The dangers of ‘Heneral Luna’


A friend of mine, another historian, and I the other day were discussing what it is we think underpins people’s broad, laudatory acclaim for the movie “Heneral Luna.” Leaving aside my baseline satisfaction with and gratitude for anything that stimulates popular engagement with Philippine history, particularly with the Philippine Revolution’s history which is the history that I directly study, I find myself very baffled by the reception this film has received.

Prof. Leloy Claudio mused that the acclaim is due to people’s desire for categorical moral positions—easy, uncomplicated nationalism. Oppose America at all costs—forget that people were dying, that the cost of such persistence was Americans burning villages wholesale, loss of livelihood, and all for new masters whom nobody trusted would be anything but new conquerors filling the shoes of the West. In this light, it is easy to denounce Felipe Buencamino’s position as “traitorous;” and in such categorical understandings of nationalism and morality, if he is willing to “betray” the “nation” it must be for his own self-interest.

Rather, Leloy reminds, the annexationist position should be taken more seriously and not so easily dismissed by the mainstream nationalist narrative. There is a respected line of ‘reformism,’ best known through the ilustrado-led Propaganda Movement that agitated for reforms but not independence from Spain, that informed Buencamino’s position. Indeed, many truthfully believed that the interests of the Philippines, positioned within the nest of European and Japanese imperial possessions and prey to rapacious foreign powers’ ever-increasing designs at a point in history known for the “Scramble for Africa” and the divvying up of the world among the violent competing empires, would be best served through a (hopefully) beneficent annexation. This idea naturally offends our sense of rightful sovereignty, but given the geopolitical realities of the time, we could do well to take more seriously the possibility of the Buencamino-types acting in good faith according to what they sincerely believed to be the best answer for the Philippines.

More provocatively, Leloy challenges that he believes that if a national survey were to poll the Philippine population, you may find that a surprisingly large percentage of the population would still today be in favor of annexation as the 51st state of the United States. It is easy to be offended by this idea, but I would guess that those who would today be in favor of such an idea are those who are already leaving the Philippines to find economic opportunity in the United States and elsewhere in the world. For those whom our nation-state has failed here at home, this may also be a black-and-white question, but with an answer that the nationalist orthodoxy denounces.

This brings me to my own unease with “Heneral Luna.” The message “Luna” incants repeatedly is we will never rise if we are divided; we must put aside our own parochial, solipsistic, familial, economic, and individual interests and sacrifice ourselves for the nation. I believe that—I believe that we should help one another; I believe that by rising above our own self-interests we better safeguard opportunity and promise for all. We do this by forming a strong, bonded, and invested community, or, rather, a nation. Those, however, are very deep qualifiers.

The “nation” appears as a naturalized entity in the movie when it was anything but at the time. Until 1896 there was not even a name for the nation, much less a unifying language, common history, sense of brotherhood, sense of trust that a poor Visayan farmer could place in the Tagalogs in the North who seemed to them just waiting to fill the shoes of the Spanish. This, as ever, remains the danger with the ideologies of nation-states. Who defines which principles and peoples comprise the nation, whom that nation represents, whose interests that nation serves—none of these are natural answers amid such divisions as one finds in our country, with persistent oligarchic control of economic power and political dynasties on one hand, and those that the nation-state has too often failed on the other; take for example the Muslim minority demanding due respect for its traditions. It is easy for a Luna to say: abandon your field, give up your sons, and be proud that you died for your nation. This assumes that the nation he is asking people to fight for was indeed their nation, but then as now, the people asking for sacrifice were in positions of power, stood to gain from others’ sacrifice, while for those making the sacrifice, it may not have been so black and white a request.

This brings me to my second feeling of unease regarding the public’s reception of “Heneral Luna.” There seems to be a renewed luster to the idea of a benevolent dictator, and Heneral Luna as styled in the film cuts just such a figure. We may naturally admire exceptional (though complicated) figures such as Lee Kuan Yew as we bemoan the state of our society, but, as the voices of those who suffered under the Marcos dictatorship die out, we should not allow ourselves to shortchange the injustices of that history. It may be nice to hope that some strong figure will cut into the scene and through sheer force alone will solve our problems and discipline our society and set us on a better path, but democracy, in its true substance and not just in its form, is messy work, and nobody else will do it for us.

Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Candidate in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.


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  1. “Given the geopolitical realities of the time, we could do well to take more seriously the possibility of the Buencamino-types acting in good faith according to what they sincerely believed to be the best answer for the Philippines.”

