Sayles' 'Amigo' Takes On Little-Known American War Indie director John Sayles' latest film, Amigo, traces the impact of the Philippine-American War on a small Filipino village. Sayles shares what he learned making the movie — and the parallels he found with other American wars — on NPR's Talk of the Nation.
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Sayles' 'Amigo' Takes On Little-Known American War

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Sayles' 'Amigo' Takes On Little-Known American War

Sayles' 'Amigo' Takes On Little-Known American War

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NEAL CONAN, host: At the beginning of the 20th century and now a largely forgotten moment in American history, the United States imperialist hangover from the conquest of the Philippines in the Spanish-American War. Director John Sayles tells one story from the guerrilla war that followed in his new movie "Amigo," which focuses on a village leader caught between American soldiers and rebels. Chris Cooper plays the colonel whose troops rule over the barrio.


CHRIS COOPER: (as Colonel Hardacre) We'll take their town. And if we don't garrison it, they're back in business a day later. If we do garrison it, they sit out in the damn jungle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) It's awful hard to tell the Indians from the amigos, sir.

COOPER: (as Colonel Hardacre) General MacArthur is taking command, and he wants us to put some teeth into general order 100. And gloves are coming off, gentlemen.

CONAN: John Sayles joins us in a moment. He's the director of "Amigo" and of the films "Matewan," Honeydripper" and, of course, "Lone Star." If you have questions for him, you can give us a call at 800-989-8255. The email address is You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. John Sayles joins us from our bureau in New York. And nice to have you with us today.

JOHN SAYLES: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And why this story and this conflict now?

SAYLES: I think partly because people don't know about it. Generally, we celebrate in the United States the wars that we've won, and "Amigo" was only the third American movie that I know that's ever been made about this. And the first that's actually has a Filipino in it. I also think it's an important part of the American psyche that changed. Within months, we went from being the people who were considering ourselves the champions of liberty, the anti-imperialists to proudly saying, oh, now, we've got a colony just like Britain and France and Russia and Japan, and we're a player on the national scene.

CONAN: This was the war that Mark Twain so despised.

SAYLES: Yeah. He was probably the leading light, along with Andrew Carnegie, of the anti-imperialist league, which - it was a controversial war, even in its time. And he had been very much for the Spanish-American War, helping the Cubans get the yoke of Spanish imperialism off their back and very much oppose to the eagle sinking its talons into anybody else's country.

CONAN: Not just having Filipinos in it. One of your stars, Joel Torre - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - is the movie's co-producer.

SAYLES: Yeah. Joel was a friend of mine, and I was doing research for my novel "A Moment in the Sun," which partly takes place during the Philippine-American War in Luzon, and I started talking to Joel about the Philippine film industry, which is a very vibrant one, and realized I could afford to make a movie over there.

CONAN: Afford to make a movie...


CONAN: ...over there. I guess, that's always an important calculation.

SAYLES: For an independent filmmaker, yes. You know, "Amigo" is a very ambitious movie for an independent filmmaker. It's a period movie set in 1900. It's a war movie. It has three horses in it. But I - when I thought of what story to tell, I realized I would have to tell it on a village level. So it is the story of a very small Filipino barrio that's garrisoned by American troops when General MacArthur - Arthur MacArthur...

CONAN: Arthur MacArthur, Douglas'...

SAYLES: ...Douglas' father, right - is chasing their General Aguinaldo up north.

CONAN: There is, obviously, a larger story, not only to the war in the north, but a larger story to the Philippine conflict. Much of the war was also fought in the southern part of the Philippines, and it was a war of United States forces against Muslim troops. And that forms a pretty interesting analogy, too.

SAYLES: Yeah. It's interesting, some of the parallels, which were not why I made the movie, but are unavoidable. Teddy Roosevelt, when he became president and General Aguinaldo was captured, declared mission accomplished and said the war was over. But it kept going for at least up till World War I and probably further than that, but moving southward into Mindanao, into the Moro lands. And so we were fighting against Muslims in that area, usually through the Philippine Constabulary but also American troops were involved.

This is the war that waterboarding - it was called the water cure back then - was introduced and it was controversial in its time. There were congressional committees about it and a lot of back and forth on that. And it's a war in which I kept running into the phrase we have to win their hearts and minds, which I've included in the film, which I had associated with Vietnam. But there's Teddy Roosevelt saying the same thing, and it actually goes back to the Bible.

CONAN: And we see the Philippine jungle. And those of us who are old enough, it just leaps to our mind, Vietnam.

