August 2011, Week 3


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Wed, 17 Aug 2011 23:01:11 -0400
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With Friends Like These: John Sayles on the Philippine-American War in Amigo

By J. Hoberman 
Wednesday, Aug 17 2011

John Sayles's Amigo aspires more to educate than
entertain, but it's no less engrossing for that. Torn from
the pages of history, if not those of Sayles's recently
published, epic turn-of-the-20th-century novel A Moment in
the Sun, the movie harks back to America's first real
imperial adventure--the bloody pacification of the

Featuring a large Filipino cast and shot by a mainly
Filipino crew, Amigo is set in a northern Luzon village
occupied by U.S. soldiers and surrounded by guerrilla
insurrectos. It's a movie of multiple perspectives and
four languages: Spanish, Tagalog, Chinese, and English.
The protagonist, Rafael (Filipino superstar and the
movie's co-producer Joel Torre), is the village leader,
caught in the middle and pitted against himself--a
self-proclaimed amigo to the Americans and, with his
brother and young son camped out in the jungle, an
ambiguous "friend of the revolution." Sayles takes care to
establish the historical forces at play--feudalism,
nationalism, colonialism, religion--but Amigo is in many
respects a family quarrel. As the amigo's wife (Rio
Locsin)--who, unlike him, is a devout Catholic and thus
beholden to his rival, the village padre (Yul
Vazquez)--asks, "How can both sides be right?"

Good question. Amigo is a movie in which everyone has
their reasons, and various sides commit atrocities,
although this sense of relative values does not
necessarily make for subtlety. "The little monkey ran
right in here--I see'ed him!" are the first English words
we hear, as U.S. forces pursue a presumed guerrilla into
the village. The Americans are mainly cheerful Southern
boys weaned on lynchings and grizzled Westerners, veterans
of the Apache wars. (The frontier had only just closed
when the war began in 1899; Richard Slotkin's Gunfighter
Nation convincingly argues that President Theodore
Roosevelt and others regarded and promoted the Philippines
adventure as the next splendid step in America's Manifest

Already familiar--thanks to left-wing historians like
Slotkin, Richard Drinnon, and Howard Zinn--is the notion of
America's extended occupation of the Philippines as the
template for our Indo-Chinese intervention. Sayles needn't
strain to make the point: Vietnam is immediately present
in the rice fields and the jungle. There are also obvious
parallels to our missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We're
supposed to be winning their hearts and minds," a
sensitive American lieutenant muses.

The lieutenant is a trained architect and thus crucial to
the movie's most utopian moment, as occupiers and occupied
join forces to rebuild a house for a tubercular village
woman. ("I must've torched a thousand of these things
between here and Manila--never thought I'd put one up,"
Sayles has one gomer say.) The lieutenant also allows
Rafael to orchestrate a fiesta at which, believing it to
be America's national anthem, the band serenades the
soldiers with "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." However
prophetic the sentiment, any such solidarity is not to be
tolerated. The next day the colonel (Chris Cooper) rides
into town, establishing draconian martial law and applying
a form of waterboarding to extract information. (Sayles
elaborates on this unsavory historical fact in A Moment in
the Sun, which, in addition to a graphic description, has
a chapter titled "Water Cure.")

Sayles's politics are impeccable--he's the working-class
hero of American movies--but he seldom misses an
opportunity to make his point. His filmmaking is highly
functional, with nearly every shot designed to deliver a
message. Dialogue is similarly blunt--whatever their
language, all the characters are scripted to speak in
cliches--and the movie is predicated on parallel action.
Sayles crosscuts between the village and the guerrillas,
with the village priest conducting Mass as two comical old
crocks square off for a cockfight, or between an American
funeral and a Filipino one.

Schematic as it is, Amigo ends with a cascade of
intentional historical ironies. The American soldiers are
baby killers, if only by default; even the most
well-meaning occupier is the clueless prisoner of received
ideas here. Ordering an election for village headman, the
good soldier explains that "in America, the will of the
people is sacred." (Only in America . . . ) Recognizing
this lack of understanding for the men on the ground is
crucial to the film's success. Amigo is intelligently
rip-roaring, a thoughtful action film, a teachable moment.


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