    I wish she could’ve expounded more as to why annexation is a fundamentally viable option at that time instead of just stating observations that a lot of people actually consider this. This way it can facilitate discourse and help us understand why she thinks so.I do agree that an alternate proposition to independence does not necessarily equate to lack of nationalism or self-interest.

    “The “nation” appears as a naturalized entity in the movie when it was anything but at the time.”

    I also could not understand the relevance of this observation in disagreeing with Luna’s tendency to demand sacrifice from people.

    “This assumes that the nation he is asking people to fight for was indeed their nation, but then as now, the people asking for sacrifice were in positions of power, stood to gain from others’ sacrifice, while for those making the sacrifice, it may not have been so black and white a request.”

    The character of Luna in the movie is not an outsider but rather part of the group of people making their own sacrifice to achieve their objectives. I don’t understand what is wrong with rallying people for a cause? I really couldn’t understand why it is cause of unease. The presumption that the national identity is a prerequisite instead of a desired outcome does not really undermine the need for unity and sacrifice.

    However I do find it alarming for people’s admiration of dictatorial tendencies emulated by their hero worship of Luna discounting his leadership and personality flaws.

    There must be a limit to words for article like this ? I personally felt she couldn’t explain herself properly unless the intended audience is for a reader fluent in historical discourse and background similar to her.

  2. I’m mystified by the number of straw men most commenters have erected here.

    The filmmakers have stressed that the film is intended to spark conversation. They highlight that there are no villains or heroes, only people. The film is complex. We (as individuals and as a nation) are complex. It’s good to regard these all complexly and constructively. I appreciate that the writer contributes to the filmmakers’ objective, and very even-handedly at that. Other commenters would do well to remember the oft-quoted line from the film: “Mga kapatid, meron tayong mas malaking kaaway kaysa mga Amerikano–ang ating sarili.” Please retire your limiting biases for the moment, and instead contribute to the conversation.

    For example, the writer reflected on the problem with regarding history as a morality play. This still prevails despite how multi-faceted the film is compared to most other historical films in recent years. That said, the nuance is right there for any viewer to unpack so I think that’s more of a consequence of the medium more than anything.

    I don’t agree with the point about annexation but the others are very compelling, particularly the one about the nationalistic ideology across time. Arguably, Filipino nationalism is rooted in the colonial experience because it was a unifying factor for the archipelago. It’s a souring thought but the real question is: What do we do about it now?

  3. Everybody should do away with countries and money.

    Countries create this dichotomy where you are either in it and should treated well, or you are out of it and you should be seen as an enemy.

    Money (and the monetary system) has lots of problems, too. For one, poverty is a built-in feature of the system.

    We are human beings – 99.99% genetically identical to each other. And yet we make too much of a mess out of that tiny difference.

  4. if the Visayans didn’t trust the Tagalogs, why were there revolucionarios in the Visayas? in Panay ? Many of them continued fighting the Americans until Aguinaldo was captured.

    • How can you question this when many Visayans don’t trust the Tagalogs until today.

  5. This lady Nicole is so studious..I remember years ago to have read one of her article also appeared in MT about Maids; not related to her doctoral pursuit. She has a variety of topics to share in her minds..whcih is showing a character of well rounded thinking. Lady hurry up and finish your doctorate your country is calling for you…let your country gain from your thoughts. Do not belittle your almost PHD education with a cinematic portrayal of Hen. Luna..he is a creation of nickel odeon done so professionally; the reason people are talking. Mind you after three months the ardor will fizzle out..then another General movie will come (Gen. Problem) and more talks again.

  6. Joshua Diokno on

    The writer assumes the position of those who are in complete opposition of Luna’s methods and demeanor during his time; due to cowardice and self-interest, the likes of them would easily succumb to foreign rule. This Nicole Cuunjeing discounts the struggles of our countrymen who had returned to Philippine soil in coffins. She discounts the very definition of colonization. Annexation is yet another euphemism, and in our history, we had been blinded by the usage of many. To note, people who resort to working abroad are compelled by the lack of jobs being offered by the country’s administration, the same administration that plays lapdog to US Imperialism. Allowing ourselves to believe that annexation is tantamount to freedom and endless opportunities is leaving ourselves open to further abuse and exploitation. Like a moth to the flame; surely we are already familiar with the metaphor. Bottom line, this writer is bereft of actual principle, maybe she should stop writing altogether. Or maybe she needs to further her studies to see that things are indeed as simple as black and white. Sacrifices have to be made. We are always given two choices, you make one of these, then you oppose the other. It’s not a matter of balance. It’s a matter of principle.

