How many Heneral Lunas have we killed?
“Heneral Luna” is not a film about history. It is a morality play dressed in rayadillo. It harnesses the events of yesteryears to speak of ills that span decades and eternally frustrate our attempts to build a modern republic.
The movie opens with a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction inspired by fact. Indeed, it proposes that artists may take liberties with facts to present greater truths.
It fails as a documentary. Its President Emilio Aguinaldo is a one-dimensional weakling who abruptly has the Heneral assassinated out of insecurity. Neither the American sympathizers’ motivations nor Apolinario Mabini’s brilliance is ever fleshed out. Even the Americans are caricatured as pompous generals and trigger-happy rednecks.
Heneral Antonio Luna breaks character in a deceptive comic interlude. He must deal with a British stationmaster to commandeer a train. An aide asks in a whisper if he can speak English. The Heneral puffs up his chest and makes his request in perfect French. The stationmaster responds, in English, that he is being absurd. The furious Heneral orders his arrest then stage-whispers, “P—-g ina, arestuhin niyo na, nauubusan na ako ng Ingles (Damn it, arrest him right now, I am running out of English)!” His tone is tellingly more like a 21st-century Manny Pacquiao’s in his American Footlocker ads than a 19th-century ilustrado’s.
The scene extends into the stationmaster’s office, where the Heneral sits back and samples tea and scones. “Mas masarap pa ang ensaymada dito (Locally made ensaymada tastes much better),” he scoffs. The film subtly highlights the pregnant quote. When the Heneral storms out to deal with yet another headache, an aide sees the scones and repeats the innocuous line.
“Heneral Luna’s” early reviews, all the way to my favorite critic Oggs Cruz’s, gushed about its cinematography and witty script. Two weeks into its groundbreaking run, however, debate shifted to its deeper layers of meaning. The revisited Antonio Luna is not as distant a historical figure as he seems. He began as a chemist and doctor who had the chance to study in Europe alongside the likes of Jose Rizal. He studied under the Belgian military hero, Gen. Gérard Leman, who fortified the city of Liège and stalled the initial German advance during World War I.
In the film, the Heneral’s knowledge proved effective yet unappreciated. Only the American generals exclaimed at how a Filipino seemed to have read the same manuals. Later, only they would toast the death of the revolution’s one real general.
The Heneral is remembered as the tragic combination of brilliance and arrogance. Every young overseas Filipino worker is, of course, familiar with the word mayabang (arrogant). One is mayabang for asking why Singapore can have a clean government and world-class infrastructure. One is mayabang for asking why the United States can produce innovations from Facebook to Uber. One is mayabang for admiring the quality of British parliamentary debate, Japanese work ethic, foreign investment in Indonesia, and the patriotism palpable in a Chinese national day parade.
Indeed, the Heneral is hambog (conceited) even for simply insisting on a common uniform for Filipino soldiers from various provinces. Whenever a “heneral” or a young OFW is curtly dismissed as mayabang, curiously, no one ever explains why his idea was wrong, beyond some vague mumbling that Filipinos are as good as anyone else.
Each year, brilliant, idealistic young Filipinos venture out to gain precious knowledge in building modern financial systems, resolving decades-long civil wars and planning modern cities. One sees but hints in the occasional essay published by our Chevening scholars and Mason fellows. But not even those who are scions of prominent families can simply shout, “Para kayong mga birhen na naniniwala sa pagmamahal ng isang p–a (You are like virgins believing in the love of a whore)!”
It is far easier to dismiss our best and brightest as mayabang as it is to assassinate a “Heneral” than to plan a concrete military defense. It is far easier to watch our Goldman Sachs- or McKinsey-trained civil servants like former Customs commissioner Sunny Sevilla quit in frustration than to promote genuine technocracy. It is far easier to dismiss The Outstanding Young Men awardees like Sen. Sonny Angara and Rep. Miro Quimbo as grandstanding than to have the difficult discussion on reforming income tax brackets.
It is far easier for politicians to throw vague accusations of bias at a judge of senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s stature or for media to glorify self-styled “activists” mouthing propaganda in Supreme Court arguments than to hold real legal debates. Even the homegrown genius of his time, Mabini, was eventually sidelined by intrigue and only returned to the Philippines from exile to die. And “Heneral Luna” itself almost disappeared from theaters, even with a Fernando Ortigas’ generous financial backing.
The trailer ends hinting at the true message: “Mayroon tayong mas malaking kaaway kaysa sa mga Amerikano: Ang ating sarili (We have a greater enemy than the Americans: ourselves).” The figurative Heneral Luna has been killed many times over. We still aspire to stand on a par with the figurative foreigner and boast that our ensaymada are indeed as good as any ensaymada elsewhere.
In the ultimate #HugotHeneral, one wonders what country might have emerged a hundred years ago had our forebears set aside petty jealousies and enlisted every Luna, Mabini, Rizal, and Bonifacio to build it. One wonders what country may yet emerge today if we stop killing our “Henerals.”
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