The Brilliant and Ferocious 'Heneral Luna'

You know how in every movie with a war room meeting with the President, there’s always that one guy, usually the military chief, who passionately lobbies for the hostile route? Well Heneral Luna is about THAT guy! Finally, after years of relegating that character as the movie’s token jerk, we finally have a movie that shows that he’s much more sophisticated than we give him credit for…even though he really is a jerk.



heneral luna

Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna depicts the many exploits of the revered-slash-notorious Philippine General, Antonio Luna. It’s the story of a man whose brilliance, ferocity, passion for his country, and uncompromising pride would inspire the resistance against the American invaders, but also earn him enemies in his own land. A hero or a madman – this is what the film ultimately asks its audience.

As historical biopics go, Heneral Luna was one of this country’s best. It wasn’t without some faults, but all the good it does definitely outweigh the bad.

I'm Team Luna!

Balanced Approach

The best history lessons I had when I was in college were the ones that weren’t black and white, no hero nor villain, just a lot of individuals with vested interests. And as if it were lifted from a classroom lecture, this film was as accurate as it was unbiased in its dramatization of the Luna’s adult life.

With Antonio Luna being a relatively obscure character in Philippine history, I hugely appreciated Tarog’s objective treatment. He seamlessly represents the different POVs surrounding the subject, and their dialogue provided a clear sense of where they were coming from. (It was actually more about the different egos and personalities than it was about the plot.) Tarog also tangibly presents Luna as a deeply flawed man, even intermittently making you question the man’s motives and sanity. (Wanting to shoot a man for his hairstyle? Loony, much?)

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Tarog masterfully steers the audience’s perception. Throughout the film, you’ll be walking a line where you have Luna painted as a hero on one side, and as a lunatic villain on the other. Antonio Luna was the Walter White of Philippine History. 

"I AM the danger!"

Historical Accuracy

There’s a disclaimer at the start of the movie that this movie was a work of fiction. But I did some research after watching and while accuracy is to be expected from biopics, I was amazed nonetheless at the meticulousness of Heneral Luna. From the flamboyantly-colored cowboy-ish uniforms of the Americans during the war, to the intricate details of his untimely death (including the location of his wounds and how they were inflicted), it was hard to tell where the facts ended and the imagination began. The inclusion of little nuggets of info, like Luna’s relationship with Rizal and his brothers, made the film even more credible.

Tension Building

There was a point in the movie that will feel too incredible to be true (you’ll know it when it happens) but whether or not it is, it serves its dramatic purpose. It was unnerving; such was the case throughout the movie.

Direk Tarog perfectly handles the tension. There was a strong sense of what it felt like to be there, in that moment of our history, whether it’s a standoff at the local plaza, the screamfest that is their cabinet meetings, or a midnight shootout.

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If that face doesn't scream "tense", I don't know what will!

Tarog’s pacing and buildup, his musical scoring, the sparing (and unexpected) use of gore, the impeccable acting, all contributed in making Heneral Luna a gripping and intense hour and a half experience.

Contemporary Narrative

Tarog’s Heneral Luna was not merely a movie about our past. In a lot of ways, it also speaks of our current society. Bayan or sarili? (Country or self?) This is the tagline shown on posters, and another of the numerous thematic undercurrents of the film. But a particular idea resonated to me the most - the biggest enemy of the Filipino is his fellow Filipino. It’s how we lost the American war, and why we lose every day since.

Artistically Astonishing

At times the film gets too artsy for its own good, with some scenes’ visual styles feeling like they were off-beat and experimental, but for the most part, Heneral Luna was very picturesque.

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There is a clear intent for every shot and every frame.

The slick camerawork and cinematography made the film breath-taking. The make-up was profoundly accurate, especially for Aguinaldo, who looked almost exactly as the historical photos. And the end of the movie, which I won’t spoil for you, is one of the most beautifully made conclusions to a movie I’ve ever witnessed. The powerful imagery and passionate portrayals will haunt you for days.

And grade-A acting all around. With the exception of Joven, the journalist, who felt very low key and awkward compared to the others. I absolutely loved Archie Alemania’s Rusca, who offered both comedic relief and gravitas to the film, as well as Epi Quizon’s Apolinario Mabini, who was the heart and soul of the cabinet. Even Leo Martinez, who’s often stereotyped as the funny guy, was comfortably fit for his snobbish elitist role.

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Nonie Buencamino and Ketchup Eusebio were both guys you love to hate.

But it was John Arcilla who elevated this film to its current status. John Arcilla’s command of the titular role was award worthy. He was fierce and sincere and over the top, all at the same time. He gave the role little nuances that made him more than just a caricature of the angry army man.

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John Arcilla owned the role of Antonio Luna.

The movie was not perfect. There were parts of the story-telling that could have been fine tuned. The first half felt disjointed, there were scenes that didn’t make sense or went over our heads (probably due to the number of simultaneously occurring events), some missing context that you have to fill in with stock knowledge, the Americans were so villainized that the only thing missing was for them to twirl their mustaches, and some pretentious sounding dialogue. The overall experience also suffered ever so slightly from the constantly shifting tones (from being deathly serious to being all slapstick) and visual styles (felt too high art at times).

But for all its faults, Heneral Luna is still one of the best (if not THE best) period pieces to ever come out in Philippine cinema. Jerrold Tarog and John Arcilla breathe life into the complicated Antonio Luna in a film that’s respectful of the history, visually dazzling, relentlessly gripping and deeply moving. It is cinematic treasure that all Filipinos should owe to themselves to watch.

If not for anything else, watch it for this:



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