Wednesday, December 26, 2007

18th January 2008: Filipino War & Western double!

Cavalry Command

US/Philippines 1957 colour

aka Day Of The Trumpet, Cavalleria Commandos

Director/Writer Eddie Romero Producers Harry Smith, Cirio H. Santiago Associate Producer Gerardo de Leon

Cast John Agar (Sgt. Judd Norcutt), Richard Arlen (Sgt. Jim Heisler), Pancho Magalona (Capt. Magno Maxalla), Alicia Vergel (Laura)

National Artist of the Philippines Eddie Romero had over twenty Tagalog-language films to his credit before he made Day Of The Trumpet, his first English language film for the export market, in 1957. It was produced by Cirio H. Santiago’s Premiere Productions with Eddie’s mentor and long-time collaborator Gerardo de Leon as co-producer, and with Gerardo’s brother Tito Arevalo providing the rousing orchestral score.

Ostensibly a Filipino western, Day Of The Trumpet, or its US title Cavalry Command, is framed by the American-Philippine War of 1899. The Philippines declared itself a republic the year before after a long and bitter struggle with their Spanish overlords, and believed America was in full support of its independence, only to find America had actually purchased the colony, along with Guam and Puerto Rico, after its own war with Spain. As soon as Filipino troops helped clear the last pockets of Spanish resistance from Manila, the Americans turned on their former allies.

And so began what the Americans called an “insurrection” rather than a “war” that officially lasted for three years. It was during the American-Philippine War that the United States began to see tangible evidence of its Manifest Destiny, and was its first imperialist push of the 20th Century. In an all-out campaign to destroy the country’s morale, the Americans trialled their Scorched Earth techniques they would later perfect in Vietnam: razing villages to the ground, executing women and children believed to be sympathizers with the rebels, and penning the survivors in concentration camps where many died of disease and neglect. After a sporadic ten year campaign to break the country’s spirit, it’s believed up to a million soldiers and civilians died.

Once you grasp the deep sense of outrage many Filipinos feel over this dark chapter of history, it makes Eddie Romero’s vision of life under the American occupation that much more curious. Set in Northern Luzon in the final clean-up phase of the uprising, the US Cavalry treks wearily into the small country town of San Pasqual. They find the townsfolk beaten, weary, and huddled together in the convent under the protection of the local priest. The Cavalry’s mission is to restore order; they regard themselves as facilitators as well as liberators, and with the help of a translator (a VERY young Vic Diaz), set about restoring the battered infrastructure that has taken a pounding from not only the Americans but the retreating Spanish and their own guerrilla campaigners.

Of course there’s a clash of cultures, particularly amongst the restless male horse soldiers. The new teacher Haines finds his eye wandering towards an innocent convent lass, to the horror of the priest, who sees their differences as irreconcilable, and the Sergeant (John Agar from Brain From Planet Arous) is drawn to the fiery Laura, also the girlfriend of renegade patriot Magno. Once captured, Magno refuses to betray his ideals, and is painted as a bitter, dogmatic radical regarded by the Cavalry as a minor inconvenience. Brooding and almost drowning in resentment, he waits until fiesta time to draw together a pathetic ragtag brigade of revolutionaries to retake the town, with tragic consequences. Magno even turns on his child brother, a junior would-be guerrilla; even the child has learnt the Americans are not their enemies.

Romero’s painstaking recreation of turn-of-the-century town and rural society shows he’s much more concerned with the human drama rather than the mechanics of war, and may explain why the film was not a success when finally released in the States in 1963 as Cavalry Command. For a film marketed as a western, with Magno as a parochial Pancho Villa, and the feather-wearing Igorots as ersatz Red Indians, it’s a cheat, and indeed the shoot ‘em up action doesn’t rear its white Stetson until three quarters through its running time. Instead it’s a serious meditation on the personal politics and consequences during occupation, one that shouldn’t take sides and yet does, for what one can only assume are for commercial reasons.

There’s two old chestnuts I could throw up at this moment. War has many faces; in the case of the Philippines, however, most of them were brown, and most of them were blown off. Second, history is written by the winners, and this is just one story out of many that just happens to say what great guys their American overlords were. Time to wave the flag and sound the trumpets for the 1957 Cavalry Command.

