Artikulo Uno Productions
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‘Heneral Luna’: Hero for the millennial generation
by Sylvia L. Mayuga
No doubt about it. “Heneral Luna” is not only a masterpiece but a gift to the nation in another crucial moment of its history.
Bowing to historical scholarship, it takes off on its core insight: how the Philippine revolution defeated itself at the very moment of its impending victory against Spain. As American battleships enter Manila Bay, challenging the Aguinaldo Cabinet’s divided opinion of its real intentions. In everyone else’s rude awakening, Antonio Luna’s destiny emerges in all its depth and complexity.
As commander of the revolutionary army, Luna instinctively mistrusts the Yankees from the start, contrary to the trusting, insular-minded Aguinaldo. But just as America shows its hand, the perceptive Luna’s tragic flaw of irascible pride ignites a major explosion in a fragile, year-old revolutionary government.
Director Jerrold Tarog turns a century-old story into a thoroughly modern psychological understanding of heroism and villainy in fateful struggle. The result is so powerful that it promises to impact the millennial generation in the next national elections.
Tarog, barely past his mid-30s—he is also the co-scriptwriter, film editor, and musical composer—emerges as a true auteur, masterfully stringing all film elements together with a first-rate artist’s eye and ear.
His cinematic depth of field in sweeping battlefield scenes reminiscent of "Gone With the Wind" perfectly matches the film's depth of character development, confident casting and firm hold on the actors. The director’s vision clearly seeped into the whole cast, everyone performing with the discipline of theater and the mesmeric quality of film.
The unerring choice of the sequence of events elevates "Heneral Luna" from hagiography or just another war film into timeless interplay of light and shadow in the best Shakesperean tradition.
It’s no surprise to hear from the horse’s mouth, the film's original scriptwriter Eduardo Rocha, that Shakespearean tragedy was precisely his intention. Film students and cineastes will be pleased to know that Rocha's film credits include, as an actor, Urian-nominated turns in "Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?" and "Bayaning Third World" and a cameo role in "Virgin Forest"; a co-directing credit on "Ang Magdadapo" with Uro de la Cruz; and producing and directing the documentary short "Culion."
Rocha conceived "Heneral Luna" two decades ago. It all started with this Spanish mestizo’s shared passion for cinema, the liveliest art, with Fil-Am experimental filmmaker Henry Francia. They co-founded the Manila Film Society in the seventies, while pursuing their passion in the shadow of the Philippine star system under the overweening influence of Hollywood.
By the ‘80s, they had developed the script "Little Brown Brothers" about the Balangiga Massacre in Samar. It was optioned by Oliver Stone, though a film was not realized. But legendary producer-director Cirio Santiago invited the two “to write a script about any hero we wanted for a one-hour TV show. I chose Antonio Luna because his fall matched the requirements for a Shakespearean tragedy,” says Rocha, who was ready for take-off from prevailing film cliches.
“We present our heroes as victims. I didn't want that for Luna. Henry and I agreed that Luna would be an anti-hero and Aguinaldo would be an anti-villain.” With Francia doing the research, they “agreed on key events of Luna's life.” Things “evolved organically” as Rocha structured the script.
Result? “When Cirio saw the script, he was taken aback. He said forget TV, asking us to extend it to full-length film structure, change outline, omit scenes, combine characters, change names ...Then nothing. Luna's script was revised three times. It was almost made three times, but there were last-minute pullouts.”
The masterpiece-in-the-making continued twisting and turning with life’s exigencies. Rocha’s son was lying in a semi-vegetable state from an accident when the Luna script won third prize in a Film Development Council of the Philippines contest. Tragically, Rocha's son passed away. Then two and a half years later came a nudge from fate.
Rocha recalls, “Jerrold Tarog called, asking to read the script as he was always interested in doing a film of Luna. I asked him to give me his reels. They floored me. I saw the makings of a David Lean type of filmmaker!”
So how did the Ortigas Foundation come to produce "Heneral Luna," I asked. “The foundation has nothing to do with our film. It’s a separate venture. [Executive producer] Fernando Ortigas is doing this on his own,” says Rocha.
He knew Ortigas, but had no idea he was interested in producing films. “Then Rocky Camus, my son's friend whose father is Nando's cousin, asked me if I had any projects for films. I gave him the revised script. It fell on Nando's desk.
“Nando told me that had he gotten the script a week before, he would have thrown it in the trash can. I think he was not prepared to invest in films a week before he got script. The timing was perfect.
“He agreed to let Jerrold direct and told me to make the vision made real! Then began a partnership of visionaries.”
Rocha and Francia were originally set to co-direct the film.
“But when I saw Jerrold's body of work, I knew that for the good of the film, I had to give up my dream of directing [it],” says Rocha. “Ironically, Jerrold added a lot of our ‘lost scenes’ and more. Without my telling him, he used the same pegs Henry and I wanted to use for our version! Meant to be! He's a genius!
“It was as if everything aligned to pave the way for this, I dare say, masterpiece. The way I see it is when visionary producers, writers and director collaborate, boom!”
In the alchemy of art and life, Eduardo Rocha has survived to reach this moment of quiet triumph. His sparring partner Henry Francia, though, passed away soon after his wife Betsy Romualdez in 2002.