Skeptics of America’s engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq have frequently drawn comparisons to Vietnam as a reminder of the futility of far-flung military interventions. Rarely do they mention the Philippines, the site of one of our first forays into nation-building. A recent film, however, uses that mostly forgotten war as a backdrop for a meditation on the wisdom of sending Americans abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Written and directed by John Sayles, Amigo, which arrived in a handful of American cities last month, is set in 1900 amid the three-year Philippine-American War.
In the spring of 1898, shortly after America’s declaration of war on Spain, Commodore George Dewey cruised into Manila Bay and defeated the Spanish fleet in a matter of hours. America, which had originally gone to war with the intention of saving Cuban rebels from Spanish savagery, had now netted a possession in the Pacific. President William McKinley subsequently redirected U.S. troops to the Philippines to provide “guidance to a better government” and establish “peace and order and security.”
Humorist Finley Peter Dunne made clear how unfamiliar the Philippines were to most Americans when he said, via his literary creation Mr. Dooley, that many were unsure “whether they were islands or canned goods.” And yet Americans went off by the thousands to this distant land to accomplish McKinley’s goals and, in the process, fight Filipino revolutionaries led by Emilio Aguinaldo, self-appointed president and would-be George Washington of the First Philippines Republic—an insurgent government determined to force the Americans off the islands.
Amigo offers an account of this period, told from the perspectives of the American soldiers, the Filipino revolutionaries, and the ordinary citizens affected by the conflict. The story, set in the barrio of San Isidro in the largest of the country’s 7,107 islands, Luzon, centers on village leader Rafael Dacanay (Joel Torre). When the Americans arrive in the rural rice-farming community, they quickly rely on Dacanay, whose brother and son have joined the rebels, as a conduit and guide. As the story unfolds, Dacanay struggles to maintain a balance between the Americans, and their goal of establishing an embryonic form of democracy in the village, and the insurrectos, who, following Aguinaldo’s orders, wage guerrilla warfare against the occupying Yankees. Matters are further complicated by an imperious Spanish priest with murky motives and by Dacanay’s treacherous brother-in law, who, while covertly conspiring with the rebels, unfairly accuses Dacanay of doing the Americans’ bidding.
Sayles uses Dacanay’s dilemma to present empathetic portraits of all involved. The young American soldiers, led by the amiable, architecture-loving Lieutenant Compton (Garret Dillahunt), are indeed strangers in a strange land. But they’re also earnest, well-intentioned, and humane. The usual Hollywood stereotypes are avoided. Their Filipino adversaries, hiding and plotting in caves or in the jungle while awaiting instructions from Aguinaldo, are not celebrated or deified but portrayed neutrally. Caught in the middle are the villagers, who gradually begin to bond with the Americans without necessarily losing sympathy for the rebels’ cause. A U.S.–Filipino cast employ their respective native languages (English would become the second official language of the Philippines later in the twentieth century), adding a sense of realism to the proceedings.
These intersections make for a relatively agenda-free film on a loaded subject. This is surprising, given that Sayles was a vocal critic of the Iraq War and has directed a number of left-leaning films, including the quickly forgotten Silver City, a satiric bashing of President George W. Bush. True, as the Americans’ strategy evolves, and the pitiless Colonel Hardacre (Chris Cooper), one of the few cartoonish figures here, takes the reins in San Isidro, the tone grows darker at the occupiers’ expense. One scene shows Dacanay being subjected to the “water cure”—a coercion method used during the war that will, of course, remind viewers of waterboarding. It’s worth pointing out, too, that the movie does not quite capture the full reciprocal brutality of the conflict. Consider the Balangiga Affair, in which rebels massacred 40 unarmed Americans on the island of Samar and subsequently generated a ferocious U.S. response. But for the most part, Amigo is a compelling and mostly impartial piece of historical fiction.
It is also a timely one. American troops have been bravely fighting terrorists and encouraging democracy in both Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly a decade. But increasingly, many Americans, of all political orientations, question our foreign commitments and wonder if the costs are commensurate with the benefits.
Some history not included in Amigo is also worth considering. After the rebellion ended in the first years of the new century and William Howard Taft was appointed governor of the Philippines, Americans advanced the archipelago’s infrastructure, public education, and health services, vastly improving the quality of life for its occupants. And though independence would not come until 1946, the Philippines would eventually emerge as a sovereign nation. A partial snapshot of the cost: over 4,000 Americans lost their lives. The cumulative toll for the Filipinos is believed to have been in the hundreds of thousands. Though the history that Amigo depicts in no way makes for a direct comparison to our current wars, the film nevertheless provokes a welcome consideration of America’s complicated role abroad.