Review: Sayles’ Amigo on a war that Twain opposed

Books by faith-and-film author Edward McNulty are used in congregations nationwide. He is working on a new book, Blessed Are the Filmmakers, about peacemaking themes in major movies that is coming from ReadTheSpirit Books in early 2013. He also has a new column about Clint Eastwood’s new movie.
Here is his latest movie review …

Review: John Sayles’ Amigo on a war
that even Mark Twain opposed

By EDWARD McNULTY you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.

Ecclesiastes 5:8

Amigo, John Sayles 17th film that he both writes and directs, is a fictional account of real events during a war that few Americans know about, what some call “The Forgotten War.”

The Philippine-American War took place between 1899 and 1902, a period when the U.S. had taken control of the islands from Spain—but, instead, a native Filipino movement arose seeking independence. This touched off a war in which the U.S. asserted its own control over the islands. In Sayles’ film, it becomes clear why the Philippine–American War has been “forgotten,” because in this the American troops were the invaders determined to suppress the movement for independence. US soldiers in this film are the ones whose ignorance of both the natives and the reason for the war proves fatal for those they claim to be protecting.

Sayles’ film is that rare one in which we root for the enemy, and not for our side, unless we are bereft of any sense of justice. Yet, despite the filmmaker’s obvious sympathy for the cause of the Filipinos, he steers clear of demonizing the Americans, instead bringing out their human, and often humane, qualities. war was controversial, because of the tragic loss of life in savagery that shocked the nation. Mark Twain opposed the war. So did newspapers like the New York Journal, where a 1902 political cartoon showed U.S. Gen. Jacob Smith’s actual order to his troops to “Kill everyone over 10,” at one point in the war. The caption describes the boys about to die: “Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines.”The film’s title comes from the village mayor Rafael (Joel Torre) who, when asked his name by the newly arrived platoon led by Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt), replies, “Amigo.” The guerillas, led by Rafael’s brother Simon (Ronnie Lazaro), have just pulled out and retreated to a jungle hideout. Rafael tries to walk the thin, wavy line between protecting his people and dealing with the enemy. His teenaged son grows so frustrated with his father that he runs off to join his uncle and the insurgents. Rafael will learn that in war no one in between the warring sides is considered a friend.

At first, there are amusing misunderstandings between occupiers, largely young Protestant Southerners, and the villagers, Catholic peasants who have never been able to choose their leaders. The villagers express their puzzlement over the latrine holes they are ordered to dig; the villagers cannot understand why the Americans would waste their excrement by depositing it all in one place, rather than spreading it over the fields to fertilize the crops.

Lt. Compton tries to be gentle and fair with the villagers, sincerely believing that they are there to teach the villagers about democracy and voting. However, his superior officer Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper), more than lives up to his name. Hardacre orders the lieutenant to switch from carrot to stick when the insurgents all over the islands refuse to give up their fight for independence. Village cattle are slaughtered, fields and crops laid waste, and curfews put in place, with the warning that anyone caught aiding the enemy will be executed. Hardacre is also not above using torture to extract information. famous cartoonist Winsor McCay also lampooned Uncle Sam for getting entangled with rope around a tree labeled “Imperialism” while trying to subdue a bucking mule labeled “Philippines.”Viewers will have no trouble seeing modern parallels, and I suspect reactions to the film will differ according to one’s views on the Iraq and Afghan Wars. If it weren’t so anachronistic, Sayles might have used Bob Dylan’s anti-Vietnam War song “With God on Our Side.” Back at the time of the events of this film a wave of imperialist fervor had spread through America, with most people agreeing that we were superior to “our little brown brothers” who must not be allowed to govern themselves until they “are ready.”

However, even in that era, a good many Americans resisted this with Mark Twain in the forefront. The world-famous author spoke out against some of the massacres perpetrated by American troops. His infamous “War Prayer,” which he would not publish in his lifetime because it was so scathing, was written against this war. (See Mark Twain’s War Prayer on this page in ReadTheSpirit.)

Again we are indebted to independent filmmaker John Sayles for a fascinating look at our history—and again thankful for home video that enables us to see a film that most local theater owners passed over because it was not ”commercial.”

This film is rated R and runs 2 hours 8 minutes.

Where can you see this film? As of this publication, Amigo is not yet available on DVD from Netflix—but it is available for instant viewing if you stream films from the service. Amazon also is featuring Amigo as a recommended choice for streaming to your TV or handheld digital device.

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