    • Tumpak! In the case of A.Luna… PRINCIPIO O SARILI? Dalawa lang talaga. I believe General Luna could have led us to that freedom he was aspiring for, and if not, the true revolutionaries are those who are willing to die for motherland than live under the leash of foreign rulers exploited and abused. Imperialism may have changed its name and for a fact the euphemism for that is termed globalization. Kindly correct me if I’m wrong.

  7. Danny Cascolan on

    XRepost rappler commentary,

    Hen Luna is not the only description of nationalism…

    The only type of people who probably make a pejorative out of nationalism are probably those part in exploitation of our nation. Look around, all the nation who had nationalism, who fought in nationalism prospered. Nationalism is not idiocy, and for the Philippines it won’t have nationalism to conquer other nations. Nationalism would be good to boot out corruption, exploitation, develop own technologies and make use of our own resources for the nation and its people.

  8. Jerrold Tarog on

    “The “nation” appears as a naturalized entity in the movie when it was anything but at the time.”

    Nope. Luna was trying to impose his Western ideals on a heavily divided country. There wouldn’t be a movie in the first place and Luna wouldn’t be all stressed out trying to get everyone together if the nation was already formed at that time. However, the Katipunan was already fighting for that ideal before Luna (Kartilya ng Katipunan). Mabini too, with his decalogue.

    “…a benevolent dictator, and Heneral Luna as styled in the film cuts just such a figure.”

    Isabel called both Luna and Mascardo “children” at some point. Luna was also portrayed as irrational and abusive in the film but he was fighting for a good cause. Just because Luna is the protagonist doesn’t mean the filmmakers agree with everything the character is doing in the film. That he’s popular right now is probably due to the Filipino’s penchant for hero worship. Most people tend to ignore Luna’s ugly side, which was right there in the film.

    Thank you! :)

  9. apolinario mendez on

    Despite ” benevolent assimilation and american good governance”, our ancestors trounced your idea of capitulation. The nacionalista party headed by Quezon on a platform of independence overwhelmingly defeated Aguinaldo’s party on a platform of statehood. At the election of the commonwealth , our ancestors have spoken, the clamor for independence supersedes that of statehood. Whether that clamor for independence have done us good or bad is another story.

  10. Plain Historian on

    Agree with Ikabod Bubwit and I beg to disagree with the author, I think she is trapped in her own “ideology of nation-states” and is too “agringada”.

    CIRCA 1896
    Name: Filipinas (the name then and the name up to now in the Spanish-speaking world)
    Unifying Language: Spanish
    Common History: Spanish subjects in the Virreinato de Nueva España, afterwards Spanish subjects under the Ministerio de Ultramar of Spain until 1899

    There is no Filipinas without Spain as Filipinas was of itself a Spanish juridical entity to begin with, carved out of a diversity of different tribes and peoples in the lands we now call Filipinas or Philippines. The basic error is that people take away Spain from the equation and try to build a Filipino history separate from Spain, which cannot be done because Philippine history and identity is intrinsically tied to Spain.

    Btw, this same error is found in our very own Philippine Declaration of Independence, which reads as follows:
    “later taking possession of the city and the whole Archipelago in the name of Spain by virtue of an order of King Philip II, and with these historical precedents and because in international law the prescription established by law to legalize the vicious acquisition of private property is not recognized…”. This basically denies the original Hispanic claim over Filipinas and attempts to fill the legal vacuum with references to native chieftains who never had control of the entire (national) juridical entity we call Filipinas. No wonder we get so confused- without Spain, there is no original, organic national identity.

    Also, Gen. Antonion Luna was not talking about the niceties of “reformism” in the likes of Buencamino et al, but was talking about the realities of war. It didn’t help that the very foundation of the First Philippine Republic was anchored “bajo de la proteccion de la Potente y Humanitaria Nacion Norte Americana” as stated in the June 12, 1898 declaration of Philippine Independence, only to find out that a short time afterwards, that same “Potente y Humanitaria Nacion Norte Americana” will wage war against Filipinos, with an estimated 300,000 to 1 million Filipinos dying out of a total 10 million population. Perhaps before the Philippine-American war, such talk about “reformism” and “annexationism” ala Buencamino might make sense, but not during an actual shooting war. Traitorous was the only word for it at this point, no ifs and buts.

