Heneral Luna and the Post-Colonial Philippine Identity Crisis


The history of the Philippines is a long and arduous journey from the hands of one colonizer to the next. For over 300 years, the Spanish imposed their language, religion and ways of life onto a civilization in its most formative state, going as far as to name the country after the Spanish sovereign King Philip II. Even as the hands of power changed, and America took over, traces of both imposed cultures still linger in the contemporary identity of the Filipino people and can be seen everywhere from its architecture and clothing to its cinema. This paper will track the Spanish and American influences in Filipino cinema and will examine contemporary Filipino film Heneral Luna (2015) as a microcosm for the swarm of battling ideologies brought about by centuries of colonization. I will then attempt to answer whether there is a singular Filipino identity, and whether one can truly exist outside of its ties to America and Spain.

The film Heneral Luna is a historical war film based on true events, and is one of the most expensive Filipino movies made to date. It takes place in the late 19th century during the Philippine-American war after Spain sells the island country to America for $20 million. The title character, real-life General Antonio Luna tries to unite the Philippines as one nation to fight against the Americans. But, he is met with resistance from a presidential cabinet filled with men vying for their own self-interested idea of the Philippine identity.

Spanish Influences on Filipino Cinema

While it is widely believed that the present-day Filipino film industry came chiefly from American influence, Filipino film scholar Nick Deocampo argues that cinema culture in the Philippines can really be traced back to the Spanish. In his book Cine: Spanish Influences on Early Cinema in the Philippines, Deocampo states that the first publicly viewed film of any kind was in the late 1890s, years before early American cinema made its way to the Philippines (21). The film was preceded by Spanish newspaper advertisements known as anuncios, which prominently displayed the title and theatre, with special emphasis on the directors and starring actors (Deocampo, Cine: Spanish Influences on Early Cinema 22). Like so many things in the Philippines, these originally Spanish anuncios were adopted by the locals until they were an integral part of the country’s own film industry (Galaraga 66).

Though contemporary Filipino films are undoubtedly entrenched with Western influence, there is still very evident Spanish ties. Films like Heneral Luna – which obviously draws inspiration from American war movies – also features uniquely Spanish character tropes and heavy-handed religious symbolism. The film presents characters with familiar, and strikingly Spanish traits such as Luna’s obvious machismo or the strong matriarchal voice given to the few women on screen.

Artikulo Uno Productions. Heneral Luna, 2015. Accessed 2 Apr. 2018.

Though never outright stated, Catholicism is also a deep current behind the actions of most characters and is well represented throughout the film. It is important to note how vital the Spanish culture was to status and class during their colonial rule. The wealthy and powerful spoke Spanish, wore clothes that tried to mirror Spanish styles, and lived and worked in buildings made to look European, adorned with religious objects.

The set in which all the cabinet meetings take place, for example, has religious portraits or statues in nearly every corner of the room, effectively ensuring that no matter who the camera is on, there is a religious figure quite literally on their shoulder. Even as Luna leaves the room, resolved to fight against the Americans, every shot of the hallway has some sort of religious statue or shrine.


American Dominance in Filipino Cinema

Similarly, in an article also written by Deocampo, he examines early American war films used as war propaganda under the guise of on-the-ground reconstructed accounts during the Philippine-American war. Deocampo is particularly interested in how the films subtly portrayed the Filipino people as beneath the Americans, particularly by means of specific camera shots. In an 1899 war film called Advance of Kansas Volunteers at Caloocan, the actors portraying the Filipino revolutionaries are framed “in firing-squad fashion, frontally before the camera” as they attempt to storm the American soldiers (Deocampo, “Cinema and Colonization” 154). He notes how the camera angle facing the Filipino soldiers head-on makes them look vulnerable, “as if they have been lined-up for an easy slaughter” (Deocampo, “Cinema and Colonization” 155). In his analysis, the camera functions as the American audience, facing the Filipinos and witnessing their deaths almost impassively (Deocampo, “Cinema and Colonization” 155).

