We’re back to our irregularly scheduled programming.
In a few short words, “Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral” was a subdued, painful, and introspective cinematic masterpiece. Watch it, love it, support it. I’ll even buy the script, should they publish. For a thousand more words on the film, read on.
Touted as a “historical cinematic epic”, it is almost impossible to imagine Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral (2018) to be anything other than an action-packed, intrigue-laden blockbuster following the template of 2015’s hit Heneral Luna. But the movie, even with its drone-shot landscapes and fast-moving trench battle scenes, was anything but similar to its predecessor. To its merit, Goyo was a subdued, reflective and even melancholy affair with hardly any filibuster.
On its own, it stands as a sobering reminder of the perils of idolatry, nepotism, and unrefined power. In these times where we have our pick of bad, worse, and even worser news, Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral asks us the questions that need answering. It is a rousing sort of quiet. I personally can’t stop picking at it.
Spinning the Myth
Like any historical film, Goyo had the unique ability to marry facts and fiction to spin a compelling narrative.
In the few seconds Paulo Avelino appeared as Goyo in Heneral Luna (expressively “debonair”, according to critics), you could almost taste the nation’s anticipation. You could hear the audience swooning.
Gregorio del Pilar (1875-1899) might as well be our version of a historical pocketbook romance hero. I may not remember the details of any battles, but my image of del Pilar is a dashing young general astride a white horse, facing down nameless villainous colonizers.
As a prodigy in his youth –or perhaps extremely lucky in battle– del Pilar rose through the ranks and gained the admiration of President Aguinaldo. His legend grew from the battles of Kakarong de Sili, Paombong and Pasong.
There is real meat behind the myth that surrounds the Boy General, and yet Jerrold Tarog made the decision to strip us of that satisfying hero build-up and narrative. In showing Goyo during a time of false peace –months after those landmark battles, and after his travels abroad with Aguinaldo— we see only his charming personality, his showmanship and horsemanship, and his boyish fears.
It is a curious and effective spin. A boy with Avelino’s charm struggling to survive battles and being awarded the rank of general would sell well in the streets. Del Pilar’s life is a rich source for a youthful underdog story, but we see none of that. Goyo isn’t a commercial venture that seeks to sell; it’s an educational and cultural experience.
Watching the film, you’ll be wondering why exactly del Pilar was so favored by Aguinaldo, so loved by the people of Bulacan, and so idolized by everyone he meets beyond his playboy charms and youth. None of his victories make it to the screen to provide fodder for applause. Watching him receive accolades was an exercise in frustration. Was he deserving of his mythos? Why the beautiful Remedios Nable Jose (Gwen Zamora), prestigious Felicidad Aguinaldo (Empress Schuck), and a legion of other lovelorn women were so enamored is a mystery.
In fact, I would say it would be his onscreen comrade Vicente Enriquez (played by Carlo Aquino) that displayed the empathic valor and selfless love of country I was looking for. We were all rooting for him.
It is an uncomfortable feeling. Goyo follows the journey of a battlefield hero and prodigious general, but shows none of the merits that brought him there. Instead, through the eyes of Joven Hernandez (the wide-eyed observer further tying Heneral Luna to this film, played by Arron Villaflor), we see the growing man inside the Boy General. We see his youth.
Gregorio del Pilar was 24 when he died at Tirad Pass.
Remember Who You Are
One of the key conflicts in the film was del Pilar’s struggle to define himself and his motivation. Called a dog by a dying Manuel Bernal (Art Acuña), del Pilar is jolted out of his comfortable seat at Aguinaldo’s inner circle. Here was a boy who gained too much power too soon, without the maturity and moral steadfastness that should come with it. Was he in service of a predestined path (as he is called “Agila” by his admirers), of his patron Aguinaldo, of his love for his future dreams, of his love of country?
The film’s tagline reads “Tandaan Mo Kung Sino Ka”. A difficult task, if you don’t know who you are.
Del Pilar was barely a prodigy. His role in many of the film’s bloody conflicts ranged from negligent general to late observer. He possessed neither a strategic nor an aggressive mind suited to battle. Though to be fair, without even watching the film, we should have known. There was no way the Battle of Tirad Pass would have been glorious. It might as well have been a futile cause.
