Thursday, February 14, 2008

Intramuros (1964)

Intramuros (Gerardo De Leon & Eddie Romero, 1964)
American Title: The Walls of Hell

The walls of Intramuros are presently protecting a few centuries-old churches, a Mcdonald’s chain, a couple of Starbucks coffee shops, golf courses, and several other government offices that populate the enclosed Manila district. Those walls of course had a former and vaster majesty, a grander place in a nation’s history. These were the walls that used to cover the wealthy Spanish colonizers from the impoverished Filipino natives, the same walls that served shelter to thousands of Filipinos during times of war, the same walls that withstood the incessant bombardments from different invaders wanting entry to the lone Spanish colony in Asia. These mental images were manufactured from years of being taught the local history through deadened lectures and ancient photographs that adorned textbooks.

It is probably the same wonderment I had of those steadfast walls which led Eddie Romero to seek finances to help produce his film about the siege of Intramuros. He received much-needed dollars from American producers who were quick to fund something cheap but exciting and patriotic, the current lucrative staple in most American B-movie theaters during that time. To adequately capture that awing feeling of wonderment in cinematic terms, Romero sought help from his mentor, Gerardo de Leon, then currently unemployed. De Leon was the filmmaking talent whose undervalued visual flair remains unsurpassed by any Filipino director. The obvious star of the movie however is Intramuros’ imposing walls, shot in various angles and positions, all detailing its impenetrable stance against would-be invaders while delivering a subtle encompassing grandeur despite its ruined state.

In Romero and De Leon’s film however, Intramuros plays the villain to the team of American and Filipino soldiers who are bent on rescuing the few thousands of civilians mostly women, children, and old men, who are all taken hostage by desperate Japanese soldiers who would rather die with several more victims than surrender to the returning Americans. It is possibly for this reason why the film was released in the United States with the very unflattering title of The Walls of Hell, emphasizing on the historic structure’s infernal role as gargantuan hindrance to the patriotic Americans’ efforts to restore freedom to its former colony. The film is obviously lopsided in portrayals as the Japanese soldiers are portrayed as atrocious men, unsatisfied of their despairing stance in the conclusion of the Pacific War thus inflicting final fatal blows to those they have kept captive. Within the guarded walls, they would call the citizens by name, amassing them, before taking them to the prison for an undisclosed purpose. Those who do not follow will be killed outright and the women who are beautiful enough are chased around the ruined fortress and raped. It’s an unforgiving and unglamorous portrayal of the Japanese invaders but given the decade and purpose for which the film was made, is understandable. With such hellish representations of both the losing combatants and the walls that protect them, the title of the film’s American release, although overly dramatic, bears a semblance of accuracy.

Understandably, the film’s primary purpose is to showcase and parade American bravery and patriotism thus the several American characters in the film, all of whom are noble personifications of war virtues like sacrifice, selflessness and heroism. There is Papa, a novitiate in the priesthood who got spirited away into the Pacific, replacing his vows of religiosity and piety for a loaded gun and a rank as army medic. There is Murray, journalist who for better coverage of the siege of Intramuros, moves from the safety of the American regiment in Manila to the shadows of the walls of Intramuros where a mixture of Filipino guerrillas and American army men are fighting off the remaining Japanese. Finally, there is Lt. Sorenson who is played by an underwhelming Jock Mahoney, most famous for his half-naked macho turn as Tarzan in its many cinematic incarnations. Sorenson is a stoic regiment commander who is tasked with the moral duty of rescuing the civilians from the clutches of the Japanese. He is the one given with the vastest characterization, a complete back story involving his wife Tina who was snatched by the Japanese during one of their ambushes, but is later discovered to be one of the trapped survivors within Intramuros. The character’s unwieldy stoicism or the persistent woodenness that Mahoney brings into the character can’t exude the emotional distress the character is supposedly carrying. Sadly, war films, beyond the well-executed battles and the eye-popping stunts, are grounded and judged by that singular element which is the object humanity. A war film whose main character can’t convincingly elevate the film beyond the gunshots and explosions can be considered a downright failure, a delirious exercise in supposedly recreating history within a motivated perspective yet without the point of view the audience can really hold on to. The Walls of Hell, with a disappointing portrayal of Mahoney as the internally embattled commander, might very well be considered as precisely that kind of failure.

