In 1898, Spain and America entered a three-month war that ended with the Spanish Empire’s defeat and relinquishing of all of its remaining Pacific and American holdings – namely Cuba and the Philippines – after its defeat. For the Philippines, the war arguably marked the beginning of the path to becoming the nation it is now, with all its complexities and idiosyncrasies. For Spain, it was the end of its time as a colonial power and the start of a long and troubled entrance into the twentieth century. In all the upheaval and world-changing events, one particular incident stands out: A small Spanish garrison of fifty men in the Philippine town of Baler entrenched themselves in the local church at the start of the war. They held out against a prolonged siege, and refused to surrender even after the war had long ended and the Philippine-American war had begun – in 1899.
Released in Spanish theatres in early December, 1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas chooses to largely avoid lecturing the audience on all the historical background knowledge of the Spanish-American War. Instead it focuses exclusively on the aforementioned event: the fifty men besieged in the Church of Baler by Filipino rebel troops and the physical and emotional exhaustion they underwent as the siege dragged on. Their commanding officers refused to surrender even as evidence that the war has long since ended continued to pile up. Why a group of men would continue to resist for so long – whether due to bravery and adherence to duty, miscommunication and distrust, or sheer bull-headed stubbornness – is a matter that director Salvador Calvio and producer Enrique Cerezo choose to look at in a fascinating and minimalist fashion.
A talented and well-chosen cast fronts the film’s story, but the heavy lifting is done by its two leads. First, Álvaro Cervantes as Carlos – a young, fresh-faced soldier recently enrolled in the army – and then Luis Tosar as Lieutenant Martín Cerezo, who leads the garrison in their resistance after the death of their captain and in his refusal to surrender becomes increasingly more determined – to an almost suicidal extent. Javier Gutiérrez and Karra Elejalde play two significant supporting roles as, respectively, the grizzled and cruel Sergeant Jimeno and the world-weary and wise missionary Fray Carmelo. All of them are fine actors, who play off each other well and whose conflicts and interactions feel convincing and believable.
A fine cast put aside, there is a lot to like, even admire, about this film. The camerawork is excellent, often perfectly reflecting the character’s emotions: The jungle surrounding the town of Baler is almost ethereally beautiful, yet also ominous and vaguely threatening. The inside of the church, at first seemingly old and worn, becomes safe and protective when the siege begins, then turns dark and claustrophobic as it drags on. Night scenes are full of deep shadows, hiding figures that flit between pools of darkness, or emerge half-visible under moonlight or the glow cast by flames. The passage of time is felt as a crushing, relentless slog: malnutrition and disease soon become as deadly an enemy as the Filipino rebels, adding an underlying layer of dread to many scenes. The pale-blue uniforms of the Spanish garrison are tattered and mud-green by the end of the film. By the time the garrison decides to surrender the audience will feel as exhausted by the war as they do.
However, while the film’s slow pace does help to convey the crushing grind of the siege, it also makes it seem longer than it actually is and makes the story drag in places, particularly in the last third. The ravages of the siege are not reflected on our actors’ faces: they do not become gaunter from the lack of food or even grow extra facial hair, undermining somewhat the aforementioned feel of the passage of time. This is especially striking in the case of one character’s opium addiction, which leaves him looking no worse for wear. The dialogue, while well-delivered, is at points repetitive and goes over previously-discussed points more often than needed.
The film also gives the impression that the end of Spanish rule in the Philippines – and even in Cuba – is a disaster of the Spanish Empire. In truth, these provinces were all that remained of an empire, which had long been reduced to a weakened, vestigial remnant of what it had been once, plagued by economic and political troubles. There are also some other claims regarding the siege of Baler that are possibly a matter for historical debate.
These, however, are nit-picks. The film is thoroughly recommendable as a historical war film. It does not take the approach of adrenaline-filled action, but rather opts for a slow-burning pace and a surprisingly complex and nuanced take on this particular chapter of Spain’s colonial past.
Dark complexities of a colonial past
A country’s colonial past is always going to be a complicated subject to discuss, particularly for a European colonial power such as Spain in today’s political climate when the rise of populist nationalism may lead to unjustified excuses of the past. It is immensely refreshing that 1898 opts to look at a chapter of colonialist history not through the wider lens of history, but through smaller and more personal viewpoints of the characters living its story. In its characters, the audience comes to see some of the best qualities of the Spanish colonialists, but also the worst.