As Gregorio del Pilar’s last words were quoted,
“The General [Aguinaldo] has given me a platoon of available men and has ordered me to defend this pass. I am aware of what a difficult task has been given to me. Nevertheless, I feel that this is the most glorious moment of my life. There is no greater sacrifice.”
Goyo (2018) was not a film for titular heroes saving the day or for brilliant political strongmen taking a stand. It was a film for the nameless soldiers who died for love of country.
We need to stop looking for idols to praise. It’s on us.
In the end, Gregorio del Pilar didn’t die as the boy general. He died like anyone else –a man in service of his country.
Untold Stories in Philippine History
Souvenirs from history, such as monochromatic photographs and dress buttons, are snapshots of a bigger story. A running motif in the film was the preservation of memory through the then-new technology of photography. We see del Pilar’s iconic pose, and the soldiers readied at Tirad Pass. We watch as the stories behind the photos unfold.
Goyo also touched on many untold and barely missed stories in the annals of Philippine history. Jumping from the titular character’s introspection, we see several scenes transform into almost fantastical representations of fear, paranoia and impending doom. It is a creative reflection of Goyo’s premonition of his own death. From a medical perspective, it was a symptom of PTSD.
Interesting as well was the portrayal of indigenous peoples, who were either shunned and harrassed in town, or coerced into serving military troops as mountain guides through Cordillera. Januario Galut is one of the named Tingguian Igorots who played a role in the story; he led the American 33rd Infantry Regiment which defeated del Pilar. And yet one has to understand –with so much discrimination from lowlanders, why should the Igorot be loyal to the revolutionary government?
There were hints of other historical goodies. In a parade celebrating del Pilar’s promotion, townspeople regaled themselves with a chorus (sabayang pagbigkas), a tradition that my grade school self never truly appreciated. I can see now why it could have been a source of entertainment in the time before radio and television.
Another historical fact: all around, us Filipinos failed at the art of warfare. We never thought to unite before it was too late; we never sent scouts ahead or people to read strategy books. We were experts in strategic incompetence. I am not sure anyone is surprised. I am not sure if we have changed.
The reality of then and the reality of now are painful. Apolinario Mabini’s words (played by Epy Quizon; he remains my favorite character) might as well be applied to today; it is not like we are succeeding in our intellectual and cultural revolution today.
To sum it up, the Revolution failed because it was badly led… he judged the worth of men not by their ability, character and patriotism but rather by their degree of friendship and kinship with him. Because he thus neglected the people, the people forsook him; and forsaken by the people, he was bound to fall like a waxen idol melting in the heat of adversity. God grant we do not forget such a terrible lesson, learnt at the cost of untold suffering.
For the Next Generation
I sincerely believe that there is a rich and important space for mainsteam historical productions in our country. There are so many stories left untold. I can only imagine how much more invested I would have been in Philippine history class if the materials were as entrancing as Goyo. Critical assessments of history, both far and recent, are sorely lacking.
Through well-written and well-directed films, heroes come to life. They become people whose sacrifice becomes worth honoring. Our current clash of ideals, with thousands dead and millions impoverised, may not be waged in physical battlefields.
Nevertheless, learning to think critically and to look at the past are integral to any noble cause. As the film suggests –even if there are no heroes to look up to for guidance, we can always look to learn from their mistakes.
(Aguinaldo, who was haunted throughout the film by veiled accusations over Luna’s death, lived to a ripe old age. How history repeats itself.)
I only fear to fall in the trap of pinning our hopes onto future generations. Clearly, that does not work. As General Alejandrino says in the movie,
“Isang henerasyon ng duwag at sinungalin ang nakaangkas sa laban na ito. Umaasa na lang ako sa susunod na henerasyon.”
Congratulations to the production team for this masterful film. Please do support it!
I’m still trying to process this movie (maybe I’ll watch it again this week???) but here are all my thoughts on it so far. I can’t believe I haven’t posted in two months. I’ll be back to blogging regularly soon! #MedicalSchool