Thursday, June 19, 2014


Today being the 153rd birthday of Jose Protacio Rizal, I’ve dug up a series of columns I wrote nearly two decades ago, at about the time I was writing the script of a film with the working title Dapitan. The title became Rizal sa Dapitan when the film was shown. The film, directed by Tikoy Aguiluz, starred Albert Martinez as Rizal and Amanda Page as Josephine Bracken.

Here’s the first column, which is really more about film adaptations of historical material.

Jose F. Lacaba
Manila Times, December 28, 1996

Messing with history

“ARE filmmakers,” a recent Associated Press feature asks, “beholden to historical accuracy?”

The question has cropped up in connection with a new film, The English Patient, touted by critics as among the best of 1996. It’s a question that has always bothered me, having written or co-written a number of screenplays based on true-life stories about real people.

The English Patient  is based on a novel by Michael Ondaatje—in other words, on a work of fiction, a work of the imagination, not a history. But the principal character, Count Laszlo de Almasy, a Hungarian in wartime North Africa, happens to be a historical figure.

As played by Ralph Fiennes, Almasy is, in the words of the AP report, “a brooding, handsome dreamer—a haunted desert explorer who pursues the woman he loves obsessively and collaborates with Nazis in a last attempt to save her life.”

That creates a problem. The real Almasy, according to the daughter of a Hungarian diplomat in wartime Egypt, was a willing collaborator who gave the Nazis lists of people to be arrested.

Elizabeth Pathy Salett, the diplomat’s daughter, describes the film as “amoral and ahistorical” and contends that “movies like this should be more faithful to what actually happened.”

The problem, as I have discovered in my other incarnation as a screenwriter, is that it is devilishly difficult to be faithful to what actually happened when you’re writing drama. You have to bend reality a bit because your producers and your audience expect heightened action and raging passion where historical records show only uneventfulness and anticlimax.

In Operation: Get Victor Corpus, the Rebel Soldier, for which I did the first draft of the script (but don’t blame me for the kilometric title), history was a little skirmish between an army unit and a small band of New People’s Army guerrillas, according to my informant, Victor Corpus himself. Cinema was a slew of helicopters dropping bombs, deafening explosions, and stuntmen somersaulting all over the jungle.

In Eskapo, for which (again) I did the first draft of the script, history was two escaped political prisoners hiding in the trunk of a car that succeeded in leaving a prison camp without incident, according to my informants, Geny Lopez and Serge Osmeña themselves. Cinema was guards learning of the escape at the exact moment when the car goes past the prison-camp gate, then firing at the wildly fleeing car.

In Dapitan, a film-in-progress for which I did the third and fourth drafts of the script, history was two politico-military commandants named Ricardo Carnicero and Juan Sitges with contrasting attitudes toward their prisoner, Jose Rizal. The fourth-draft script has an unnamed composite character identified as Komandante.

A hyper-realistic script on Rizal’s four years of exile in Dapitan would have to be written in many languages—the Spanish of Rizal’s “jailers” and Jesuit mentors; the Hongkong English of Josephine Bracken; the Laguna Tagalog of Rizal’s sisters; the Cebuano Visayan native to Dapitan; plus German, French, Italian, Latin, even a smattering of Hebrew, the languages that the polyglot Rizal used in his correspondence with Ferdinand Blumentritt and other European scientists.

Not being a polyglot, I made do with dialogue that is mostly Spanish-flavored Tagalog—no ngunits, subalits, and marahils—but shifts to English when Josephine comes into Rizal’s life.

In my own defense, I can only say that the explosions in Victor Corpus and the gunfire in Eskapo were not in my script drafts, but even if they were, I wouldn’t have been the first to mess with history for cinematic purposes.

The real Bonnie and Clyde were small-time hoods, not the tragic, romantic lovers portrayed by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

The real Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were nondescript gunslingers, not the glamorous outlaws played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

The real Pocahontas was not—according to Everything You Know Is Wrong by Paul Kirchner—a sexy Disney cartoon with “Barbie-like figure and attire,” but a girl of only 11 or 12 years old at the time in question, who “would have gone around almost naked.”

In the journal that screenwriter-director Neil Jordan kept while filming Michael Collins, he speaks of creating a composite character, the double agent played by Stephen Rea, who dies violently midway in the film. But this character was given the name of an actual double agent who lived on to a ripe old age, outliving Michael Collins himself, whose death ends the film.

Filmmakers aren’t the only ones who have shown little respect for historical accuracy. Shakespeare himself was never bothered by the question raised by Associated Press. The real King Macbeth of Scotland, for instance, was not the murderous whoreson depicted in the play, and he didn’t die when Birnam wood came to Dunsinane, according to the Reader’s Digest Book of Facts.

“Far from being an ambitious usurper, as Shakespeare describes him, Macbeth had a claim to the Scottish throne which was at least as good as that of his rival, Duncan. Furthermore, Duncan was killed in open battle in 1040 and not murdered by Macbeth as Shakespeare’s play claims. In fact Duncan was a young, ineffectual king—not Shakespeare’s venerable and gracious sovereign. And after Macbeth seized the throne by force, he went on to reign for 17 prosperous years, from 1040 to 1057, when he was killed by Duncan’s son Malcolm III.”

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