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Film Recalls U.S.'s First Overseas Guerilla War

The latest headlines from Afghanistan repeat the old stories Americans first heard from the Philippines, suggests the newest movie by independent filmmaker John Sayles.
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If nothing else, John Sayles’ latest film, Amigo, reminds us that when the U.S. becomes involved in foreign insurgencies, it generally combines arrogance with abysmal cluelessness. Think of it as a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” — and it’s been going on for more than 100 years.

Amigo takes place in 1900 in the Philippines. America has just won the Spanish-American War and is occupying the islands it has taken from Spain with absolutely no intention of giving them their independence. So, a native insurgency, known as the Insurrectos, led by Emilio Aguinaldo takes up arms against the new occupiers as they had the old.

“This was a huge psychic shift for Americans,” said Sayles during an interview with, “to go from ‘we’re the champions of liberty; we’re going to give Cuba its independence,’ to ‘we’re white Christians; it’s a good idea to kill half a million Filipinos and take over their country.” (Rudyard Kipling coined the phrase “white man’s burden” specifically for the United States in the Philippines.)

MOVING PICTURESAn occasional look at movies that matter.

An occasional look at movies that matter.

Set on the island of Luzon in a village garrisoned by a small American force, the film takes pains to show the cultural differences between occupier and occupied. It also carefully sets out how the villagers are caught between the demands of the Americans and the rebels, each of whom promises to execute anyone caught collaborating with the other. That becomes a particular lose-lose situation for the village headman, who is forced to cooperate with the occupiers while his son and brother are in the hills fighting.

“The central story” in the film, said Sayles,” is when one country invades another and there’s a guerilla war, there are going to be these figures who have to ask, ‘how much can I cooperate without being a traitor to my people?’ This could have been set in Nazi-occupied France, in Vietnam. It’s a timeless story.”

Some of the dialogue in Amigo is a bit too obvious — “We’re supposed to be winning their hearts and minds,” says a particularly nasty American officer played by Oscar-winner Chris Cooper. Or “It’s awful hard to tell the [enemies] from the amigos,” says another character, commenting on the confusion involved when fighting an indigenous insurgency. But for the most part, the film smartly shows how imperial powers make the same mistakes over and over and over again.

Collaborating with reactionary elements? Check. In Amigo, the American forces hook up with a Spanish priest who sees the Insurrectos as a heathen element in a holy war.

Use of torture? You betcha. The Americans use an early version of waterboarding to get the headman to tell them where the rebels are hiding.

Terrorizing the local populace? Of course. When the natives clam up regarding rebel movements, the Americans are ordered to shoot their water buffalo, used as draft animals. Then the occupiers severely restrict movement in and out of the village. “No more carrot,” says the Cooper character. “Now, the stick.”

Racist posturing? Same as it ever was. Many of the American soldiers take great pleasure in referring to the locals as “monkeys.”

"Amigos" director John Sayles.

"Amigos" director John Sayles.

Yet, said Sayles, when it comes to these elements, “A lot of people don’t think they’re mistakes. It just matters if, in the moment, you can sell that war. In this case, it was a feeling that it was time for the U.S. to be a player. We should be imperialists, like all these other white, Christian nations. And once you get in, it’s really tough to get out. About 1901, they captured Aguinaldo, and Teddy Roosevelt said the war was over, but it kept going for another 10 or 20 years. So, like in Iraq, it’s not a finite war with a V-J Day; it’s just an ongoing war that will eat people forever.”

Sayles has been making movies for more than 30 years, and some of his features — Matewan, Lone Star — are about as good as American political filmmaking gets. Amigo isn’t among his best works — it’s a bit too episodic and slowly paced — but it’s still a reminder that there are stories to be told about America and its place in the world that the Hollywood dream factory totally ignores.

And for Sayles, Amigo is not so much about a lost chapter of our history but the complicated nature of all geopolitical movements.

“In this film, you’re getting to know more than any one character does,” said Sayles. “You’re getting into the minds of the villagers, the Americans, the rebels, even the coolies. I’d like people to understand the complexity of this situation — that people might be doing awful things, but while they’re doing them, they think they’re doing the right thing. I want them to understand the complexity of this situation but be less judgmental about it.”

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