Today, September 28, 2008, is the 107th anniversary of the Battle of Balangiga, known to American historians in the past as the Balangiga massacre and to Filipinos today as the Balangiga Victory, one of the few Filipino victories in the Philippine-American War.
Early in 2002, after the celebration of the centennial year of that historic event in Balangiga, Samar, I was commissioned by film director Chito Roño, who is from Samar, to write a screenplay about the Balangiga incident. This was the time when there was a campaign to recover the bells of the Balangiga church that American soldiers had carted off to Wyoming, U.S.A., in the wake of the incident in Balangiga and the subsequent retaliatory devastation of Samar.
Chito, with whom I had earlier worked on the film Eskapo (about the escape of Geny Lopez and Serge Osmeña from a martial-law prison during the Marcos dictatorship), provided me with a lot of research materials on Balangiga and got me in touch with Prof. Rolando Borrinaga, the historical expert on the subject. I subsequently submitted a storyline (synopsis), a sequence treatment (which is how Filipino filmmakers used to refer to a scene-by-scene breakdown of the proposed script), and a first-draft screenplay, which I finished writing in October of 2002.
I would learn later that Butch Dalisay had also done a screenplay on the same subject for director Gil Portes.
Ours was supposed to be a Robin Padilla project, and I was told that Robin was studying arnis in preparation for his role as Valeriano Abanador, the hero of Balangiga. Partly because of budgetary problems, partly because of a falling-out between the director and the possible producer, the project got shelved. Other producers and directors have expressed an interest in my first-draft screenplay, but even in these days of relatively inexpensive digital filmmaking, the budget for a period film and war epic requiring American actors and period costumes remains daunting. So I guess the screenplay of BALANGIGA will have to remain in the realm where dream projects decompose.
For all it’s worth, here’s the storyline that I wrote.
Jose F. Lacaba
SEPTEMBER 28, THE PRESENT. Church bells are ringing. In an annual ritual, residents of the town of Balangiga, on Samar island, reenact a century-old incident that put their small town in the history books. It is an incident that American military chroniclers once labeled the Balangiga Massacre, but one that Filipino historians are beginning to call the Battle of Balangiga, or the Balangiga Victory. In documentary footage, we see Filipino men dressed in women's clothes reenacting an attack on American soldiers. ...
September 28, the year 1901. We see the attack as it must have happened. Residents of Balangiga, reinforced by revolutionists from neighboring towns, attack a company of American soldiers in this remote outpost of Empire. The attack occurs at dawn, when the colonial troops are having breakfast; the Filipinos have the element of surprise and overwhelming numbers on their side. But the Filipinos are armed only with bolos and arnis sticks; and the Americans, after their initial shock, are soon evening up the score with Krag rifles and machine guns. ...
In the heat of battle we see some of the protagonists of our story. Two Filipino boys ringing the church bells. Captain Thomas Connell running toward the sea, bolos sticking out of his back, bolomen at his heels. Lieutenant Edward Bumpus dead in a rocking chair, a clump of letters on his lap, blood oozing from his head. Town mayor Pedro Abayan leading the attack on the convent. Francisco, Connell's Filipino houseboy, cowering beneath the convent window. Private Adolf Gamlin firing away from a secure position. Two young Filipino men attempting to hoist down the American flag and being shot down. Casiana "Doday Sana" Nacionales waving her rosary and urging the attackers on. And Valeriano "Valé" Abanador surveying the scene dispassionately, trying to conceal the mixture of rage and sorrow in his heart.
We go back further in time. It is 1899, and Valé is in a Cavite dockyard with fellow martial-arts enthusiasts, going through the motions of an arnis exercise. He learns from some dockhands that an American sentry has shot a Filipino revolutionary soldier in San Juan. Although nobody in the dockyard knows it yet, the Filipino-American War has begun.
We next see Valé in a large baloto (a kind of boat) in the open sea, looking out at the unique formation of islands and islets that the boat must pass through on its way to Balangiga. Back in his hometown, Valé talks to close friends and relatives about life in Manila--and about the new conflict with the new colonizers, the Amerikano. We learn that he joined the Katipunan in Manila (or is it Cavite?).
Soon he is invited to a secret meeting in the house of Pedro Abayan. Here, Captain Eugenio Daza, who is the Revolution's top commander in this part of Samar, updates the gathering on developments in their area of operation. Samar and Leyte have been placed by President Emilio Aguinaldo under the politico-military command of General Vicente Lukban. a Bicolano who is married to a Samareña. The Revolution needs all the help it can get--funds, food, weapons, intelligence information.
In the sala of the Abayan house, while the all-male meeting is going on in a bedroom, a group of women that includes Casiana "Doday Sana" Nacionales is going through the motions of choir practice. The women are covering up for the men's semi-clandestine activity.
Under the auspices of the revolutionary government, an election is held in Balangiga. Among those elected are Abayan, as presidente (town mayor), and Abanador, as "delegate of police" in charge of military intelligence. Both men, incidentally, are related to Daza. In the days that follow, the town officials raise more than 532 pesos, a princely sum in those days, in taxes and war contributions for the Revolution.
