By Gemma Cruz Araneta
To date, I have seen three movies about the siege of Baler. As you already know, on 27 June 1898, 54 Spanish soldiers, mostly young recruits with no battle experience, were holed up in a small-town church in Baler with their commanding officer, Capt. Enrique de las Morenas. For 337 days, the army of our First Philippine Republic headed by Lt. Col. Teodorico Luna y Novicio besieged them. President Emilio Aguinaldo sent reinforcements from Bulacan, the “Columna Volante” of Lt. Col Simon Tecson, the liberator of San Miguel de Mayumo.
The Spanish soldiers were unaware that the Spanish empire had crumbled and they refused to believe that Spain’s war against the Filipinos had ended. When Spanish Lt. Saturnino Martin Cerezo was given a copy of the newspaper “El Imparcial” that carried reports about Spain’s defeat in Cuba and the debacle of the Spanish armada in Manila Bay, it took him some time to reckon with the truth. On 2 June 1899, when the siege ended, there were only 33 survivors; if it were not for the kindness of the Filipinos in Baler, there would have been fewer. President Aguinaldo also decreed that they be treated kindly.
The siege of Baler is significant to both Filipinos and Spaniards, but for entirely different reasons. To the latter, the 54 Spaniards who resolutely held their ground in a small church of a God-forsaken town showed exemplary bravery for the glory of Spain. For us Filipinos, what happened in Baler is eloquent because arrogant Spain had to surrender to indios Filipinos, a humiliation they avoided in Intramuros with the collusion of the Americans. Moreover, when the American Lt. Gilmore was sent to Baler to rescue the Spaniards, the army of the First Philippine Republica ambushed and killed him and his men.
The first Baler movie I saw was a vintage film, produced in the 1940’s, shortly after Generalissimo Francisco Franco quelled the Republican forces and ended the Spanish Civil War. The then director of the Instituto Cervantes of Manila, Mr. Jose Rodriguez, explained that, in those days, there was general demoralization in Spain and movies like the “Ultimos de Baler” were meant to boost national morale and foment patriotism. Predictably, that first Baler movie was so pro-Spanish it glossed over a lot of historical elements.
The second movie entitled “Baler” was totally local, commissioned by then Senator Edgardo Angara and financed by the Pagcor. In Quezon province where Baler is located, the Angaras are the most eminent political family. With the movie, Sen. Angara wanted to project his province as the wellspring of Filipino-Spanish friendship and draw tourists to visit its historical and ecological destinations.
Fortunately, the Angara team consulted historians of the SAMPAKA (Samahang PangKasaysayan ng Bulacan) and followed most of their recommendations, like calling Filipino revolutionaries by their real names — Calixto Villacorta, Teodorico Luna, Cirilo Gomez and Simon Tecson, who all had the rank of Lt. Colonel.
The historians stressed the importance of showing the transition of Filipino forces from the Katipunan to the republican army of the independent First Republic; they were dressed in proper rayadillo. After all, political changes had taken place; the Spanish army was no longer fighting “insurrectos” but a co-equal sovereign force. In effect, the Spaniards in the Baler church were no longer combatants but “prisoners of war” ready for repatriation. The SAMPAKA believed that the Lt. Gilmore ambush should have been given more footage because it was our first victory in the Philippine-American War. But, the ROI cannot be ignored so Angara’s “Baler” was a fictitious love story with the historical siege as an eventful backdrop.
The third Baler movie, “1898, Los Ultimos de Filipinas,” was shown last Tuesday at Greenbelt 3 to begin the Spanish film festival sponsored by the Instituto Cervantes and many other corporations. Quite frankly, I was amazed that it was not rabidly pro-Spanish despite its being a totally Spanish production directed by Salvador Calvo of Madrid, filmed in Equatorial Guinea, with only a handful of Filipino actors. The friar/parish priest was an opium addict. In several gripping scenes, the young Spanish soldiers were outraged that Spain had sold the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico to the United States of America for 20 million dollars, by virtue of the Treaty of Paris, and that none of them nor their parents would even see that money even if they were killed in action. They were starving, afflicted with beriberi, dysentery, and other tropical maladies; they felt like cannon fodder and cursed the incompetence of Spanish officialdom.
The dialogue included bits about the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana, the debacle of the Spanish Armada in Manila Bay near Cavite, the duplicity of the Americans, how Manila was totally abandoned (There was no one there!) so supply lines were cut; there was no hope for reinforcements. However, this new version did not include Simon Tecson or Lt. Gilmore, but when the Spanish officer finally handed the surrender document to Lt. Col. Teodorico Luna, I felt like cheering, “Viva Filipinas!”
Judging from the latest Baler movie, “1898, Los Ultimos de Filipinas,” Spain has drastically changed since Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorial government. It seems like there is no longer a need to boost national morale, patriotism might even be out of sync for today’s Spaniards. The latest Baler movie though set in the 19th century reflects a contemporary irreverence towards institutions and traditional protocols that once projected Spain’s power and glory. Be that as it may, it is by far the best of the three Baler movies.