutally dispatched off in the mountains of Maragondon, Cavite, which became a morbid deja vu for Luna’s murder. He declared himself president, but when tested, proved to be nothing more than a glorious clan leader. Persistent rumors also question where the $800M given to him by the Americans in Hongkong have gone, a question we will perhaps never find the answers to. His subsequent actions during the Japanese occupation further cemented his reputation as a turncoat- favoring whoever is in power to save his own skin and advance his political agenda. But perhaps, a closer look at history would prove that justice had been served: Aguinaldo lost to Quezon, one of his former majors (indeed, one of his last scenes in the movie where he was about to leave Cabanatuan before Luna arrives, shows the young Quezon greeting him, an account taken fron Quezon’s memoirs) in the presidential elections. And whatever legacy he has will forever be tainted by the murders of the Bonifacio brothers and Luna.

On the other hand, General Luna, regardless of his volatile temper that eventualy became his death warrant, would now be regarded in history as a man who strove to unify the nation, create an army capable of inflicting defeats unto its more advanced adversaries. His death now serves as a lesson that nothing can be achieved by regionalistic sentiments; and he will be forever remembered as one of the most brilliant generals the Filipinos ever had.

The movie, despite its disclaimer as a work of fiction (which on hindsight, must have been included to appease the purist who know nothing of artistic license), is a must-watch for all Filipinos. Painstaking research must have been made to ensure the accuracy of most of the events in the film, and I must commend Jerrold Tarog’s brilliant mind to put this all into one cohesive script and direct a fully entertaining and engrossing movie. It should be watched not just for its merits as a film, but more to reignite nationalism, which has now been reduced to nothing but an idea, and encourage the youth (and the old) to revisit thier history books, and learn from the mistakes we seem to be wont on repeating.

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