President Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado) together with his Prime Minister Apolinario Mabini (Epi Quizon) and the whole presidential cabinet are debating the issue of the American presence in the Philippines. Felipe Buencamino (Nonie Buencamino) and Pedro Paterno (Leo Martinez) support a trade with Americans while General Antonio Luna (John Arcilla) and General José Alejandrino (Alvin Anson) want to wage war to gain independence for the Philippines. Luna asks the cabinet to authorize a pre-emptive strike while the Americans have yet to land their ground troops. Aguinaldo however assured his cabinet that the Americans had promised to help win freedom from their Spanish overlords. Unfortunately, the Americans have invaded key cities in Manila, indicating a possible war against the Filipinos.
Luna and his trusted comrades – General José Alejandrino, Colonel Francisco “Paco” Román (Joem Bascon), Captain Eduardo Rusca (Archie Alemania), Captain José Bernal (Alex Medina) and Major Manuel Bernal (Art Acuña) – embark on an arduous campaign against the invading American forces. During an intense battle against American troops led by General Arthur MacArthur Jr. (Miguel Faustmann) and General Elwell Otis (E.A. Rocha), Luna asks for reinforcements from the Kawit Battalion but its commander, Captain Pedro Janolino (Ketchup Eusebio), refuses to comply because the order did not come from President Aguinaldo himself. Luna angrily rides to Janolino's camp, humiliates him in front his men, and dismisses the battalion for insubordination. Luna then assembles an army of 4,000 soldiers by declaring his infamous "Article One", stating that all who refuse to follow his orders shall be executed without the benefit of a trial in a military court. He also recruits Lieutenant García (Ronnie Lazaro) after seeing his marksmanship skills, and makes him commander of his elite unit of sharpshooters.
As the war drags on, Buencamino and Paterno indicate their support of a proposal by the Americans for Philippine autonomy. Enraged by this, Luna orders their arrest. Luna’s campaign is undermined by General Tomás Mascardo (Lorenz Martinez), who opposes Luna's order for reinforcements, stating that he will only follow the President's direct orders. While the two generals are about to clash in Pampanga, the Americans advance steadily as other Filipino generals like Gregorio del Pilar (Paulo Avelino) retreat to the north. Luna visits Aguinaldo and Mabini to file his resignation, knowing that Buencamino and Paterno had been set free. Aguinaldo refuses to accept his resignation, but agrees to let Luna establish a headquarters for the Philippine Army in the north.
Later, Luna is summoned by a telegram to the President’s headquarters in Cabanatuan. Although his officers are suspicious, Luna rides to Cabanatuan, bringing only Román and Rusca with him. Most of the soldiers had already left headquarters under Aguinaldo's orders, with the exception of some elements of the Kawit Battalion. Luna discovers upon arrival that Aguinaldo had already left and only Buencamino remains in the office. As they exchange heated words, a single shot is fired outside. Luna investigates and encounters Captain Janolino and his men, who attack him. Luna is shot, stabbed, and hacked repeatedly to death. Román is also killed while a wounded Rusca surrenders to the Kawit soldiers. Most of Luna's remaining loyal officers are arrested, while some are killed, including the Bernal brothers.
As ordered by Aguinaldo, Luna and Román are buried with full military honors by the Kawit Battalion - the same men who killed them. Mabini, who is among the mourners, notices a bloodied Bolo of one of the soldiers; however, the Kawit Battalion would be exonerated thereafter.
While American newspapers quickly blame Aguinaldo for the death of Luna, after the war an aged Aguinaldo denies his involvement on the assassination; he acknowledges Antonio Luna as his most brilliant and most capable general. MacArthur and Otis acknowledge Luna as a worthy adversary, laughing at the fact that the Filipinos killed the only real general they had.
In the mid-credits scene, General Gregorio del Pilar makes ready to cover Aguinaldo's retreat to the north. He gathers Luna's remaining men and orders his aide to select 60 of them.John Arcilla as Gen. Antonio Luna
Mon Confiado as President Emilio Aguinaldo
Joem Bascon as Col. Francisco "Paco" Román
Art Acuña as Maj. Manuel Bernal
Alex Medina as Capt. José Bernal
Archie Alemania as Capt. Eduardo Rusca
Ronnie Lazaro as Lt. García
Arron Villaflor as Joven Hernando, the film's POV character, a fictional journalist interviewing Luna.
Mylene Dizon as Isabel, a composite character of several of the historical Luna's love interests.
Carlo Aquino as Col.Vicente Enriquez
The first draft of Heneral Luna was written in 1998 by E.A. Rocha and Henry Hunt Francia, who chose to write about Antonio Luna after being hired by Cirio Santiago to write a television script for a television series in celebration of the centennial of Philippine independence. When the series failed to push through, Rocha and Francia were asked to rewrite the script as a feature-length film. The film did not go into production, however, and was shelved for seventeen years. Francia died before the film's release. Eventually, Leo Martinez convinced Rocha to submit the script to the Film Development Council of the Philippines.