The Walls Of Hell

US/Philippines 1964 b&w

aka Intramuros

Directors Gerardo de Leon, Eddie Romero Writers Cesar Amigo, Ferde GrofĂ© Jr, “E.F.”/Eddie Romero Producer Eddie Romero Executive Producer Kane W. Lynn

Cast Jock Mahoney (Lt. Sorenson), Fernando Poe Jr (Nardo), Mike Parsons (Papa), Oscar Roncal (Joker)

The Philippines, it would seem, is a country that was destined to relive the trauma of the Japanese invasion through their cinema. Unlike Cavalry Command, there’s not many movies about the American-Philippines War of 1899, a shameful period of betrayal and capitulation. World War 2, on the other hand, produces the kind of instant heroes that populist cinema thrives on, and from the 50s right through until the 70s and 80s there were literally hundreds, if not thousands, of Tagalog-language war movies featuring Pinoy guerrillas proudly fighting side by side with American troops to liberate the islands from the retreating Japanese.

The Walls Of Hell is set in the final stages of the Battle of Manila, and filmed where it happened - behind the actual walled city of Intramuros, the oldest part of Manila built by the Spanish in the 1600s. Despite the Japanese high command declaring Manila an “open city”, the remaining troops holed themselves up behind the ancient, almost impenetrable walls and embarked on a suicide mission to inflict as much damage on their would-be captors, and Manila’s civilians, as possible. It took 3 weeks of throwing 10,000 shells an hour into the walled city to finally retake Intramuros at an appalling cost to culture, history, real estate and human life, and without a single Japanese soldier left alive.

The Walls Of Hell is initially framed through the eyes of a visiting journalist intent on capturing the true spirit of America’s fighting men. He finds it in Jim Sorensen, played by king of the stuntmen and one-time Tarzan Jock Mahoney. Alternating between gruff, stoic and violently angry - his Filipina wife Tina is missing and presumed killed by his own artillery – he’s fighting his own war, according to fellow soldier Papa (Mike Parsons), a lay preacher turned medic, and the film’s Catholic voice of conscience.

The focus changes with the appearance of Nardo, a guerrilla from inside Manila played by the all-time king of Filipino actors, Fernando Poe Jr. He was both the Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley of the Philippines with over 200 films to his credit which, with the exception of this and Romero’s war movie The Ravagers made the following year, never made it beyond the islands’ borders. His earnestly downbeat performance and patriotic speeches in The Walls Of Hell use his own voice, and he proves to be a fine local lead in an English language picture. FPJ, or “Da King”, died from a stroke in 2004 just after an unsuccessful attempt to follow his friendly rival and regular co-star Joseph Estrada into the Presidential Palace, and so why he was never a successful export like Weng Weng, he will never be able to explain.

At first he’s suspected to be a spy working for the Japanese, but shows the soldiers a passageway to get in to – and for civilians get out of – Intramuros. The three hundred year old catacombs, now eerie smoke-shrouded sewers, are lit in a dramatic way to resemble the corridors of Hell. In fact the entire film appears to shake; the soundtrack of sparingly-used military snare over a ceaseless artillery barrage lends a very real sense of doom, as do the wobbling cameras and ever-present smoke and fires. Director Eddie Romero once said he WISHED Filipino filmmakers could work with a B-Grade budget, and I’m sure the film is much smaller than he would have liked, but by telescoping the action to tight, claustrophobic locations, the parts add together to make a vivid whole.

The Walls Of Hell lists two directors, both enshrined as National Artists of the Philippines, and marks a truly successful collaboration between the two directors: Eddie Romero, primarily a screenwriter before moving into directing, concentrates on the actors and the unfolding drama, while the older Gerardo de Leon is more interested in frame composition and the film’s gorgeous black and white aesthetics. Ferde Grofe Jr took time off from working on George Montgomery’s tropical action films to contribute to the script which was filmed simultaneously, as Romero often did under his “Filipinas Productions” banner, as a Tagalog-language version called Intramuros. Naturally in the Philippines, FPJ received top billing.

It’s a gung-ho war film Filipino style by a primarily local cast and crew and with added, rather creepy sense of history by filming on the actual locations. I’m sure the Ghosts of Manila are watching as we fearlessly scale The Walls Of Hell.

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