‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral’, a romantic elegy

The film we deserve, not the sequel we wanted: on ‘Goyo’ as essentially a romance, and how the historical film works against expectations.

Carlo Aquino as Colonel Vicente Enríquez, Empress Schuck as Felicidad Aguinaldo, and other figures looking sadly over something on the ground at twilight, in ‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral’.

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.

Filipino revolutionary soldiers crossing a stream, carrying supplies, in difficult mountainous terrain, in ‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral’.

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.

Paulo Avelino as General Gregorio del Pilar, running among revolutionary troops up Mount Tirad, in ‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral’.

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.

Gwen Zamora as Remedios Nable José on a scenic field, holding a letter, looking wistfully into the distance, in ‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral’.

*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.

Still frames taken from the film’s trailer and a related music video.


11 thoughts on “‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral’, a romantic elegy”

  1. Baliktad tayo, mas nagustuhan ko ang 2nd half kesa 1st, kahit na hindi talaga naipakita ng buo sa pelikula kung paano naubos at nawala ang mga sundalo ng Republika dahil sa kapabayaan ni Goyo. IIRC, nasa mga 2000 pa sila nang magsimula silang umatras mula sa Dagupan.

    But I like the death scene, and the scenes before it (i.e., the eagle), like it was some sort of sarcastic joke or a punchline. But the scenes leading to it didn’t work for me. Kalat-kalat siya. Him preaching about soldiers full of love, the scene with Ronnie Lazaro, were seemingly done in “earnest.” Tarog keeping the sarcastic tone all thoughout might have been better. Actually, yung buong movie, yung mga ideas niya, kalat-kalat din.

    “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”

    That’s what Tarog intended, but not what I saw. Goyo was never shown as a hero–neither a real hero nor someone who believe in himself as the hero. The movie was so happy to show his dark side from the very start (i.e., turturing and killing Luna’s aid de camps). Even he himself have doubts early on (this after he watched and enjoyed the zarsuela about his early exploits, his heroism). And probably the biggest misfire, was having his brother re-affirm to him that he is the Aguila. The movie didn’t establish his character early on, what we know about Goyo comes from the mouth of other characters—Manuel, Joven, his brother, the people honoring him in fiestas, the girls. Scenes showing Goyo raiding and liberating Bulacan from Spanish troops might have helped establish this “hero becomes a man” story. Also, as the main character, he had very little to say about the things happening in the movie. He isn’t just a tentative patriot. His whole character was… tentative. Aside from the part where he’s good at courting girls, we never really get to know his character. When the movie started to show his inner thoughts, his fears—I asked, where did that come from? Rather than fear of death, wouldn’t it be more logical for him to feel guilt?

    1. Hmm, maraming gusto gawin ang pelikula, pero hindi naman masyadong kalat ang dating sakin. ‘Yung mga usapang pagmamahal sa bayan sa Tirad, may pinagmulan naman ‘yun, ‘yung turning point ni Goyo noong nabasa niya ‘yung sulat ni Remedios sa paanan ng bundok.

      You have good points. Totoo, kulang ‘yung depiction as a hero. But that’s only if we take account of the movie itself. Ang defense ko dito (oo na, Tarog apologetics na ang ginagawa ko haha), is intertextual naman ‘yung ginagawa niyang trilogy. Not a valid defense if we’re talking about foreign audiences, ‘yung mga hindi pamilyar sa history as taught in Philippine schools, pero sabi ko nga, the films are speaking to our complacent preconceptions about who our heroes are. Si Luna, bago ang pelikula, hindi malinaw kung sino siya. Pero si Goyo, sinasamba ‘yan sa history classes. Kaya hindi na nag-abala ang pelikula na ipakita pa ‘yon. True, tentative ang character niya, but only in his attitude, and that’s in line with the (dark)-hero-to-man arc. Sa simula, siya ‘yung mayabang na utusan ni Aguinaldo. Simula noong tinawag siyang aso ni Manuel, nag-alinlangan na siya. Tuloy-tuloy hanggang noong umalis na sila ng Dagupan at naging pabaya siyang heneral. And then the turning point, the words from Remedios: “Gusto kong sumandal sa bisig ng isang lalaking alam ang kaniyang hangganan.” From his arrogance, his youthful sense of invulnerability, his security in his past achievements, he was suddenly faced with the prospect of death, the realization that he had so little control over things, his having “little to say about the things happening”. But Remedios’s letter gave him a final clarity, the idea that he can do only so much but he can still do them with purpose; na tao lang siya, but he can still choose to accept his fate, to offer what he has with his refreshed romantic sense. Reckless nga lang siya until the very end. Yes, he should also have been shown to feel guilt, but let’s just say (as an excuse) that it’s part of his humanity, his essential flaws, that in his vanity he couldn’t have thought of feeling it.

      1. I like that you put “tao lang siya” as accepting fate (in Goyo’s case here) to because acceptance is a matter of choice and his vanity was a matter of faith which was the best he could have done with what he had. Surely, one doesn’t have much room to grow in with reckless vanity.

      2. I don’t quite understand how vanity is a matter of faith, but I appreciate your last point. There’s that defeatist sense of fate again: he didn’t have much room to grow, and so he had to die.