Jerrold Tarog, who had separately developed an interest in making a film about Antonio Luna after reading literature about him, learned about the Rocha and Francia script, and asked if he could use it for his planned film. Tarog got permission to re-write the script, which was originally written entirely in English, and then asked fellow director Alvin Yapan to help translate it into formal Tagalog. Tarog then tweaked the script further, simplifying it, and adapting it further for the appreciation of modern audiences.
Notably, one of Tarog's later changes was to separate the Mascardo and Janolino characters, which at one point had been merged into a composite character, "Mascolino", who would have taken on characteristics of both historical characters. Tarog indicated that separating the characters would help flesh the film out further, and give it more highlights.
The characters of Paco Román and Eduardo Rusca, who were portrayed in a character triptych with Luna in the film, were written to be polar opposites. Román would be a more controlled, logical character who would help bring out a more controlled side of Luna, while Rusca would be a more passionate character who could provide moments of levity throughout the film.
In an interview on Filipino music website Radio Republic, Tarog, who has a degree in music composition from the College of Music at the University of the Philippines Diliman, indicated that he approached Heneral Luna, as with all his other films, from a musical perspective. He revealed that he sometimes even did so literally - using a musical staff to lay out scenes, plotting out highs and lows, with notes corresponding scenes, and the pitch of the note corresponding to the mood.
Among Tarog's references during the rewriting of the script were Philippine National Artist Nick Joaquin's A Question of Heroes, which he used as a guide to the film's tone and in humanizing the character of the titular protagonist; and Vivencio José's The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna, which Tarog used as the primary source on Antonio Luna's life.
Before meeting with Rocha regarding revising the script for the film, Tarog approached mainstream producers to do the film; he was however met with skepticism and doubts over the film's marketability, as they assumed that such a historical film "will be boring" or would not appeal to a mainstream audience. Tarog expressed difficulty into convincing them otherwise, lamenting that the local film industry has been institutionalized into producing films solely for entertainment, without taking into account those that "contribute to the minds of the people".
The film was bankrolled by businessman Fernando Ortigas' film production outfit Artikulo Uno Productions, which takes its name from the Philippine-American War military directive, prominently referenced in the Heneral Luna film. Ortigas himself makes a brief cameo in the film. Ortigas and Rocha served as co-producers of the film. Ortigas remarked that if he would have received the script for the film a week earlier than he did, he would have just junked the script because he was not in a good state of mind to work with films at that time. He comments that the script arrived "at the right time" and said he enjoyed it.
The film went through a long pre-production phase, which allowed the film's various departments to cope with the challenges of filming a period film in contemporary settings. With roughly 90% of the film needing to be shot on location, the film required extensive location shoots in the few areas in the Philippines which still matched the architecture and environment of the period.
Speaking at a press conference for 2015 Quezon City International Film Festival, at the beginning of the film's fourth week, Producer and co-writer E.A. Rocha noted that no expense was to be spared in getting "only actors suited for the role" instead of big-name stars. Tarog said his experiences on watching John Arcilla's performance in Raymond Red's short film Anino and later in the feature film Metro Manila later influenced him to cast Arcilla as General Luna.
To keep costs down and cope with the requirements of shooting a historical film in modern settings, the film hewed close to its very tightly planned shotlist. Tarog revealed that he designed his shots to reflect the two sides of Luna's personality - mostly straightforward shots to reflect his bluntness, and longer steadicam shots in moments that revealed his poetic side.
Cinematographer Pong Ignacio drew inspiration from paintings from the film's period, including Antonio Luna's brother, Juan, and referenced numerous films portraying trench warfare, citing Stanley Kubrick's 1957 film Paths of Glory as a particular inspiration. Ignacio recounts that the flashback scene to Luna's childhood, which was a single long steadicam shot involving an elaborate set, was the most challenging shot of the film.
Makeup and prosthetics for the film referred extensively to actual pictures of the historical characters. Arcilla had to grow out his moustache for the film, while Confiado lost significant weight for the role. Confiado also had to spend a long time looking for a barber who could render Aguinaldo's iconic haircut well. Carmen Reyes, who oversaw the makeup and prosthetics for the film, revealed that the makeup for Bing Pimintel, who portrays Luna's mother in two time periods, was particularly challenging. She also added that the choice to portray General Mascardo with only a partially formed moustache was symbolic, reflecting his frustration about being overshadowed by Luna.
Visual effects company BlackBurst Inc was tasked to take on the film's visual effects, often in an effort to make a scene shot in a modern location fit seamlessly into the period storytelling of the film.