Artikulo Uno Productions. Heneral Luna, 2015. Accessed 2 Apr. 2018.

With these coded camera angles in mind, Heneral Luna seems to subvert the idea of American dominance, instead putting the Filipino army on equal footing with the American soldiers in the eyes of the viewer. In the first battle between Luna’s men and the American military, there is a shot where the revolutionaries are in the trenches, filmed head-on just like in Advance of Kansas Volunteers at Caloocan. However, instead of getting shot in “an easy slaughter”, they are fired at and retaliate immediately. The sequence of the battle favours more profile shots of both the Americans and Filipinos, never lingering on a full frontal shot of either for too long.

In the words of Deocampo, that makes neither side vulnerable. Both armies are on equal footing and, in yet another subversion of the early war movies of the 1890s, the American soldiers are the ones retreating as Luna and his men win the day.

A Language Lost

The clearest example of colonial influence in the Philippines is the evolution of its primary language, Tagalog. The modern Tagalog spoken by millions of Filipinos today is so intrinsically woven with Spanish loan words that most of the population struggle when trying to find the ‘real’ (in this case, original) Tagalog word for many commonplace items, like pants or a chair. As mentioned above, Spanish was the language of the upper-class. Filipinos who spoke Spanish were seen as educated, and were more often than not, wealthy and in power. One scene in Heneral Luna, set in President Emilio Aguinaldo’s house, depicts the wealthy upper-class Filipinos of the time having a dinner party in spite of the burgeoning war against America taking place mere cities away from them. All the men at the party dismiss the intentions of the invading Americans so long as they are “good for business” (Heneral Luna), and all the women are dressed in Spanish-style attire, speaking in fluent Spanish about the lavish vacations to Europe they plan on taking.

Artikulo Uno Productions. Heneral Luna, 2015. Accessed 2 Apr. 2018.

In an article written about the colonial re-educating of the Philippines, Vintage Constantino says that “the most effective means of subjugating a people is to capture their minds” (429). The Spanish and American colonizers alike established school systems as a way to pre-emptively thwart any insurgency (Rafael 284). The Spanish in particular, established their dominance over the native Filipino people so much so that by the time the Americans came, and the events of Heneral Luna took place, the Filipino language used (and still uses) exclusively Spanish words to denote power and rank. President Aguinaldo in the film, as well as current president Rodrigo Duterte, is referred to as ‘Señor Presidente’ and Spanish words are used for all other military titles, including captain, colonel and, of course, general. Authentic Tagalog words for chieftain and tribe leader are long forgotten and thought to be archaic to the modern-day Filipino population. By imposing their own words for power and rank, the Spanish literally removed the power from the hands of the Filipino people, gifting it to America 300 years later.

Heneral Luna places the Philippines in an awkward moment in history, where its people are forced to denounce their new colonizers in the language of their old ones. To date, even some of the poorest people in the Philippines can speak English conversationally, and Spanish loan words make up a significant percentage of spoken Tagalog. Americans opened military-based schools that taught English, in English, mere weeks after first occupying the Philippine capital of Manila in 1898 (Rafael 284). The impact American re-education had on the Philippines is evident in the mere fact that the preface in Heneral Luna, a movie depicting the Philippine-American war, is written in English, as is every super-imposed title and subtitle in the film.

Artikulo Uno Productions. Heneral Luna, 2015. Accessed 2 Apr. 2018.

A House Divided

Like the 7,100 islands that make up the country, the Philippines has always been a nation divided and fragmented. Centuries of Spanish rule and imposed religion, language and way of life instilled a subservient and submissive identity in a country that had thus far only ever defined itself region by region, instead of as one unified nation. Luna’s main frustration with the Philippine government is the conflicting motives of businessmen and officials, some of whom had sold themselves to the Spanish and were now welcoming the Americans, and some who were involved simply for personal gain. Luna’s nationalistic and, at times, brazen attitude can be unsettling in a contemporary context, but in his time, he was part of the handful of Filipino people who wanted a singular, independent Philippines free from its colonizers.