SAYLES: Yeah. I think, you know, a situation where we got into an imperial, you know, war in a place where we didn't understand the culture, really didn't even understand the political situation. But once we were there, once the flag was planted, there was this idea, well, we should stay here. And there was a, you know, I think a lot of support for it at that time. Imperialism, at least psychologically, was very new to Americans. I didn't think we ended up not caring for that position. We really didn't do it again. We got Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines in this war. And since then, our imperialism has been more cultural, economic, you know, put the people you want in power and then leave and not really taking colonies.

CONAN: We're talking with John Sayles about his new film "Amigo," which is set in the Philippines in the American occupation. If you'd like to talk with him, 800-989-98255. Email us, And we'll start with Steve, Steve with us from Toledo.

STEVE: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

STEVE: My question is, how close does your movie take on your book, which I just read? And I also want to thank you. I've used a number of your films in my classes I teach at college. So I appreciate your work. It's been a wonderful help when I'm teaching my classes.

SAYLES: Yeah. Thank you. "A Moment in the Sun," which is this giant novel I've also written is much larger in scope, obviously, because when you write a novel, you don't have to pay for all the boots that the soldiers are wearing and worry about the scale of things.


SAYLES: That has scenes in Cuba, in the Yukon, in Brooklyn, a big part of it is set in Wilmington, North Carolina, during a racial coup there. But it also deals with the Philippine-American War. None of the characters are the same. But certainly, the research I did to write "A Moment in the Sun" went into me being able to put things on kind of a micro-history scale and do a movie set there.

STEVE: And one other quick question for you. I collect autographed books from authors I like. How can I get an autographed copy of your newest book?

SAYLES: You know, I bet Amazon, somebody with that...

CONAN: Probably be able to provide a...

SAYLES: Yeah, or even McSweeney's who are the publisher. I signed a bunch of them there, and I'm sure they can send you one.

STEVE: OK. Thank you very much.

CONAN: For a small consideration. Interesting you tell the story on a village scale and it is not told just from one side. The rebels do some terrible things too.

SAYLES: Yeah. I think one of the advantages a viewer has with "Amigo," which is unusual in the movie, is because of the subtitles, you spend about half your time with the American soldiers who are garrisoned there and about half the time with either the villagers or the guerillas who are, you know, still fighting the Americans. So you know more as a viewer than any of the characters knows. You see, you know, the places where they're just ignorant of what's going on on the other side. You get to sit in every camp. And I think that's unusual in a movie, to really share time like and to kind of watch a train wreck that's about to happen. And because you've gotten to know people on both sides, wish that it wouldn't happen even if you understand that it's inevitable.

CONAN: Yeah. You do a lot of parallel structures, for example, a funeral on both sides and you cut back and forth.

SAYLES: Yeah. The - it's a human story for everybody. Most of the American soldiers who ended up in the Philippines had signed up, if they were volunteers, but even the regular soldiers, thinking they were going to Cuba to free the Cuban people from the yoke of oppression, didn't know where the Philippines were, ended up there.

There was a one-day battle with the Spanish, and then they ended up turning their guns around and saying to the Filipinos, actually, we're not leaving. There was a bait and switch there that a lot of soldiers were pretty bewildered by and the Filipinos were bewildered at first and then eventually just felt like, well, I guess, these are the new people we have to fight to get our independence.

CONAN: Let's go next to Rick and Rick is on the line from San Francisco.

RICK: Hey, John. I followed your work a long time and we have some friends in common. Here's a question. I'm a moving image archivist and filmmaker and for a long time I've tried to work on ways of putting history in front of - especially younger generations who can maybe re-contextualize the present with a little bit of history from it. And one of the things you learn quite quickly is that there is no mainstream historical programming that's aimed at anybody except males 45 plus. There's nothing focused on young people. And in a sense, there's a real generational divide when it comes to thinking historically. And I wondered what your thoughts are about strategies for addressing that.

SAYLES: Well, I think you've just invented a whole new career for yourself. Somebody should do it. One of the difficulties that you get is that history is a hot potato. This particular history was not really taught in the United States. It was also not taught - you know, very, very pointedly not taught in the Philippines when the United States took over their educational system. They did wonderful things with it, made education available to a lot more people, but they left out the Philippine-American War.

So I think for younger audiences, one of the things you have to deal with is that school boards often control the way history is taught and it's very politically charged. I've talked to a lot of historians who are always being taken to task for what they've written, which they feel like this is what happened. This is the truth. How can they change it from not being more celebratory?