The characters of Carlos and Fray Carmelo – the young soldier and the old missionary – are easily the most sympathetic. Carlos is kind and youthful, in danger of being broken down to a shell of his former self as his duty to his country hurts more than it rewards him. Fray Carmelo, who admits he has been away from Spain for years, is wise and world-weary, and his wry humour does not entirely conceal a melancholy that suggests he knows, and has accepted, that both his days and those of the Spanish Empire’s are numbered, and coming to their end. In contrast, Sergeant Jimeno is easily the most hateful member of the garrison: Tough, scarred and with a haunting gaze, his undeniable qualities as a soldier disappear every time his cruelty shines through: he abuses prisoners, kills animals, intimidates his own men, and even suggests leaving a Filipino child tied up and helpless in a crocodile-filled swamp. He takes traditionally positive qualities – bravery under fire and discipline even in extreme circumstances – and twists them into a reflection of his own inner darkness.
Yet the most interesting and complex character is Lieutenant Cerezo, and his journey from stern yet seemingly reasonable and caring commander to a frighteningly stubborn antagonist whose monomaniacal determination to keep fighting slowly starts to resemble less an adherence to duty and more an elaborate suicide attempt. He consciously chooses to ignore the mounting evidence that the war has ended – newspapers, communications, even a visit from the Spanish high command – and instead dismisses them as all as insidious ploys by the enemy to trick the garrison into surrendering. He says that he has lost his wife and children, and has nothing waiting for him in Spain, yet in having himself nothing to lose, he seems determined to refuse to admit that his nation has long lost the war.
In Cerezo, film shows the most complex portrait of a colonialist – one could even argue that he stands as a metaphor for the Spanish occupation of the Philippines as a whole: a man whose stated adherence to his duty and service to his country ends up causing far more harm than good. Despite his redeeming qualities, the damage he has caused by the end is such that no-one can find it in themselves to forget what he has done or forgive him for it – not even himself.
The film is also utterly fearless in choosing to portray the ugliness of war, and strips the struggle of any sense of glory its portrayal might have brought. Both the Filipinos and the Spanish conduct brutal night raids in which neither side is above slaughtering unarmed and unprepared soldiers, with the Spanish even killing a few civilians fleeing in terror. The effects of malnutrition on the human body are horrific to see, and there is a palpable sense of despair and weariness at several points in the film, helped by the fact that its action scenes are very much spaced apart, with a lot of quietness between them wherein the grim atmosphere just sinks in and permeates everything.
Looking back at a legacy
In its portrayal of the Filipino rebels, the film does something unexpected: What begins as a hostile enemy force is, by the end, shown to be a people fighting for their homeland, no less fiercely or less determined than the Spanish garrison fighting for theirs. Their commanders are often portrayed as reasonable, repeatedly offering the garrison chances to surrender and even giving them a gift of fresh fruit and food at a critical point as a gesture of goodwill. More intriguingly, they seem to be keenly aware of how Spain’s presence has shaped their burgeoning nation. At the start of the film, the Spanish soldiers are given a blunt speech by their commander: “We’ve been here for four hundred years. We’ve built their [the Filipino’s] cities, given them their religion, but they don’t give a shit about that. They want us out and they want us dead, and that’s that.” Yet, when the garrison’s surrender at the end of the film is being negotiated, the Filipino commander makes surprising terms – to not only grant the Spaniards safe passage as far as his territory allows, but also provide them with an Honour Guard as they leave. Shocked, the Spanish officer in charge of the surrender can only ask why. The answer comes after a brief pause: “It’s been four centuries.”
Just as the film did not exempt the Spanish from indulging in the ugliness of war, it cannot be ignored that the country’s decision to sell the Philippines to the United States – including several islands that officially did not belong to Spain – contributed to many of the post-colonial problems still being felt in that country in the present day. Yet modern, post-Francoist Spain generally regards and studies its imperial past in a surprisingly blunt way, not shying away from the atrocities and ugliness committed in the nations it had once ruled, even as it laid the building blocks for the countries they would become. There is not, overall, a great amount of sentimentalism for this colonial past, and 1898 is a reflection of that: It looks at the effects of a war, and the end of an empire, not through a grand sweeping vision but from the perspectives and the emotions of those affected and damaged by it. By the film’s conclusion, the end of the siege of Baler – and the end of the Spanish Empire – is seen not with melancholy, but with a feeling of inevitability.
Perhaps, given the political climate in Europe and the sentiments we saw grow to such alarming extents last year, it is the best and only way to look at such a complicated past legacy.