Wednesday, July 19, 2017

1898 (...Los ultimos de Filipinas, 2016)

There's something about the Philippines, I guess, that makes foreign soldiers very reluctant to leave. The U.S. definitely overstayed its welcome there, but at least we didn't leave last-ditch fanatics behind when we decided to leave. When I was growing up, however, the world was fascinated by stories of Japanese soldiers holed up in the islands for up to thirty years after the end of World War II. There was precedent for this, on a more modest scale, after the 1898 war in which the U.S. "liberated" the Philippines from Spain. Despite that crushing defeat, a Spanish garrison held out at Baler, in eastern Luzon, for nearly a year, surrendering only in June 1899. The siege of Baler was the subject of a heroic war film in 1945, during the Franco dictatorship. Salvador Calvo's remake is far less celebratory.

The garrison is made up mostly of recent arrivals from Spain, few of whom have any real training. Our point-of-view character among these recruits is an aspiring artist who befriends the resident priest. While the soldiers can hold out for months with the ammo available, the important thing for the priest and his new protege is a plentiful supply of opium. One important thing the unit lacks is nutritious produce. Berberi breaks out, killing the original commander. The men continue to hold out, though at least one deserts.

Meanwhile, as the besieging Filipinos well know, Spain is negotiating a sale of the islands to the victorious U.S. to bring the war to a definitive close. Anticipating their next war with the Americans, the natives would like to end the siege with minimal fuss and hope to convince the Spaniards with up-to-date newspapers. The new commander dismisses all reports as fake news, contrived to trick them into surrendering. Eventually, our artist hero is sent out on a mission to get authentic news from Manila, the capital. He's promptly captured by a courteous Filipino commander who sends him on his way in the hope that the truth will set everyone free. The commander still won't believe and condemns the artist as a drug-addled traitor. Our hero will survive the siege, but his artistic ambitions end up one last casualty of a hopeless war.

The siege of Baler was something new to me, and that lent novelty to 1898. The siege was no Alamo and its conclusion -- the commander finally reads a piece of news he can't dismiss as fake -- is inescapably anticlimactic. The maiming of our artist hero serves as a symbolic catastrophe on top of the already pointless deaths during the siege. The film's real strength is its ensemble cast, led by Luis Tosar, Javier Gutierrez and Alvaro Cervantes as the artist. There's nothing really innovative here as far as battle films go, but for audiences outside the Spanish-speaking world 1898 provides a fresh look at the absurdity of imperialism and the folly of war.

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