In many cases, BlackBurst removed modern elements such as electric wires from houses and other backgrounds shot on location, or changed details, such as roof shingles on buildings, to match the period. In other cases BlackBurst added digital set extensions, notably the ships in the scene of the Americans arriving in Manila, early in the film. All of the ships were added digitally using Autodesk Maya, and crafting that particular effect took the entire production timetable.
Background CEO Jauhn Dablo, who also served as the film's visual effects director, revealed that Tarog was very meticulous about the effects, paying attention even to the angle, power, and timing of individual gun shots.
Aside from taking on duties as the film's director, co-writer, and editor, Tarog also composed the score of the film, drawing inspiration from numerous Russian classical composers, beginning with Igor Stravinsky mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Ebe Dancel, Tarog's fellow alumnus from the UP Rural High School in Los Baños, Laguna, was commissioned to write and perform the movie’s theme song, "Hanggang Wala Nang Bukas" (Until there's no Tomorrow) which was published in October 2015 under Star Music.
Pre-release screenings of the film were held at selected venues in the United States; August 30, 2015 in Anthology Film Archives Cinema in New York City and AMC Rio Cinema in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C.; August 31, 2015 in Marina Theater in San Francisco and Krikorian Monrovia Cinema in Los Angeles, California. The film was also screened at the Philippine Consulate General in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on August 30.
The film was released with the tagline "Bayan o Sarili" (Tagalog, "Nation or Self?"), a tagline later used by fans on social media to criticize theaters who had pulled the film out in favor of mainstream films.
Much of the public interest in the film came from word of mouth and social media.
By September 19, the film's official trailer posted on YouTube has garnered over 1 million views.
The film's general release in the Philippines nationwide began on September 9, 2015.
After initially opening in about 100 theaters, Heneral Luna was pulled out in many theaters entering its second week, mostly to make way for the Hollywood and mainstream films that were scheduled to open. Down to around 40 cinemas, fans of the film rallied on social media and appealed to theater owners - especially the SM, Ayala and Robinsons cinema chains - to provide more venues for the film.
On the opening of its second week, the film was shown to 79 theaters in the Philippines and then was increased to 94 by the weekends due to the increase of popularity. Word of mouth, critical acclaim, and social media coverage boosted the film's popularity, resulting in sold-out theaters nationwide - prompting cinema owners to show it again in their theaters.
Since its theatrical release on September 9, 2015, Heneral Luna has made ₱180 in million gross sales at the box office - only ₱20 million short of the ₱200 million it needs to be able to break even at the box office, after cinemas' cut in ticket sales have been considered. On September 29, 2015, it passed the ₱160 million mark to become the highest grossing Filipino historical film of all time.
As an independent film, Heneral Luna had a limited marketing budget, resulting in relatively low sales in its first week - ₱15 million from September 9 to 15, 2015.
Due to positive word of mouth, ticket sales surged on Heneral Luna's second release week, earning ₱44 million from September 16 to 22. despite the reduction in the number of theaters showing the film early in that week. The distributor of the film, Joji Alonso, noted that “the 1st day gross of the second week is way higher than the 1st day gross of the 1st week. And to think the number of theaters was reduced by more than half!”
On the third week, when even mainstream films normally see a drop in box office sales, Heneral Luna's numbers surged even higher, earning ₱104,010,219 from September 23 to 29.
By the beginning of its fourth week, the film was averaging gross box office sales of about ₱8.5 million a day.
A nationwide DVD release of Heneral Luna was done by distributor Magnavision, Inc. on December 18, 2015. Over 7,000 DVD copies of the film were sold in less than a month since its release making it the best-selling DVD of any Filipino historical film in the Philippines. Among the bonus features of the DVD are English subtitle, a music video for the film's official theme song, "Hanggang Wala Nang Bukas" by Ebe Dancel, a making of - documentary, and a short film entitled Illustrado Problems directed by JP Habac, which featured the illustrado characters from Heneral Luna in a comedic light. On June 11, 2016, the film was broadcast for the first time on television through the ABS-CBN network. Artikulo Uno Productions and ABS-CBN Corporation earlier announced a partnership to distribute Heneral Luna on all platforms of ABS-CBN including free-to-air, cable, global, video on demand, and pay per view.
A forum dubbed as “The Heneral Luna Revolution: Game Changer in Film Distribution” was held at Cinema 1 of Trinoma on October 27, 2015. The forum co-presented by QCinema and InterAksyon.com mainly tackled about the box office success of Heneral Luna and how could other indie films replicate this feat. The forum was moderated by InterAksyon.com editor-in-chief Roby Alampay and led by panel members director Jerrold Tarog and associate producers Vincent Nebrida and Ria Limjap.
