Forgotten War

John Sayles's Amigo shows how foreign wars against insurgents can go wrong time and again
RESISTANCE: Rafael (Joel Torre) struggles to protect his village against American troops in 'Amigo.'

GOOGLE "goo-goos," and you'll eventually get a little something about the forgotten racial slur—and find a little less about a forgotten war. Director/writer John Sayles' 17th film, Amigo, tells a story about the Philippine-American struggle most people lump in with the Spanish-American War. While it has a downside, the history retrieved by Amigo deserves not to be overlooked.

The setting is Luzon in 1901. The nicknamed title character is Rafael (Joel Torre), the hereditary village headman of San Isidro. In this rural village, the colonizers have just been overthrown. They consist of two Spanish soldiers and an ornery Catholic friar (Yul Vazquez) confined in the granary.

The American army enters, having successfully routed the Spaniards in Manila. The young Gen. Douglas MacArthur himself is in the area. Sayles decided not to deal with that colorful figure, likely on the grounds that history is not made by great men.

The Yank troops are digging in to mop up insurgent action in the jungle. The nearby commanding officer, a hard-bitten ex-Indian fighter colonel (Chris Cooper, rationed in small doses), orders the garrisoning of the town. He seeks to make it the kind of place that would later be called a "strategic hamlet" in Vietnam. Rafael tries to accommodate the U.S. lieutenant in charge: the handsome if remote Compton (Garret Dillahunt, the green deputy in No Country for Old Men).

The young men of the village are all gone, some as guerrillas; the truth is that Rafael's own brother, as well as his own son, are in the hills. But the guerrillas are still holding fast, so the Americans ramp up the war: depriving the so-called bandits of food by slaughtering the water buffaloes and keeping the villagers quarantined behind barbed wire. Eventually, the time comes when Rafael is caught between his ability to protect his village and to shield his family in the hills.

Sayles took the high road, when it's remarkable he took the road at all. Many directors would have told this story from the point of view of the American soldier. Here, the subdued villagers tell their stories in subtitled Tagalog. In details, Sayles is unimpeachable; the soldier talk between the young Midwestern volunteers is perfectly laconic. It's the way they speak that bothers you; they move into their marks, stand and declaim to each other.

The village itself is alive with folkloric activity, noisy with the constant pounding of women polishing the rice, but the huts look as newly built and swept up as a world's fair exhibit.

Amigo advances by steps, and it's as if there's a pause on every landing. The writing is what one might expect from Sayles: a fair-minded account that is lucid and refuses to pander or exploit. The script is as informative as reading the Christian Science Monitor. And sometimes just as exciting.

The crosscutting—between funerals, or between a skirmish and a cockfight—would make sense on paper, but one senses that all the careful balancing of the story kept Sayles from advancing matters. When a Sayles film isn't quite compelling, one becomes aware of what a writer he is compared to a writer/director. It's not the staging of the finale that startles, but the fine bitterness of the Ambrose Bierce-like punch line.

Our early war of conquest aroused disgust in the likes of Mark Twain, who described it as a "quagmire"; it was to be the first of many.

The war is, by contrast, remembered with satisfaction by the military officers and defense contractors at the annual Carabao Wallow in Washington, D.C., as has been reported by The Baffler and the Village Voice. There, one can hear the singing of this forgotten war's "Soldiers Song," as performed in the film by the soldiers marching the captive amigo Rafael: "Damn, damn, damn the Filipino/Civilize 'em with a Krag" (a rifle of the time).

Sayles demonstrates what happens to ground soldiers who try to win hearts and minds while the upper echelon demands fast results and faster punishment. The end results of that recipe seem to slip the American public's mind no matter how often it is tried.


R; 128 min.

Opens Friday, Century 20 and AMC Mercado, San Jose

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