      3. Ibig kong sabihin dun sa kalat-kalat ay sana nag-focus na lang sa isang main idea yung movie. If it’s equating romantic love to love for one’s country (as you mentioned in your post—very well written as usual), then they should have focused on it. Should have built the movie around it. They could have done away with other things, like the obvious commentaries about the then fledgling republic mirroring the current state of politics. Dahil madaming gustong sabihin ‘yung pelikula (i.e., si Duterte, si Aguinaldo, bayani ba si Goyo?, etc.), lahat ‘yun naging “minor hit” lang, walang tumatak pagkatapos.

        Re: Intertextual—the filmmakers did not only expect that the audience alredy watched the first movie, but also that they already read about Goyo—him liberating Filipinos from the Spaniards, him being promoted to general, that he’s Aguinaldo’s favorite, that he went to Hong Kong and had his tooth plated with gold, etc.

        It’s probably true, that the general audience already knew more about Goyo than Luna (before Heneral Luna). The story where Goyo died in Tirad is obviously more popular than the one where Luna was killed in Cabanatuan. But if it’s true that very little is written about Goyo compared to Luna (AFAIK, wala namang Rise & Fall of del Pilar si Goyo–correct me if I’m wrong) then we can say that maybe, the general audience knew very little of Goyo’s life as well. Probably, most only knew that he died young in Tirad. Also, that he was a chickboy. But maybe, not much else. Maybe.

        Which is why I thought it’s important to show the other “chapters” of Goyo’s life. First, for context, second, to have a more balanced portrayal of Goyo. It was said that the movie’s “an invitation for critical thinking.” But the movie shows mostly the negative side of Goyo. Which is almost the same as telling the audience what to think—Goyo, not a hero.

        “And then the turning point, the words from Remedios”

        This part didn’t work for me. Ditto with Goyo’s sudden change in character, or character development, if you can call it that.

        Here’s why:

        Matapos siyang tawagin na “aso”, di na siya bilib sa sarili niya, tapos “confused” o “lost” na siya the whole movie, hanggang nabasa niya yung sulat. Pero di naman sinagot ng sulat ‘yung main dilemma ng character niya: aso ba siya ni Aguinaldo o hindi? Ang sagot, hindi ka “hero”, tao ka lang. Medyo malayo ‘yung sagot, pero ganun pa man, dahil sa sulat, nawala yung “doubts” niya.

        Para sa ‘kin medyo pilit, pero pwede naman. Na dahil nalaman niyang may pag-asa siya kay Remedios, nagkaroon ulit siya ng purpose. Tapos nakita niya ‘yung Tirad at ang advantage nito. Pero ‘yung kay Ronnie Lazaro niya lang natutunan yung pagmamahal sa Inang Bayan (habang tinatanaw ang naglalakihang mga bundok ni Inang Bayan), parang teka, seryoso?

        “his youthful sense of invulnerability, his security in his past achievements”

        This goes back to my previous point. Na sana pinakita yung past achievements niya sa movie. And starting with him as “mayabang na utusan ni Aguinaldo” kind of oversimplifies his character. (Shet, ang haba.)

      4. Hmm. Put that way, I concede that the film is diluted, ‘makalat’. I think films are most pleasant when they have a strong unifying theme, which does not mean that they have to be one-track minded, but that all the diversifying elements should support the central thread in a coherent way. I agree that Goyo isn’t like that. That’s why I said the romantic attitude is only a first-among-equals theme; the other commentaries/themes have equally strong claims on being what the movie is all about. I guess that’s what Tarog meant by that Goyo is intended to be watched multiple times—because the audience might see a different ‘main point’ each time. Of course that’s not for everyone, and it can make for a diluted impression with only one viewing. I’m only giving this film a free pass because of the important subject matter, that being a film about national history, which by convention should be big, should be epic, Goyo is allowed to say many things, be many things.

        Yes, the movie shows Goyo mostly in a negative light, but as far as I can tell it still ends with him in a positive, even glorious light. Goyo is not a hero, it says for so much of its running time, but as far as I can remember (and I may be mistaken!), no one who has seen the movie has categorically said afterwards that Goyo is indeed not a hero, even if their image of him is now more nuanced, tainted if you will. (Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of their ideas of Aguinaldo.)

        Yeah, his conversion after reading the letter does not completely work out logically. I guess it worked for me because it already moved me on an emotional level, so I threw away my logic. Goyo running up Tirad was a Nolan moment for me: the scene is mostly empty action, but it’s made more important than it should be by exciting music and sweeping visuals. (I’m thinking of the drone chase scene in Interstellar. And speaking of Interstellar, I just remembered how such a supposedly cerebral, logical, hard sci-fi movie has that cheesy speech about love in its midst: “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.”) Lol, sorry for digressing.

  2. Like “Heneral Luna,” which I thankfully saw, the proof of “Goyo” is in the viewing, only because I’m not much of a history buff to take your dissertation all in. Paolo’s promise in “Larawan” was not apparently enhanced in his solo starrer and it sounds like a shame. Your literature keeps at its pleasing pace.

  3. Sorry if I gave you difficulty with vanity being a matter of faith. I simply meant it as what best describes Goyo’s flawed humanity, which he couldn’t change, because he only had himself to believe in. Maybe he could’ve, had he lived a little bit more, with little help from Remedios, who might’ve transitioned from leaner to leaned-on (thereby deserving her name), but his faith was also, alas, his fate. Is my spare history sense making a similar stride?

    1. No worries. Interesting point about Remedios’s name, I haven’t thought of that because she was a historical person after all, and any meaning in name would only be accidental. (A happy one, of course.) I guess, if we’re talking in romantic-worldview terms here, that yes, that’s his fate. That despite her name, it was not in Remedios’s destiny to save him.

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