The Month of February and El Presidente
by Rudy A. Arizala
17 February 2013
According to T.S. Eliot, “History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors and issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,/ Guides us by vanities.” While Plutarch said: “So very difficult a matter it is to trace and find out the truth of anything by history.”
Aware that there are at least two versions of history - one written by the victors and the other by the vanquished in war or revolution, let us try to seek the truth by re-reading the history of the Philippines.
And this month of February led me to re-read some historical events and compare them to a movie recently produced in the Philippines. I refer to a CD movie “El Presidente” sent me by a coleague from DFA, which is about the life and exploits of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo as a leader of the Katipunan and President of the Philippines during the early period of the American Forces in the country.
According to a book on Philippine History after the signing of the 1898 Paris Treaty between the United States and Spain, war between the United States and the Philippines broke out. The American version say that on a warm moonless night on the fourth of February 1899, at about 8:30 PM., a U.S. soldier, Private Willie W. Grayson, with two other members of his patrol approached San Juan bridge. This bridge spanned the river between the City of Manila and San Juan which at that time was a village. According to Grayson, suddenly, four figures appeared at the other end of the bridge. He shouted “Halt!” The figure in front of him continued to move forward. Grayson challenged the man in front of him with another “Halt!” Immediately, the man at the other end shouted back: "Alto!” “Well,” according to Grayson, “ I thought the best thing to do was shoot him.” The man in front of him dropped to the ground. “It was some minutes after our second shots before the Filipinos began firing,” narrated Grayson.
The other version that of a Filipino historian, the incident did not happen on San Juan Bridge, but at a side street near the banks of the San Juan River. Be that as it may with that encounter, the Filipino - American War began which dragged on for two years.
Most likely, the Director / Producer of the movie “El Presidente” followed the Filipino historian version, for no bridge was shown in the said movie.
Aside from the encounter at San Juan which ignited the Philippine-American war, i wonder if the Director / Producer of the movie “El Presidente” made appropriate historical research on the other historical incidents depicted in the movie as follow:
1. What really happened at “Tila Pass” where a young Filipino General Gregorio Del Pilar and sixty of his men held at bay the advancing superior American forces to allow Gen Emilio Aguinaldo and his men escape from being encircled by enemy forces and reach their final destination up North of Luzon in Palanan. In the “El Presidente” movie, Gen Gregorio Del Pilar was shot while fleeing mounted on his white horse. . .not when he was confronting and shooting at the advancing enemy forces.
2. What really happened to Gen Antonio Luna, “one of the most brilliant Generals” of the Aguinaldo Army according to Henri Turot, the author of a book on Aguinaldo. How and why he was shot in Cabanatuan where he was supposed to have a meeting with President Aguinaldo.
3. What really happened to the Bonifacio brothers while negotiating the mountainous passage near Mt. Buntis. Is it historically true that Andres Bonifacio grabbed the rifle of one of the military guards escorting them and tried to kill Aguinaldo’s men?
4. What was really the attire or uniform of the Aguinaldo forces / army during the Filipino-American War? In the “El Presidente” movie, the soldiers and officers of Aguinaldo were shown wearing white uniforms and not the “rayadillo”. According to historical data, the Revolutionary Army of the First Philippine Republic under Emilio Aguinaldo used the fabric (rayadillo) in their military uniforms during the later years of the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War,
5. What really happened to Pres Aguinaldo’s envoy / emissary Don Felipe Agoncillo in Washington, D.C.? In the “El Presidente” the incident depicted was different from what was narrated in the book: “First Filipino Diplomat” -Felipe Agoncillo by Esteban D. Ocampo and Alfredo B. Saulo, (National Historical Institute, Manila, 1978).
6. Why the Aguinaldo Cabinet headed by Apolinario Mabini resigned en masse in May 1889; and why such incident was not included in the movie “El Presidente”.
With all due respect to Gen Emilio Aguinaldo as acknowledged leader of the Philippine Revolution and President of the First Republic, one is led to wonder whether the movie “El Presidente” is designed to “reinvent’ the life and deeds of Gen. Aguinaldo and portray Andres Bonifacio, Gen Antonio Luna, Gen. Artemio Ricarte, et al, as inimical to the struggle for independence if not “traitors” to a noble cause. In other words, whether the movie “El Presidente” is intended to present the other side/version of history concerning Gen Emilio Aguinaldo as President of the Philippines.
In this connection, it may be recalled that Apolinario Mabini, Pres. Aguinaldo’s adviser and Secretary of Foreign Affairs who resigned en masse in May 1889, with other cabinet members, wrote in his book “The Philippine Revolution” (La Revolucion Filipina) why the Philippine Revolution failed in the following words:
“To sum it up, the Revolution failed because it was badly led; because its leader won his post by reprehensible rather than meritorious acts; because instead of supporting the men most useful to the people, he made them useless out of jealousy.”
Aside from above-mentioned historical incidents, it is a regret to note that the photography in the movie “El Presidente”, the dramatic and historical scenes need a lot of improvement to correspond to reality or what and where the events really took place. The dialogues also need improvement to differentiate them from what we usually hear in a “drama” or ‘zarzuela” show.
The battles engaged in by the Aguinaldo Army lack realism - what we see in the movie are groups of armed men rushing to do battle, shooting indiscriminately in all directions and engaging in “hand-to-hand” fighting not with bayonets but with swords as if in a duel.
These observations are not to criticize the movie “El Presidente” or dispute the heroism of Gen. Aguinaldo, but an attempt to understand better the purpose of the movie in relation to what really happened during that stage of our history.
Probably, “El Presidente” is the type of movie which most movie-goers in our country want to see to be entertained thru our “pinilakang-tabing” irrespective of what really happened during that stage in our history.
In fairness to the local movie industry, however, Filipino directors/producers could also produce good quality if not superb movie about war, revolution and love affairs such as a Filipino movie I saw in Manila many years ago. I refer to the movie titled: “Oro, Plata, Mata”, which was about historical incidents and love affairs during WW-II among regular soldiers, guerrilla forces and civilians in the Philippines.
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