Review: Corny propaganda that nevertheless resonates

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Sure, “Heneral Luna” is corny, stilted, amateurish and a bit hard to follow if you don’t have a degree in Filipino studies. And what’s up with that title? It’s about a guy named General Luna. What’s with the H?

Still, the movie is ultimately oddly affecting for a few reasons. First off, its simple message of “a house divided cannot stand” certainly resonates in modern-day America and elsewhere. Then there’s the self-assured lunacy of its title character. And lastly the bad guys here rarely turn up in Hollywood films. They’re us, America, invading a country and killing innocent citizens in an outright power grab.

How much of this reflects fact is a big question. The film states right off the bat that it’s bending truths to some higher purpose. Which is awfully honest of director Jerrold Tarog, but most viewers won’t know where the distortions are.

John Arcilla stars as General Luna, commander of the Philippine forces in the Philippine-American War in the late 1800s. A longtime Spanish colony, the Philippines had been sold to America (according to the movie), but some of the pesky natives wanted independence. So we sent troops over to eat their freedom fries.

General Luna is a true believer, so much so that when his men are being slaughtered he hops on a horse and charges the Americans with nothing more than a pistol in his hand. Miraculously he survives, but soon he realizes the Americans are far from his only problem. The Filipino people are far from united: many businessmen want America to win and boost the economy, different factions are loyal to other generals, disobedience and desertion are commonplace.

General Luna is somewhat hysterically rigid in the face of all this, accusing people of treason and having them arrested on a regular basis, which doesn’t win him a whole lot of friends. Still you come to admire his singlemindedness.

But there are so many clumsy moments. The General picks up a guitar and is suddenly a fingerpicking dynamo; the General suddenly reminisces about his early life with his mother late in the movie; the General consoling a man bleeding to death on the battlefield. None of this is seamless and often it seems silly.

But you have to admire the movie’s passion and purpose as nationalistic, binding propaganda. From an American perspective, “Heneral Luna” may not be much of a film, but it’s a fascinating artifact.

tlong@detroitnews.com

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‘Heneral Luna’

GRADE: C

Not rated

Running time: 118 minutes