After the surprising success of Heneral Luna, that historical achievement of a film that came out at a time when historical epics appeared to be firmly things of the past, Jerrold Tarog embarked on a heroic campaign of his own, working on a sequel that is bigger in all the ways that mattered. Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral is larger in scope, tougher in logistics, and more damaging in its budget. It is a riskier project, and not because the executive producers are financially more exposed—they have repeatedly claimed to not care about incurring losses, gallantly, for the sake of art—but because big-budget movies are less like banks (“too big to fail”) and more like warships: overlook one fatal flaw, one little vulnerability in its massive architecture, and the entire mighty artistic endeavor sinks.
Tarog fortunately is now an auteur knowledgeable in the architecture of epic blockbusters, or what counts as one on these shores. He understands how such films have to be many things at once, and his past works have proven his ability to craft each facet well, and then weave them together in compelling ways. Still, big movies like Goyo have a leading sentiment, a first-among-equals among the many genres they embody. If Luna was action—more often of the verbal kind than the physical, but still overwhelmingly a story of conflict—then Goyo is romance. Not just romance in the common sense, although this film has a lot of that, Gregorio del Pilar being a dashing young man (he is played by Paulo Avelino) who loves to show off his horsemanship on town plazas, courting and chasing girls in the most reckless of ways by 19th century standards. (It is tempting, though not particularly creative, to think that this movie could easily have been titled Goyo: Ang Babaerong Heneral, the womanizing general.) More than that, this film has a sentimental attitude hinted at from its very first teaser, a melancholic temperament that stands in contrast to Luna’s firebrand pragmatism. Goyo is a confident suitor but a tentative patriot, still looking for his place and principles, still remaining a little bit of a boy at heart; he has a sense for fantastic ideas like fate and destiny. The film confounds love of country with romantic love, the love of ideas and abstractions with the love for persons and people, in a story of war and peace, of boys becoming heroes. Nothing heightens the excitement of romance like the contrast between harmony and conflict after all; nothing else can so easily turn stories into epics.
While Goyo is engaged in his rather frivolous pursuits, it is left to the more sober characters to reflect on the state of the fledgling nation. The opening scene is a glorious slow-mo of President Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado) and his men stumbling down a hill, running away from unseen pursuing Americans, while Apolinario Mabini (Epy Quizon) speaks in a voiceover of how it is a mistake for Aguinaldo to refuse heroism, to evade the prospect of martyrdom, choosing to flee and have his uniform stained with the dirt of the roads but never with his own blood. (This indulgent opening scene is too dramatic, but nevertheless breathtaking.) The overtly named fictional character Joven (meaning young in Spanish, played by Arron Villaflor), the inquisitive pen-and-paper journalist in Luna, is caught up this time in Goyo’s company, shifting his documentary medium to the visual when he tags along with his famed photographer uncle. “Ayokong magbulag-bulagan” (I don’t want to play blind), he says, while observing the vices and virtues of the young general.
The first part of Goyo, mostly set in a quaint turn-of-the-century Dagupan, has the lion’s share of the film’s most interesting scenes. There is the subplot involving Major Manuel Bernal (Art Acuña in a brief but impactful role), a Luna loyalist, ending in a torture scene that reverberates like a dark echo throughout the story, casting a shadow on Goyo’s heroism. There are the humorous bits, involving Goyo’s courtship games, the women’s talk among themselves, and also General José Alejandrino’s (Alvin Anson) passive-aggressive disrespect for the President. There are the curiously surreal, perhaps unnecessary but irresistibly enchanting visions of horror (to which Tarog no doubt brought some learning from Bliss): Goyo’s paranoia at the town plaza, his vision filling with unfocused, black-veiled figures, and his premonitions of death while nearly drowning at the river. And then there is perhaps the most thrilling moment in Philippine cinema in the entire year: the folk theater play that re-enacts Goyo’s life story, for his own satisfaction, but which triggers his traumatic memories as the scene cleverly cuts (with percussive force) to a tantalizingly brief portrayal of the Battle of Kakarong de Sili, the battle that gave Goyo his first foretaste of mortality. By the end of this section of the film, Goyo has already given us a balanced serving of emotions, as any epic film should; it is aided in many turns by the often-rousing score (also by Tarog), and the meticulously staged sets, the beautifully studied moments.
All of these could happen at Dagupan because there was a five-month lull in the war, which the young, complacent Filipinos enjoyed like an extended summer vacation while the Americans diligently prepared for an offensive. Goyo and his friends’ sunny days come to an abrupt end one night when, while frolicking at the river as a send-off for one of their own, they are alerted to the flashes and booming of American artillery on the horizon; the despedida turns into a baptism; by dawn, scrambling back to town, the boys have become soldiers again. The film shifts its tone, too, and its atmosphere, from one of illusory peace to impending war. Goyo, who saw omens of death at the river, becomes preoccupied with mortality, losing his confidence, shedding his arrogance, and going forth seemingly with a death wish.
The film begins to frustrate at this point. The Dagupan section is so entertaining, such a full feast of agreeable filmmaking, that when the narrative funnels into the focused mission of marching through the mountains, evading the enemy, and fighting the inevitable final battle, it all feels underwhelming. Part of it is the burden of a full view, the lack of mystery of a complete picture: in contrast to the numerous snippets of other battles, those tasty highlights of action peppering the early sections of the film, the procedural unfurling of the final battle comes across as tedious.
