‘1898, Our Last Men in the Philippines’ (‘1898, Los Ultimos de Filipinas’): Film Review

Courtesy of Film Factory Entertainment
Spectacular and striking, but none too subtle.

Spain winds up 2016 with a big-budget take on the tragic, traumatic last stand of the Empire, played out in the jungles of the Philippines.

In 1898, after four centuries of empire, Spain surrendered the last of its colonies. For six months following the surrender, a group of Spanish soldiers posted to a remote village in the Philippines fought on anyway, knowing — or preferring to know — nothing about it. Their tragic, heroic and absurd story, one which has left Vietnam-size scars on the Spanish psyche, is the focus of Salvador Calvo’s feature debut, the clumsily titled 1898, Our Last Men in the Philippines.

Thankfully, the title of this sweeping, ambitious, big-budget drama is one of the few clumsy things about it (and to be fair, the title works just fine in Spanish). Featuring a superb cast, striking visuals and a skillful management of a range of stereotypes and cliches that it makes no attempt to transcend, 1898 offers little that’s new but is still about as close as Spanish cinema has come of late to anything approaching epic cinema. Though its subject matter and general focus are utterly Spanish, its purely cinematic qualities makes it deserving of offshore exposure.

Following a massacre in the remote Philippine jungle village of El Baler, Lieutenant Martin Cerezo (Luis Tosar, Cell 211), under the orders of Captain Enrique de las Morenas (Eduard Fernandez, having a high-profile year following Smoke and Mirrors) — Morenas incredibly brings his dog on the mission — are sent out to try and reclaim the territory for Spain. They’re accompanied by about fifty youngsters, mostly inexperienced in life and war, and mostly dramatically redundant, apart from young wannabe artist Carlos (Spanish TV face Alvaro Cervantes). They are met on arrival by Sergeant Jimeno (Javier Gutierrez, Marshland), an embittered, sadistic hangover from the massacre, and a missionary with an opium addiction, Brother Carmelo (Karra Elejalde, Spanish Affair).

Following a savage attack on the camp by local Tagalogs, the men retreat into a hastily fortified church where most of the action will unfold. From just a few hundred meters away in a Tagalog town, they are part-tortured, part-seduced by the siren-like singing of Teresa (Alexandra Masangkay, in the film’s only female speaking role), representing the sexuality and freedom of which the soldiers have been deprived.

The stories multiply and complicate: de la Morenas orders Carlos to walk to Manila to find out what’s going on, a 150-mile walk through the jungle; de la Morenos then contracts beri beri and dies, leading to a power struggle between Cerezo and Jimeno; and in what is the film’s only portrayal of anything approaching friendship, Brother Carmelo reveals opium’s pain-killing pleasures to Carlos, who’ll later have to go cold turkey.

Surprisingly, the only other filmic treatment of the empire’s last stand is a wildly jingoistic affair dating back to 1945, early in the days of General Franco. The symbolic significance to Spain of 1898 means that Calvo and screenwriter Alejandro Hernandez have to strike a complex balance between playing up the heroic, nationalist angle on the one hand and the war-is-futile angle on the other. The latter prevails, and indeed a few angry letters have been written to Spanish newspapers about the film’s political line.

But within the limits of what is basically a thoroughly mainstream project, the script doesn’t shy away from the visceral horrors of war. The conflict scenes are more credible and bloody than Spanish cinema generally manages, and the slow physical decline of the men graphically is rendered; though one suspects that conditions must have been even nastier during the eleven months the soldiers spent in the church than they are shown here. “They’ll remember you as idiots,” one character shouts, and basically, his prophecy has largely come true.

The mental damage inflicted by war is brought vividly to life by some terrific performances, principally from the vets. Cerezo, the most psychologically interesting character, is given a briefly sketched-out backstory, which helps to explain his decision to keep on fighting when everyone’s telling him the war is over. The scene during which Cerezo realizes this, a face-to-face between the ever-intense, gruff Tosar and a Cervantes who proves himself up to the acting mark, is both the film’s quietest scene and its strongest. As per Marshland, Gutierrez perfects his turn as the little man in the grip of angry inner demons, while Elejalde’s high-sleaze variation on the theme of the whiskey priest, undercutting the pretensions of war with his every utterance, is always watchable.

That said, none of them escapes the straitjacket of stereotype, while none of the Philippine characters, Teresa apart, is individualized to any degree — though globally, the enemy here are portrayed as more fair-minded and decent than their often brutish Spanish counterparts.

Visually, 1898 is impeccable, with Equatorial New Guinea standing in for the Philippines, though the sweeping aerial shots of the intense hues of the jungle which come through the first fifteen minutes mean that D.P. Alejandro Catalan has played his strongest card first. Surplus-to-requirements visual symbolism is manifest — witness the repeat shots of a spider devouring its prey to show (yawn) the indifference of nature to the plight of men. Roque Banos’ classically orchestrated score occasionally veers a little too closely to the rousing, chest-beating fare beloved of major sporting events, but sometimes achieves real poignancy, especially over the final stretch.

Though generally faithful to fact, 1898 plays pretty fast and loose with historical details, and experts have pointed out errors: the uniforms are apparently wrong, and the historical soldiers were experienced soldiers, not greenhorns. (But the weirdest detail, that de las Morenas brought his pooch along with him, is apparently fact.) As a film-buff footnote, the El Baler where the final surrender took place was one of the locations of Apocalypse Now, another cinematic take on massive military failure. 1898 is dedicated to producer Pedro Costa, who died in June 2016.

Production company: Manila Producciones, Enrique Cerezo PC, 13 TV, CIPI Cinematografica.
Cast: Luis Tosar, Javier Gutierrez, Alvaro Cervantes, Karra Elejalde, Carlos Hipolito, Ricardo Gomez
Director: Salvador Calvo
Screenwriter: Alejandro Hernandez
Producer: Enrique Cerezo, Pedro Costa
Director of photography: Alejandro Catalan
Production designer: Carlos Bodelon
Costume designer: Paola Torres
Editor: Jaime Colis
Composer: Roque Baños
Casting director: Elena Arnao
Sales: Film Factory

No rating, 128 minutes