The parish priest, Father Donato Guimbaolibot, is aware of what is going on in his town. He's unhappy about the fact that Lukban is a Freemason who has been making things difficult for Catholic priests in other Samar and Leyte towns. But the priest is also a patriot who took part in the movement for the Filipinization of the clergy during the Spanish era, and he is wary of the new Protestant colonizers. He thus tolerates the activities of his lay preachers, Abayan and Daday Sona, who are none too subtly using their parish positions to solicit support for the Revolution.
Meanwhile, Balangiga's fishermen have been coming home with rumors that American troops, currently stationed in the Samar town of Basay, may soon be sending a contingent to Balangiga.
On August 11, 1901, the rumors come true. Company C, an 80-man force commanded by Captain Thomas Connell, arrives in Balangiga on board the rickety boat Liskum. With him are two other American officers--the company doctor, Major Richard Griswold, and and an indefatigable letter writer, First Lieutenant Edward Bumpus. Two Filipinos are also with Company C--Connell's houseboy, Francisco, and an interpreter whom everyone refers to as Lieutenant Macabebe.
Trying to hide their apprehensions, the Balangigan-ons welcome the American troops with cheers and the ringing of church bells. But their apprehensions only intensify with the actions of the occupation troops, who take over the convent and some choice houses and turn these into barracks and officers' quarters, without paying rent. Connell's personality further aggravates the situation. An Irish Catholic, he gets along with Father Guimbaolibot, with whom he plays chess. But he antagonizes most everyone else with his brusque methods and insensitiveness to the local culture.
One of Connell's first official acts is to demand that the whole town take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Father Guimbaolibot, Abayan, and Valé Abanador protest on behalf of the people, but finally decide that the better part of valor at this time is to comply.
Connell then orders all of Balangiga's able-bodied men over 18 to clear up the jungle surrounding the town--a military measure to deprive Filipino guerrillas of possible hiding places. Ostensibly as a health measure, he also orders the cleaning up of the ground underneath the residents' nipa huts, where rural folk traditionally keep and feed their pigs and chickens. To top it all, he compels all these men, after each day's cleaning, to stay inside large tents within sight of the American garrison. There are no beds or chairs inside the tents. Balangiga's men are forced to stand, sit, or squat the whole night, and the women and children have to bring them food.
Some friendships are made, despite the inevitably uneasy relationship between colonizer and colonized. Valé plays chess with Major Griswold and tries to teach the intricacies of arnis, a martial art, to Private Adolf Gamlin, and Sergeant Frank Betron seems to be displaying a romantic interest in the spinster Doday Sana. The cook organizes the neighborhood boys into a baseball team, and Francisco the houseboy is befriended by the church bell ringers.
But boredom and homesickness and perhaps colonizer's guilt begin to take their toll on the American soldiers. Less than a month after coming to Balangiga, Private William Denton disappears, leaving his shoes on the banks of the river, and only later is it discovered that he has defected to the Filipino side. Not long after, Private Schechterle goes crazy and blows his brains out with his Krag. Other soldiers become overly fond of the local coconut wine known as tuba and become rambunctious when drunk. Two drunken soldiers start being too free and easy with the woman tending the store that sells tuba, and end up being beaten up by the menfolk.
It is in the midst of this volatile situation that another secret meeting is held in the house of Pedro Abayan, with Daza and Valé among those in attendance. Plans are made and plans are junked and plans are changed, but finally, on September 28, 1901, the battle plan goes into operation. Valé's battlecry and the ringing of the church bells signal the start of an attack that causes the bloody death of more than half of Company C and the unceremonious retreat by sea of the survivors.
In the unequal battle between Krag and bolo, the casualty count among the Filipinos is even larger, but clearly this is a victory for the people of Balangiga and the army of the Revolution--a brief shining moment of liberation.
It is also a pyrrhic victory. In retaliation for their defeat at Balangiga, American occupation troops under the command of Colonel Jacob "Jake" Smith turn the entire province of Samar into a "howling wilderness." For three bloody months, from October 1901 to January 1902, they wage a kill-and-burn campaign, and any male who is over the age of 10 and capable of carrying a bolo is mercilessly killed. In a symbolic gesture, Colonel Smith's forces cart off, as part of the war booty, the church bells that tolled to signal the attack in the town of Balangiga.
Eventually, General Vicente Lukban is captured, and with his capture Valé Abanador, Pedro Abayan, and Eugenio Daza are forced at different times to surrender. After the population of Samar has been cut down by nearly half, a more liberal colonial policy allows these revolutionists to hold positions in the colonial government. But the ideals of liberation and independence that they fought for do not see fruition until the Stars and Stripes are finally hoisted down from the last remaining American military bases in the late 1980s.
To this day, however, more than a century later, Balangiga's church bells are kept on display at the Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, U.S.A., hostage to a historic grudge fight. The Wyoming state government refuses to give them up despite countless appeals and petitions calling for a return to the Philippines of the freedom bells of Balangiga.