The Battle of Tirad Pass is supposedly the Philippine Thermopylae, the last stand of a few valiant soldiers, sacrificing their lives so that the nation may live a little longer, aided only by geography against superior forces. There are further parallels in how both battles were decided: in Thermopylae, the Persians outflanked the Spartans with the aid of a local, Ephialtes, who in Frank Miller’s retelling is a Spartan outcast; in Tirad Pass, the Americans outflanked the Filipinos with the help of an Igorot, a Cordilleran native whose people the lowlander Filipinos have been insulting as monkey-like savages. But the similarities end there, as Goyo’s depiction of Tirad Pass is the opposite of 300’s hyper-stylized vision; there is no celebration of violence, no unrealistic lack of fear on the battlefield, no demonizing of the enemy. The Americans are nothing like the caricatured Persians; they are professional officers and disciplined volunteers, performing their duties with determination. The Filipinos, despite the example of the best of them, are mostly the undisciplined, under-trained soldiers that they are. And Goyo is like Leonidas only insofar as fatalism and suicidal tendencies are concerned—but while Leonidas’s attitude is purposeful, Goyo is mostly tentative, perhaps even foolish.
A common first impression for this film is therefore one of disappointment. If you are a Filipino and you went to see this film without brushing up on history, if you thought you already knew, and still remember from your elementary school textbooks, what is necessary to know about Tirad Pass and Gregorio del Pilar’s moment of martyrdom, then you will likely still be surprised at how the events turn out as told in Goyo. The young general was not the last man standing on the mountain; he was not killed in a magnificent, movie-ready moment on horseback. The reality, the historical truth that this film dares to tell, is much more frustrating. And that is by design, that is part of what Mabini is telling the audience when he asked, “Kaya na ba ng Pilipinong marinig ang katotohanan nang hindi napipikon?” Can the Filipino hear the truth and not be sore about it? Even historical films, based on stories whose endings we all know, can have twists, and for Goyo the setup involves whetting our appetite for a satisfying climactic battle. The punchline involves a Battle of Tirad Pass so lacking in intensity that the combatants, tired from the heat of the midday sun, manage to find time for quite a leisurely lunch. The joke is on those who cannot handle, indeed do not want, the disappointing truth.
Goyo does have other jokes that misfire, other decisions that seem miscalculated. The film’s indulgence shows in the overcooked moments before Goyo’s death. That death scene itself is executed at a blistering pace, for reasons that are not hard to imagine, but it still feels like overcompensation for the corresponding scene in Heneral Luna. And, after Goyo’s death, it is conceivable, however shameful it is, that the surviving Filipino soldiers did scamper away as they do in the film—but it is much less acceptable to know that in their hurry they would be so idiotic as to keep falling off cliffs. Goyo is often a funny film, but it has moments of misplaced hilarity like this.
And then, the post-battle scenes are rushed, as if this film, the second in a planned trilogy, is pressured to close its epilogue because there is such a huge in-story time gap towards the third film. Aguinaldo’s reputation also remains the biggest casualty in Tarog’s trilogy so far. He is not as great a man as popular history makes him to be, it is clear by now, but these films are punishing him further, turning him into a scapegoat in their quest to be allegorical reflections of the present. Goyo skips ahead and portrays his capture at Palanan in Isabela, but only very briefly. This is significant, because the film opens with the question of his evasion of martyrdom, and Palanan was his last chance. The writer Gregorio Brillantes, a protégé of Nick Joaquin, once wrote about the revolutionary president’s symbolic ‘two deaths’: the first at Palanan, upon capture, where the American’s new prisoner mustered enough valiant humility to salute his captors; and the second as the “nearly a hundred years of ingratitude, ignorance, academic asininity and political Pharisaism… the assassination of his name and fame, and the confinement of his memory and spirit in the labyrinth.”*
Nevertheless, this film is about Goyo, after all. And it is a film that is deeply derived from him, as the filmmakers understood him, and as they envisioned his character. This character is communicated starting in the film’s posters: whereas Heneral Luna’s is in fiery, gritty reds, oranges, and yellows, Goyo’s is in calmer, cleaner, and more collected blues. Similar directions inform the actual films’ visual tones and other elements. Lazier filmmakers would have kept as much of what made Luna work as they could, conforming to sequel expectations, making just the minimum adjustments needed to accommodate a change in protagonist; but we are fortunate that they are not, and that they did not, because it would have been a betrayal of the late boy-general, it would have been his own second death.
His first was enough. This is a film that manages to simultaneously deconstruct and extol him; Tarog did it, as he has explained, not by telling the story of a man becoming a hero, but by showing how a hero became a man, grappling with his mortality and finding his humanity. The resulting film is proud and loud, beautiful even if flawed, like the image-conscious general himself on his last battle, dressed, adorned, and prepared as he was for his final day. And the epic film that celebrates him strips away all its decorations at the very end, returning to its romantic heart as it plays the final notes of its elegy (in the melody of Bato sa Buhangin), uncovering sweet, deep grief, for a hero and a man, and for the country that was his greatest love after all.
*From The Two Deaths of Emilio Aguinaldo by Gregorio C. Brillantes, Philippine Graphic, Sep–Oct 1999, reprinted in Chronicles of Interesting Times by Anvil Publishing, 2005.