When Spain ceded the Philippines to the U.S. in 1899, American troops came up against the Filipinos’ refusal to accept annexation, an armed independence movement, and the declaration of a republic. From the full-scale Battle of Manila, a guerrilla war continued for three years until a peace treaty, but fighting went on in the islands for a decade more.
This is the setting for “Amigo,” John Sayles’ 17th film, a semi-fictional account of life in the Philippines during the war. It’s been more than seven decades since the story was last told in an American film: “The Real Glory” of 1939, a jingoistic endorsement of this colonial venture.
Sayles is far more balanced in portraying the conflict, but his work is not a documentary; it tells of individuals on both sides, caught up in war.
Garrett Dillahunt plays a lieutenant, leading young American soldiers tasked with taking control of a remote village. Joel Torre, a big star in the Philippines, plays a barrio captain, and his brother (Ronnie Lazaro) leads the rebels in the jungle.
A devious Spanish friar (Yul Vazquez) acts as interpreter and troublemaker. The film is in English, Tagalog, Spanish and even a bit of Chinese.
“Amigo’s” arc goes from a slow beginning to an exciting middle, followed by an awkward, inconclusive ending.
Characters on both sides are good and bad, behaving well and badly, with neither group having the moral high ground — although the rebels at times appear purposeful freedom fighters, while the Americans seem lost as they go around doing their difficult job of keeping order.
The villagers, living everyday lives, are the most likable — at times too much so in their childlike “native” ways. In their depiction, Sayles comes close to condescension.
Otherwise, though, “Amigo” is a picturesque, well-meaning excursion into a far-away land and a virtually forgotten chapter of American history.
Starring Joel Torre, Chris Cooper, Ronnie Lazaro, Garret Dillahunt
Written and directed by John Sayles
Running time 2 hours 8 minutes