Antonio Luna and his temper
“Heneral Luna” is a film I recommend highly. It does not have any of the current superstars of Philippine cinema, but it is an engaging narrative, supported by wonderful cinematography and grounded on sound historical research. When I previewed the film, I commented that it should not open with a disclaimer simply because it is a cinematic retelling of what many consider textbook history and is not a doctoral dissertation. I can only hope that the producers make a profit on this venture so that they can complete other historical films in the pipeline.
The film reminded me of an anecdote told by Teodoro A. Agoncillo, who had been summoned to Malacañang by then President Ferdinand Marcos to discuss a grand history project that required the historian’s participation. (I am not sure if the project discussed was “Tadhana,” the multivolume history of the Philippines that was published in part with Marcos as author.)
Ever the proud son of the Ilocos, the “Anak ti Batac,” Marcos asked: “Professor Agoncillo, what do you think of Antonio Luna?”
Agoncillo replied with a wry smile: “Luna was a great general who didn’t win any battles!”
Unfazed, Marcos said: “You see, I’m related to Luna.”
Normally candid, Agoncillo bit his tongue and mumbled under his breath: “Well, that’s your misfortune.”
Agoncillo laughed heartily as he related this to me. He was no great fan of Antonio Luna, and wanted to know why we remember only the latter’s tragic death and not his youthful brashness when, under interrogation for his complicity in the first phase of the Philippine Revolution, he snitched on other suspects including his friend Jose Rizal.
Interested in revisiting Agoncillo’s take on Luna? Just go through old issues of Solidarity, the journal edited by F. Sionil José, for a series of articles that marked the heated exchange between Agoncillo and Vivencio Jose, who defended his work, “The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna,” against criticism by Agoncillo. Jose’s work is the principal source for the film “Heneral Luna.”
While “Heneral Luna” tackles the last days of Antonio Luna, it is important to see that the hot-headedness that led to his assassination in Cabanatuan in 1899 goes a long way back to his years as an expatriate Filipino student in Spain. There are two instances worth retelling here.
The first was when Luna was upset by an attack on his elder brother, the painter Juan Luna, in articles by a certain Mir Deas. Finding no satisfaction from an official complaint with the Spanish press, he got even by writing an article where he mangled Mir Deas into “Mierdas” (the Spanish word for excrement). Not content with this, Luna also threatened to challenge Mir Deas to a duel. Luna’s friends tried to dissuade him from this plan by cheering him up, but he stalked his prey all around Barcelona and found him in a café. Luna walked up to Mir Deas, spat in his face, called him names unprintable here, then, as a final flourish to the public insult, pulled out a calling card from his pocket and threw it at Mir Deas as a formal challenge to a duel.
Luna had a reputation as one of the best Filipino swordsmen of his day, and was often called in as a “second” in duels fought to restore honor. But nothing came of it because Mir Deas refused the challenge and Luna consoled himself with the thought that his opponent was a coward.
The second instance was another would-be duel, this time between Luna and Rizal over a woman they both loved—Nelly Boustead. Rizal and Luna had been going on double-dates with the Boustead sisters, with Luna paired with Nelly and Rizal with the younger Adelina. Luna asked if Rizal was interested in any of the sisters, and when he received an answer in the negative, he continued his courtship of Nelly—only to be surprised to find out that Rizal and Nelly were seeing each other.
Jealous and dejected, Luna turned to drink and, drunk at a party, made a snide remark about Nelly that reached Rizal. Ever the gentleman, Rizal demanded an apology from Luna, who was so drunk that he not only refused to take back what he said but also challenged Rizal to a duel. Cooler heads intervened, and Luna was taken home and made sober. He was later scolded by Juan Luna, who also went ahead and apologized to Rizal for his brother’s behavior. Luna himself subsequently apologized to Rizal; he also told friends that the next time he got drunk, he was to be restrained, tied to a chair, even gagged if necessary.
I have yet to read up on the rules of duels and see who had a choice of weapons, and whether that could be pistols or swords. Textbook history tells us that Rizal was a crack marksman and Luna superior with swords, so if the duel had pushed through, Rizal would have chosen pistols and Luna swords. It is one of the great what-ifs in Philippine history as to who would win in this duel. Either way, we could have lost one or even both of our heroes because of a woman, and our history would not be the same.
One could also say that the tragedy of Antonio Luna was his temper.
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An exhibit to commemorate the 25th anniversary of my book “Rizal Without the Overcoat” is ongoing at the Ayala Museum’s second-floor gallery. It runs till Sunday, Sept. 13. Admission is free.
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