A historian’s perspective: Gen. Malvar could have been the Pacquiao of his day, but... 2
The film's the thing: the screenplay for the controversial biopic. Image from @malvarthemovie on Instagram

A historian’s perspective: Gen. Malvar could have been the Pacquiao of his day, but...

Amidst clan disagreements and conspiracy theories, one historian points out the similarities between the hero and the boxer.
Michael Charleston “Xiao” Chua | Oct 26 2019

Social media erupted when it was announced that a film on the revolutionary hero Miguel Malvar with Manny Pacquiao in the lead role will be made soon To be directed by Kaka Balagtas, the initiative was launched with the help of the Provincial Government of Batangas. Its mock poster touted it as “The Biggest Ever Film Produced in the History of Philippine Cinema”—a claim that grabbed everyone in the collar, including a producer of an earlier historical epic who wondered in a now deleted Facebook post how much money is really being invested in the movie considering she and her co-producers spent about a hundred million in theirs.

A historian’s perspective: Gen. Malvar could have been the Pacquiao of his day, but... 3
The offending poster.

What elicited a lot of the early ill reaction was the mock poster itself. I immediately noticed a silhouette of a sail of a galleon—a vessel that was no longer being used at that time. And although the resemblance of Pacquiao and the bearded general was uncannily striking—at least for me— it was clearly done by superimposing the boxer’s face to the hero’s actual whiskers and uniform.


Clan Wars          

Then came the reaction from one of the relatives of the general, Gabriel Malvar. “Apparently, a relative had unilaterally decided that he would enter into an agreement with outside parties to produce the Malvar film without the express consent of the entire clan. This caught us by surprise,” he said in a social media post. Batangas history buff Derrick Manas said he is in consultation with Gabriel about a planned film and documentary to be made by another Batangueño—Manas’s uncle Leo Martinez, the Director General of the Film Academy of the Philippines.

“The Malvar clan is huge. Lolo Miguel and Lola Ulay had eleven children. Pablo, my grandfather, is the youngest child,” Gabriel added. He pointed out that different lines of direct descendants could’ve been easily informed as representatives were directly accessible to each other.

“As a direct descendant, I am a steward of this illustrious legacy. It is my duty to protect it and ensure that his reputation and what he stood for are not tainted. If I cannot add to it, then at the very least, I should make sure it is not diminished. Miguel Malvar deserves nothing less,” Gabriel continued. “To have a film about my lolo Miguel would be ideal. But a film, although desirable, if not executed well and taints his legacy, would do more harm than good. I prefer not to have a film at all.” Gabriel ended by definitively saying he doesn’t approve of the project.

A historian’s perspective: Gen. Malvar could have been the Pacquiao of his day, but... 4
And they're on: early behind the scenes image from the Malvar biopic. Photograph from ABS-CBN News

“Kami dapat gagawa!” Manas said in a comment to Gabriel’s post. “Pacquiao chose his favorite Director Kaka Balagtas who hasn’t made a film in 12 years to revive his career. When we were invited to the presscon last Monday, my uncle Leo Martinez and I, nagulat kami pati script tapos na! So kako ano pa gagawin namin eh they already took all the job without consulting us though kami ang original na kausap. So I regretted as well what happened.”

On the other side of the debate was another gatekeeper of the Malvar legacy, Prof. Edberto Malvar Villegas and his brother, producer Atty. Jose Malvar Villegas. Ed Villegas was a known militant professor of history at UP Manila and himself co-author of several materials on General Miguel Malvar including Miguel Malvar:  Kumandante Heneral na Lumaban sa Imperyalismong Estados Unidos and Miguel Malvar and the Philippine Revolution:  A Biography. Villegas asserted in a Facebook post that consulting the other relatives is no longer needed for “no one owns the life of the Kumandante-Heneral because history has already claimed him as one of its beloved sons.”

Villegas said the controversy about the casting should not take audiences away from the bigger issues of the film. “If Pacquiao has other political purpose in agreeing to play the role of Malvar, that pales before the fact that this movie will bring into full light the grievous genocidal crimes of the US against another people. For, eventually, all past crimes will be revealed before the unflinching gaze of history and the telling of the tragic fate of the Filipino people in general and Kumandante Heneral Malvar in particular during the Fil[ipino]-American war cannot be prevented even by his own relatives.”


Farmer to fighter

Another mock poster of the film with the picture of Pacquiao and Malvar touts: “Dugong Bayani:  Salinlahi ng Pilipino.” This is perhaps the selling point of the whole enterprise. Malvar and Pacquiao were both hailed as heroes even during their lifetime.

When one looks at the photo of the revolutionary hero, Gen Xers like myself remember a phrase in one of Parokya ni Edgar’s song, “Huwag kang mag-aangas sa lalaking may balbas.” But there’s more to the beard than meets the eye. 

Miguel was born in 1865 in Sto. Tomas, Batangas. He was a school mate of Apolinario Mabini but decided to drop out to follow his entrepreneurial instincts. He first raised poultry and animals. José Rizal’s eldest sister, Saturnina, as well as the Chinese businessman Carlos Palanca lent him money without collateral and this helped him expand his business to include sugar.


A post shared by General Malvar Film (@malvarthemovie) on

He bought farmlands in Sto. Tomas and near Mt. Makiling to plant oranges which became a famous brand around the country, Naranjita-Malvar. His modesty, thriftiness and easygoing manner among people allowed him to double his earnings and become popular in his town. They made him gobernadorcillo, the equivalent of a town mayor.