The film is a battle of ideologies, much like the Philippines is today. At its core, Heneral Luna tells the story of a country’s identity crisis; it has lived and grown around the Spanish culture for three centuries, only to be handed off to a new ruler with new rules and different objectives. When Spain first arrived, they primarily spread religion throughout the country, using its dogma to control and pacify. The Americans arrived as a false saviour, convincing the Filipino people they were there to liberate them from the Spanish. Today, the majority of the Philippine population is Catholic-Christian and can speak English as fluently as Tagalog, not because people like Luna did not oppose or revolt, but because above all else, colonialism instilled in them a bleak acceptance.


The question is: what happens to a country that was never allowed to be its own country? In her paper “Scars ARE History: Colonialism, Written on the Body”, Rachel Bundang says Filipino nationalists always joke that the country spent centuries in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood (54-55). Bundang notes that, given the relationship between America and the Philippines today, “we are still driving around the slums of Beverly Hills, stopping occasionally to gawk… and press our noses to the [store] window[s]” (55). The Philippines spent its infancy under the careful and dogmatic rule of the Spanish, defining itself as a country inherently less than the one ruling it. The people assimilated and bent their own culture to conform to Spain until there was no discernable trace of a Filipino culture untouched by Spanish influence. By the time America arrived as the supposed liberator the Filipinos had been hoping for, they instead took this already amalgamated nation and forced it into their own mould, further instilling the idea that the Philippine people were second-class citizens in their own country. Centuries of this mindset fostered fractured ideas of what constitutes a true Filipino identity; were they loyal to their 300-year-old Spanish occupiers, or was it their best interest to bow down to America’s new rules? This is the core conflict of Heneral Luna and is still being argued amongst Filipinos to this day.

A single sentence spoken in 21st century Tagalog will almost unfailingly include Spanish and English loan words. The harsh truth brought about by colonialism is that the only Filipino identity that exists is the multi-national melting pot of Spanish and American influence. Luna, in his frustration with the Spanish, saw the Philippines falling for the same tricks with the Americans. His nationalism stemmed from the foresight he must have had to see his country lose another piece of its fragile culture to America. Because of this history, there is no singular Filipino identity that is not marred by its colonizers. Despite revolutionaries like Luna, the country’s past is forever entwined with its oppressors, and its present is populated with the same self-interested ideologies that fought against Luna and eventually had him killed. The only possible route towards a united Filipino identity is one that moves forward but, as Luna says in very beginning of the film, “It’s easier for the earth to meet the sky than for two Filipinos to agree on anything” (Heneral Luna).

Works Cited

Bundang, Rachel. “Scars ARE History.” Journal of Religion & Abuse, 1.2 (1999): 53-69. Web. 7 Apr. 2018.

Constantino, Vintage. “The Mis-Education of the Filipino.” Journal of Contemporary Asia, 30.3 (2000): 428-44. Web. 7 Apr. 2018.

Deocampo, Nick. Cine: Spanish Influences on Early Cinema in the Philippines. Manila, Cinema Values Reorientation Program National, 2003.

Deocampo, Nick. “Cinema and Colonization: American Colonization and the Rise of Cinema in the Philippines.” Comparative American Studies, 5.2 (2007):147. Web. 7 Apr. 2018

Galaraga, Tom. “Cine: Spanish Influences on Early Cinema in the Philippines.” Film Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 3, 2006, pp. 66–67. JSTOR. Web. 7 Apr. 2018.

Heneral Luna. Directed by Jerrold Tarog, performances by John Arcilla and Mon Confiado, Artikulo Uno Productions, 2015.

Rafael, Vicente L. “The War of Translation: Colonial Education, American English, and Tagalog Slang in the Philippines.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 74, Iss. 2, (May 2015): 283-302. Web. 7 Apr. 2018.

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