    And don’t get us started on benevolent dictatorship.. Aguinaldo was the original dictator as stated in the declaration of Philippine independence, btw, but that is not the issue here. The issue was gross insubordination by military units and violation of the unity of command, which Luna saw as the big problem and was clearly addressed in the movie.
    However, the author choses to conflate the issues to remain true to her main points…

    I have other things in mind but I should stop here already.

  11. This columnist represents a big portion of the present generation who does not feel strongly about their citizenship and nationality. I guess she is more proud of her foreign heritage! I bet that given the chance, she will gladly give up her Filipino citizenship and be an American. I also bet she is a very nice and decent person like my Chinese neighbor who donates regularly to charity but don’t want to condemn Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen at Panatag shoal. This writer will never understand the concept of Philippine patriotism. Patriotism springs from your love of the land and the country where you were belong. Your sense of patriotism is nurtured by the beliefs and philosophies you absorb from the society you are in. In many cases, the school system teach students the idea of nation building.

    Sadly, the community and the government seems to be falling short of their role in bringing forth patriotic minded responsible citizens of this country. Thanks to the opportunistic family of business people who prefer personal profits and personal relationships over the interests of the nation. This same people are lording it over the land…in business,in government, in politics, in religion,etc. Hence, many young people grow up to be “citizen of the world” as they want to call it. They are even ashamed of being called a “Filipino” or they cringe when they meet Filipina domestic helpers in other countries.

    • But isn’t that the difficult part? What does it really mean to be Filipino? Can we really point to something concrete when we say “Filipino”? Being a Filipino is a troublesome concept. As a multilingual and very diverse nation, being a Filipino is defined solely by the Tagalogs. What about the people down south of Mindanao? Being Filipino is not reflective of the whole archipelago, the whole nation. The problem with nationalism is the tendency for people to be racist. Love of one’s own country tends to exclude other countries and be belligerent to them (which is racism)

      Aren’t Filipinos hypocritical when they claim to be nationalistic yet prefer that we should be like the developed first-world countries? Like you. You claim we should be patriotic but the language you use is a foreign one.

  12. Amnata Pundit on

    I guess if your sentiments lie with the colonizer/invader, no reason is good enough for the resistance, right? To say that it was wrong for Luna to demand a sacrifice for the nation because in your opinion we were not yet qualified to be called a nation is the same as saying that the black slaves of America had no cause to complain because in the eyes of the white folks they were not qualified to be called human beings. As for annexation, this reminds me of a woman who is a not ashamed to tell every one within hearing distance that she is ready to get married to a man who has no intention of proposing. Regardless of the idea’s merits or lack of it, isn’t it better for her to just shut up rather than make a complete fool of herself? And what really baffles you about the reception the movie is getting? If one thinks that Filipinos love America so much that they will shun anything that puts America in a bad light, then the fact that they are reacting positively to the movie should be baffling indeed. Nicole, we are all victims of opposing ideas that have somehow been planted in our heads ( like i love the Philippines, but I love America even more, so pano yan?) In our struggle to sort out these opposing ideas, we must try harder to organize our thoughts before we bang away at the keyboards, lest we end up sounding like the typical Catholic Church thinkers who cannot seem to complete a sentence without contradicting themselves.

  13. can you just be glad that this kind of movie is actually shown to your fellowmen and give them realization what patriotism is all about. Oh, how bourgeois!

  14. The problem with the Philippine concept of ‘nation’ is that the most powerful interests, who control the economy, media and have capture of the government, equate ‘Philippines’ primarily with Metro Manila. This Manila-centric structure is the main hindrance to a united, inclusive and more egalitarian society.

  15. What is the point of this article ??? That the Filipino people is not really a nation ???
    If the answer is yes then for that matter and so are many others !!! A nation is built and created by people !!! There is no perfect nation state except probably Japan (where everyone belongs to the same race and speak the same language and recognize a single emperor !!!). Other than that the Filipino people is a more homogeneous people than many other countries. But more than that the Philippines is the only country that has a consistent national liberation movement !!!

    • Forgive me but I am not really aware of “a consistent national liberation movement.”
      Are you talking about the Hukbalahap, the NPA, the MILF, MNLF, ASG and a few other self styled splinter groups, bandit groups or even cults like the one mowed down by Cory courtesy of Lim?
      Please take no offense, I truly want to know so the Philippines can rally around it to get rid of the plutocracy in our so called democracy.