If 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.
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” that took place between 1899 and 1902 follow ing the defeat of the Spanish by Americans. 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. And 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.
The title comes from 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 his own brother Simon (Ronnie Lazaro), have just pulled out and retreated to a jungle hideout. Rafel 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. Rafel will learn that in war no one in between the warring sides is considered a friend.
There are amusing misunderstandings between occupiers and occupied, the former being largely young Protestant Southerners, and the villagers Catholic peasants who have never been able to choose their leaders. The latter express their puzzlement over the 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 living up to his name, 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. The Colonel is also not above using torture to extract information.
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.” A good many Americans resisted this, with Mark Twain being foremost, the writer speaking 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 at: http://www.midwinter.com/lurk/making/warprayer.html)
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.”
1. There are many characters in this film. List and describe the main ones: Rafel (Amigo) Lt. Compton Col. Hardacre Padre Hildago. Simon Gil What seem to be their values and motives?
2. What stereotypes does each side have of the other? How do these get in the way of their relationship?
3. What is Amigo’s dilemma? How is he bound to get in trouble? Compare what the guerillas think of him with what the soldiers think of him.
4. What do you think of the policy of teaching “democracy” to the villagers? How did allowing them to vote for the office of mayor boomerang on the Americans? (Compare this to what happened when the Palestinians were given the vote.)
5. Amigo’s brother Simon dropped out of seminary to become leader of the insurgents: what are his views of God and of the resistance movement?
6. What did the Colonel’s brutal policy reveal about the sincerity of the Americans’ teachings on democracy? How did you feel when the soldiers’ resorted to torture? Did any resist this?
7. Despite cultural, religious, and political differences, what does the story of Gil teach about good will, even love?
8. Were you prepared for the ending? How does it show that Sayles is not a writer/director who panders to his audience?
9. How do you feel that writer Sayles treats the subject? How is it always difficult to deal with the darker aspect of America’s past?
10. Look up and discuss the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song at: http://www.songmeanings.net/songs/view/1114/ 11. Mention was made above about Mark Twain opposing the Philippine–American War and his fearing to publish what was his most vitriolic diatribe against it. What has been the general reaction to those speaking against an American war—Natalie Mains and others? What do you think is the role of a Christian during such a time? Go along; or if opposed, keep quiet because it might “hurt the morale of the troops’?
12. There is a very interesting review of this film by a writer for The Philippine Star that appeared following the premier of the film in Quezon City. It even has a portion of an interview in which Mark Twain expressed his view of the war. Go to: http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?publicationSubCategoryId=86&articleId=702095