Malvar, despite being part of government, openly criticized the friars and was frank to the governor general himself. So in the Philippine Revolution of 1896, he disarmed the local guardia to establish his own army. They attacked the Spaniards in a cuartel in Talisay, Batangas, and freed his father in the process. He joined the forces of General Emilio Aguinaldo and was part of the victory at Zapote. After many battles, he became commanding general of Batangas and subsequently, of the whole Southern Luzon command.  

The Spaniards fell. The Americans took-over. He fought in Muntinlupa, Tunasan and many other towns in Laguna. But when President Aguinaldo was captured in 1901, he assumed the presidency of the revolution since he was the second in command, being the commander of the Southern Luzon command. He continued to resist the Americans until 15 April 1902, but after considering the welfare of his family and loyal troops, he went down the mountains of Makiling to accept the offer of peace by General Franklin Bell and was touted as the last general of the Philippine Revolution to surrender to the Americans. (This is technically wrong because General Simeon Ola, surrendered after more than a year and Macario Sakay was captured in 1906.)  

Malvar lived a peaceful life thereafter, shunning the offer of leadership from the Americans, until 1911, when he passed away at the age of 46. His funeral was attended by thousands of people.


Some parallelisms

Looking at Malvar’s life, it is easy to hint why Pacquiao wanted or accepted to play the general’s life. Parallelisms can be drawn from their narratives.  

Malvar and Pacquiao were both hailed as heroes even during their lifetime. I actually count myself as one of the Senator’s admirers. I have explained in a previous article in Filipino why Pacquiao has acquired the image of a bayani because his life story carries the spirit of the ancient “bagani,” or warrior who fights in foreign shores in order to bring home karangalan (honor) ang kaginhawaan (well-being) to the native land. As a boxer, he has given immense honor to the country and is recognized as one of the best boxers in history.


A post shared by General Malvar Film (@malvarthemovie) on

Malvar and Pacquiao benefitted from the generosity of people. For Malvar, Saturnina Rizal and Carlos Palanca. For Pacquiao, several political personalities. Malvar and Pacquiao ventured into entrepreneurial pursuits and similarly, their popularity brought them both into politics, Malvar, locally, and Pacquiao, as a senator of the Republic.

Malvar may be the Pacquiao of his day, yet if there’s one difference in their life stories, Malvar by all accounts was a very modest man, a businessman devoid of greed who silently lived his remaining years in peace. Pacquiao is flamboyant in pursuing other passions—from basketball, to the Bible to co-sponsoring Senate Bills. Pacquiao seems to love the limelight, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.


Politicians and biopics

As I was finishing this essay, I saw another letter from the family of World War 2 guerilla leader Macario Peralta who was objecting to another planned portrayal by the good senator

Yet technically, the approval of an entire clan, or even the experts and gatekeepers, is not needed in any historical film. In this point I agree with Ed Villegas. In many instances, family support have turned life histories into hagiographies. Believe me, people appreciate a complicated portrayal a lot more rather than turning these historical personalities into saints. Permissions from the families were not sought in the filming of recent historical films such as Bonifacio:  Ang Unang Pangulo, Heneral Luna, and Goyo:  Ang Batang Heneral although upon completion parts of the clan may have expressed their thrill. 

Director Jerrold Tarog, although reading through accounts and networking with historians, doesn’t seek approval of the script or treatment from historians or the family members. Although historical accuracy is important and it is ideal to have consultant-experts, in the end, the film is an interpretation of history. It is an art piece whose responsibility rests solely on its creators. Freedom of expression is also provided for in the constitution.

A historian’s perspective: Gen. Malvar could have been the Pacquiao of his day, but... 5
Heneral Luna

But I also agree with Gabriel Malvar on his preference of not having someone involved in politics and public service to portray his ancestor. “When Lolo Miguel returned to the fold, he was offered the position of Governor of Batangas, which he turned down. He was also asked to head the Philippine Constabulary, which he also declined. He wanted to simply live a quiet life as a civilian, to raise his family and be a farmer,” said Gabriel. “I do not think he would have preferred to have his name associated with anyone in politics. I would like his name and legacy totally apart from the political milieu.” He went on to commend the senator’s rags-to-riches story, which helped him become an icon and a global brand. “My fear is that he is larger than life and his character cannot be separated from Manny Pacquiao the person. If he plays Lolo Miguel, the viewers will not be able to see and appreciate my grandfather. Senator Pacquiao’s personality will dominate. That is not a knock on the senator. It is the truth.”

When John Arcilla played Heneral Luna, he was not a major superstar, and with his superb acting abilities, it was Luna the moviegoers saw. In the 1990s Madonna played the “Madonna of the 1940s,” Argentinean First Lady Eva Peron, but she acted well enough that most people saw Evita, too. But even when the high cost of well-produced historical films casted politicians in the lead role, people saw the failings and the flamboyance of the politician distracting from the portrayal of the historical figure. Which makes Gabriel’s fear legit. 

Some also believe Pacquiao’s desire to play Malvar shows his greater plans to hold higher political office. But we are past the era of movies like Iginuhit ng Tadhana, Eskapo, or even Maalaala Mo Kaya: The Rene Cayetano Story that created political fortunes. Political battles are fought today in social media so if higher office is the goal, biopics, or acting in one, may not be the way forward.

Basically, there’s no stopping the film from proceeding, yet there are risks. Because for most Filipinos, Pacquiao would always be the hero who gave honor for the country. Shouldn’t that be enough, many ask. Isn’t it enough that he is already a businessman, a basketball player, a Bible teacher, and a lawmaker? The Filipino audience is more demanding today than ever. I do not question the good senator’s good intentions but people are only wondering if Pacquiao can deliver and give justice to the memory of yet another beloved hero.