This was a strange and interesting movie to come across on Netflix. It’s a war story, a psychological horror, and a fairly accurate (though biased) recounting of a unique historical event. The plot is easy to summarize: Spanish soldiers sent to garrison the town of Baler in the midst of the Philippine Revolution are besieged by Tagalog resistance fighters; cut off from the outside world and abandoned by the Spanish government, the defending troops continue to hold out months after the end of Spanish influence in the islands and into the early occupation by the Americans.
A Spanish-language, Spanish-produced film, 1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas (directed by Salvador Calvo; written by Alejandro Hernández) could have been a standard patriotic tribute. It could also have been a radical, anti-imperial production. Instead, it lands somewhere in the middle, reminiscent of works like Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, Dances with Wolves, or The Last Samurai–works that criticize colonialist, imperialist, militant policies, primarily through the psychological impact on the (mostly white) individuals sent to enforce them, and only secondarily through often grotesque violence committed en masse against the oppressed indigenous communities. 1898 inherits the awkward tropes of these other narratives; whether that’s through familiarity or just the nature of anti-colonial narratives filtered through the lens of the former colonial power, I’m not sure.
I’ll miss plenty of the tropes, but I’ll target a few. We have a charming white male lead who is sensitive and artistic but who turns to opium and is physically and emotionally scarred in horrible ways by the war. And–for double our money!–we have yet another charming white male lead who defects to the natives (this happens early on, and his character decreases in importance, serving more as a representation of escape for the bulk of the soldiers still trapped inside their defenses). We have upper leadership acting in stubborn and stupid ways, fixating on patriotic fervor and a dogged belief in superiority over the natives to keep fighting past anything sensible. We have natives in three roles: the noble warrior, the tempting women who serve as a siren call away from “civilization,” or the faceless and nameless hordes who die in wave after wave. And we of course have a senseless conflict motivated by profits for an absent ruling class.
I shamelessly enjoy a lot of this genre of safe, white liberal fantasy about the White Guy Who Does The Right Thing. I recognize it’s massively problematic. I recognize how it often dehumanizes or denigrates native cultures, how these films could be better if they had a greater focus on the indigenous peoples themselves and if they were created by the surviving voices of those same indigenous peoples. I see how having a convenient narrative like this does less to actually challenge the American and European history of empire and more to soothingly whisper to white liberals that if only we had been there, we would have been different. I don’t approve of that, but I can’t help it that these sorts of productions are often really engrossing historical epics! And that’s the case here.
It’s also hard to set aside that this film is beautiful. When soldiers are approaching or leaving Baler, we often get lovely shots pulling back to show just how small and overwhelmed the soldiers are, just how ready the massive jungle is to consume them entirely. Visual allegories are frequently used without much, or any, comment: a crocodile snatches a dog, a spider slowly prepares its trapped prey. When in the “fort” (actually a fortified old church), shots are dark, tight, claustrophobic. It always feels as though the men are practically stumbling over each other, with too little room and too little light. Their faith fails, their health fails, their reserves fail, even as the building fails.
The performances are great too, and the characters in that fort are so varied and vulnerable. Luis Tosar plays Lieutenant Martín Cerezo, an officer forced to take charge after the premature death of their commander; he’s sympathetic, compassionate, and principled at first, but the strain of command and his desire for glory, with nothing back home to look forward to, corrupt him into a cruel dictator. The tempting force that leads him down that dark path is Sergeant Jimeno Costa (Javier Gutiérrez), a survivor from the original fighting forces in Baler and something of a half-mad Kurtz. In contrast, Vigil (Carlos Hipólito), the unit’s doctor, is a rational and empathetic counterbalance who unfortunately goes ignored (Vigil was my favorite character, portrayed with a subtle pathos under his stoic demeanor that gave him perhaps the most complexity of any character in the film). Carlos (Álvaro Cervantes) is the sensitive and naive artist I mentioned; Juan (Patrick Criado) is the defector-gone-native. Carmelo (Karra Elejalde), the town priest, joins the soldiers in the temple and is obsessed with preserving a history of what happens–even while introducing Carlos to opium and showing himself to be a thoughtful philosopher who is perhaps lax in his own faith. And critically, Teresa (Alexandra Masangkay) is a village singer and not-so-subtle spy who is derided as a whore but who also gives the Tagalogs the friendliest face.
While the Tagalog resistance is only rarely seen, they are gradually shown in a different light–in some ways, quite literally. At first, we only see the soldiers at night, charging recklessly at the defenses to be gunned down. I’ll be honest: the faceless, anonymous violence of the freedom fighters seemed so biased in its depiction against the natives that I was close to giving up on the film in the first third, but this improves quickly. When Juan defects, it is because he sees a Tagalog fighter dead on the ground, young and human and lifeless just like the Spanish dead. We gradually start to see more of the Tagalogs, still mostly at night and only from the Spanish perspective. The Tagalogs gradually make entreaties for peace, asking the Spanish to surrender, attempting to inform them about the status of the outside world–but the commanding lieutenant continues to disbelieve. And they do small kindnesses for the Spanish, offering short truces to bury the dead and delivering oranges when the Spanish stocks ran low, though the Spaniards do not show gratitude in return. The Tagalogs mostly move on with their lives, returning to village activities and training their men of fighting age to be more of soldiers. It’s a subtle development, not detailed directly, but by the end of the film the freedom fighters are a true army, with artillery, uniforms, and disciplined soldiers. The Spanish are shown to be the ones out for blood, fighting way past any point to do so. And in the end, the Filipinos accept the Spanish surrender and provide an honor guard out of the fort, proving themselves to be honorable and quick to forgive.
It’s not just a “happy” ending, either. It more or less reflects the actual outcome of the siege. That’s striking to me.
I don’t think we’re ever supposed to be on the side of the occupying force–other than that Spanish viewers might recognize them as military heroes from textbooks or something similar. One character says early on that the natives were fighting for their freedom, while the Spaniards were fighting to save an empire. Even that early on, we are surely meant to see the Spanish side of things while recognizing that between freedom and empire, there’s an obvious right side. We can sympathize at the suffering of the besieged Spanish forces, but even without ever centering the film on the Filipino resistance and villagers, my greater sympathies were always with them, dealing with an occupying force after the rest of the nation had already moved on to the next threat (unfortunately, yet another occupying force).
The premise of the film is simple enough, but its execution is close to masterful. The lack of a distinct Filipino counter-narrative is a detriment, but this movie is morally complex, thoughtfully disturbing, and often quite beautiful.