RICK: Right. The Enola Gay issue and so on and now, you know, 9/11 again. But I think also fiction is tremendously powerful. And I think a lot of your earlier writing was focused on, certainly, you know, "Union Dues"(ph) and then "Secaucus Seven," a film which was, you know - it wasn't the big show, put it that way.

SAYLES: Yeah. You know, I also think that, like it or not, I certainly learned most of my history from the movies and then had to unlearn it. It's just a fact of life that movies and other media are usually pretty strong images and we learn our history through them even if it's not accurate.

CONAN: Rick, thanks very much for the call.

RICK: Yeah.

CONAN: We're talking with John Sayles, his new film is "Amigo." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Christine(ph) and Christine is calling from Lansing, Michigan.

CHRISTINE: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CHRISTINE: I had a question. I was in the Air Force and I served over in the Philippines in the '90s. And as a dispersing officer, I had a chance every first of the month to meet a lot of the veterans, the Filipino veterans from the war that were getting reimbursement, you know, from the government, the U.S. government. And I was just curious. In your making or producing of your movie and stuff, did you ever get a chance to really get to talk to any of the veterans?

SAYLES: You know, they're getting pretty old now. Actually, I had kind of a moving moment when I was first considering doing the movie. I was driving with a star of "Amigo," Joel Torre, up in northern Luzon. And we were trying to go pass Fort O'Donnell which is right near where the Bataan death camps were.


SAYLES: And what most Americans don't realize is that there were two camps there and that that Bataan death march included almost as many Filipinos as Americans.


SAYLES: Some of them soldiers and some civilians who had come to fight against the Japanese when they invaded Manila. And Joel's father had been in that camp, had been a student who actually fought with the military and later got out and fought with the guerillas a little bit. There - they now have a wall very much like the Vietnam Wall in Washington of the names of the Filipinos who died in that camp or who served there and managed to survive. But, yes, actually, my first contact with the Philippines was my uncle, worked for the Navy and Social Security, and a lot of his clients were Filipino veterans.

I think, you know, if we go back to the history of 1900, our relationship with the Philippines started in a very negative way.


SAYLES: And I think that the World War II experience of Filipinos and Americans fighting side by side, there was a new kind of mutual respect that grew up between those people, you know, both of them risking their lives to free the country. And I think from that point on, Philippine independence was inevitable, even though it may have, you know, been about five or 10 years later than it should have been.

CONAN: Christine...


CONAN: you spoke and dealt with those veterans, how did they remember their experience?

CHRISTINE: Some of them were a little bit shy to talk about it. I don't know if it was because I was a woman. But it was interesting the ones that would actually take the time to sit down and how gracious they were that the U.S. had played a part and as the author has mentioned that the coming together and acting as one instead of being diverse and working, you know, unified, which obviously helped out in the long run. Unfortunately, with now that the Air Force base is no longer there, due to the volcano...

SAYLES: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Due to the volcano, yes. The indispensable Clark Field buried by volcanic ash.

CHRISTINE: Oh, my goodness. That was horrific in itself. But it was really - in my - for my own self as being a veteran now and looking back on it, I'm looking forward to reading or - to reading your books. And seeing and talking about "Amigo," I mean, you just don't hear stuff that interests you as far as what you've experienced. I mean, with me, yes, I didn't experience the war in that aspect, but I got to work with just the veterans. And, yes, I guess, I guess I could just say the biggest thing that came across was their graciousness for unifying.

SAYLES: And I think, you know, you have to remember we've been very luck in the United States. Pretty much since the War of 1812, we haven't been occupied by anybody.


SAYLES: The Philippines has gone through that three times...

CHRISTINE: Yes, right.

SAYLES: ...and hugely traumatic, you know. The - one of the things that "Amigo" is about is about, you know, it's about a village mayor, the amigo of the title, who's got to wake up every morning. You know, his town is being garrisoned. His brother runs the guerillas who are fighting against the Americans and they're just out in the jungle beyond the rice fields. And every morning, he has to make that decision, you know, how much can I cooperate without collaborating? How much can I resist without getting killed?

CONAN: Christine, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

CHRISTINE: Yeah, thank you.

CONAN: John Sayles, good luck with the film.

SAYLES: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: The title is "Amigo," and John Sayles joined us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, we'll start a short series on freshmen reads. We begin with Wes Moore's "The Other Wes Moore." If you read it to get ready for your first semester of college, what did you think of the book? Send us an email, Please put freshmen in the subject line.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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