Fortunately, the film is not as American as its investors thought it was. Of equal screen time as the intimidating walls and the token American heroes is Nardo Maglaya, the Filipino guerilla who informs the American and Filipino troops stationed outside the walls of the dire predicament inside it. Played by Fernando Poe, Jr., Nardo appears from the underground passageways of Intramuros with more than enough brash swagger and action hero charisma to keep the picture afloat. He pops out of the manhole with his hair pomaded into a perfect do, and his shirt drenched in masculine sweat. Surrounded by Filipino and American soldiers who are bearing firearms and ready to shoot and suspect him a Japanese spy. He surprisingly withholds his desperation by asking questions to the men who surrounded him instead of pleading for mercy which is the logical thing to do when one escapes from an enemy-infested fortress. He keeps his ground with an able stance that foretells readiness for any kind of physical rumble, which indeed happens but with him winning and proving that he’s not the type who would fold when cornered. During his first few minutes onscreen, Poe immediately grabs your attention and gives this war film the proper reason for existence among the innumerable films that exploit the Pacific War. Out of that manhole is a Filipino who is neither servile nor obedient but instead is equal to the Americans. Such is a surprising subversion considering that these low-budgeted war pictures often sell themselves as patriotic stories where the American soldiers generously give their lives for the liberation of another nation.

In one key scene, Nardo violently berates Sorenson for the latter’s stubbornness. The scene erupts into a sudden exchange of blows between the two men ending with Sorenson being escorted out of the camp and Nardo in what seems like a defeated position. The scene is important not because of how it was directed but of the implications that materialize after the incident. It is at that scene wherein the war has been dissected not between two common factions, the American liberators and the Japanese invaders, but between three important parties, now including the Filipinos as represented by Nardo’s brash indignation of Sorenson’s blind sense of duty. The film naturally progresses to that point wherein Nardo is made to understand Sorenson’s personal predicament but notwithstanding such, his unfaltering determination astounds to the point that during the final shot of the film wherein both Sorenson and Nardo walk side by side away from the newly liberated Intramuros, you can’t help but appreciate the apparent tensions (racial, or otherwise) that ensued apart from the visceral obstacles that had to be overcome, to reach that point of conclusive satisfaction to both the film’s American and Filipino audiences.

The Walls of Hell is not a subversive or journalistic piece of art. It is primarily an action film, one that certainly does not disappoint. The soundtrack of the film mostly consists of distant explosions and incessant gunfire, enunciated by cinematic orchestrations of folk songs mixed with military melodies. This keeps the atmosphere very hectic and hurried. Such precisely crafted atmosphere and the backdrop of the historic walls of Intramuros keep the film in a state of perpetual kineticism. There’s an apparent physicality in the action sequences that I am particularly pleased with. The co-directors make use of the perfect location shooting and utilize each and every crevice, cave, and wall to stage suspenseful clashes between the rescuing forces and the vile Japanese soldiers. Moreover, there is a specific visual splendor, one that is characterized by the gorgeous panoramic shots of the ruined fortress made even more ravishing by the abundance of smoke and fire all captured in crisp black and white, that embellishes the visceral and mostly violent encounters. There is no doubt that De Leon’s unique brand of aesthetics is at work here, harmoniously complementing Romero’s narrative integrity. The film is often magnificent to look at, where the actors are given a three dimensional setting to perform their respective stunts, the most fascinating of which is Poe’s swinging outside the walls to combat a Japanese soldier by the window, before landing with graceful flourish.

The Walls of Hell, like the historically important Intramuros it so captivatingly breathes cinematic life to, is but a fraction of what it was. It is undoubtedly outdated and therefore thought of as a forgettable remnant of the cinematic past especially if compared to other films that tackled the Pacific War that were released after like Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, Mario O'Hara, 1976), Aishite Imasu 1941 (I Love You 1941, Joel Lamangan, 2004), or Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006) which portrayed the Japanese with as much humanity as the protagonists. In a long line of low-budgeted war films released during that era where most of America was hungering for exhilarating tales of wartime heroism, The Walls of Hell branched out from the conceived norm and allowed a native Filipino to share with his so-called American brothers a space in that exalted pedestal of patriots. I may be over-reading a movie that was funded and made exactly to be enjoyed and then possibly disposed of. At present however, it cannot be denied that The Walls of Hell is a moving and exhilarating reminder of a past and former grandeur that has long been diminished to the pressures of commercialism and modernity, a persisting proof that sometime in a nation’s past or even in the deepest of the nation’s greatest artists, is a moment where both former colonial and colonizer stood and fought as equals against one enemy to achieve an admirable greater good.

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