Heneral Luna received mostly positive reviews from film critics in the Philippines and historians alike.
Historian and former National Commission for Culture and the Arts chair Ambeth Ocampo strongly recommended the film, calling it "an engaging narrative, supported by wonderful cinematography and grounded on sound historical research." He added that "When I previewed the film, I commented that it should not open with a disclaimer simply because it is a cinematic retelling of what many consider textbook history and is not a doctoral dissertation."
Comparisons have been drawn between Arcilla's portrayal of Luna in the film, and that of the character he played in John Sayles' 2010 film "Amigo", which was also set during the Filipino American War, albeit on a much smaller scale - depicting the war as it was experienced in a single Barrio.
Philippine Daily Inquirer Arts and Books editor Lito B. Zulueta suggests that "By focusing on arguably the most rugged—and therefore the most dynamic—figure of the Philippine war against the American invaders, Jerrold Tarog’s 'Heneral Luna' revives the historical action movie and in effect, revitalizes two dormant genres—the action film and more important, the historical film." Michael Kho Lim from the Daily Tribune also gave a positive review, saying “Timely as it is significant. John Arcilla breathes life to Luna. Complex. Poetic. Gripping.”
Rappler critic Oggs Cruz calls the film “precise in its storytelling and in its depiction of the major players of the revolution," furthering that "John Arcilla is excellent. Tarog makes his character human… and creates an essay of everything that is wrong with our nationhood. Tarog’s Heneral Luna is fascinating, beautiful to gaze at, and genuinely affecting.” ClickTheCity critic Philbert Ortiz Dy gave the film 5 out of 5 stars, saying "Beyond its obvious technical achievement, Heneral Luna is worth seeing for its audacious approach to tackling our country’s tragic history. All at once bold, artful, darkly funny, informed and deeply entertaining, it makes the revolution come alive in surprising, delightful ways. This film triumphs in capturing the spirit of its subject, the whole enterprise fueled with a heady mix of rage, irreverence and a genuine love of country. It is everything that an Antonio Luna biopic should be.”
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator gives the film a score of 71% based on 7 reviews, with an average rating of 5.2 out of 10.
Heneral Luna received a Grade A from Cinema Evaluation Board of the Philippines.
A number of visual motiffs throughout film have symbolic significance, particularly for audiences familiar with the History of the period and Filipino culture.
A Philippine revolutionary flag is displayed prominently in the film's bookend scenes, becoming dirtier and more ragged when the film reverts to its framing device as the events of the film unfold. The burning flag during the end credits is a poignant experience for Filipino audiences, as flag-burning is not legal under the 1987 Filipino constitution.
In a scene towards the end of the film, the bodies of Luna and Román are dragged across the courtyard in a manner highly reminiscent of the Spoliarium, a painting which has served as artistic icon of Filipino nationalism, painted in 1884 by Luna's own brother, Juan Luna.
Patricio Mercado-Noel, author of Was Aguinaldo Really An Arrogant Imbecile? A Critique of Nick Joaquin's "A Question of Heroes" and "Heneral Luna" the Film, questioned the accuracy of the movie, particularly in its negative portrayal of Aguinaldo as a clueless and dormant leader. He cites two of Aguinaldo's correspondences, prior to the Philippine-American War, in which Aguinaldo explicitly states to General Juan Cailles, Felipe Buencamino, and Gregorio Araneta, that he was aware that war with the Americans was "coming sooner or later" and that he felt that the Americans were "playing us until the arrival of their reinforcements". In the film, however, Aguinaldo is shown as trusting the U.S. ambassador's assurances given to him, during his exile in Hong Kong.
Mercado-Noel also pointed out that, contrary to the film's suggestion (in the opening scene), Aguinaldo had begun preparations for war with the Americans in Intramuros. He cites secret orders given to General Pantaleón García by Aguinaldo, before the Philippine-American War, in which Aguinaldo instructs García to build trenches and to familiarize himself with his military plan, containing 12 detailed articles, for a surprise offensive within Intramuros, in coordination with Filipino forces outside the city walls. His research suggests that the shortages of armaments, even before the fall of Intramuros, and an uprising in Tarlac, played a major role in the delay of the planned attack on the Americans in the city.
With much of the film based on the works of Vivencio R. Jose, the film not only stayed true to the broad historical narrative, but to lesser known elements of Luna's personality, such as his penchant for musical instruments, his close relationship to his mother, his love of women, and his passion for the Philippine countryside.
Tarog described the film as an "attempt to identify the ills" of Philippine society, emphasizing that the Filipinos' biggest enemy has been their own selves and not necessarily colonialization, and has been in "a cycle of betrayal".
In one of the press conferences for the film's release, Tarog noted that the film took minor creative liberties such as Antonio Luna's frequent usage of the Filipino profanity such as the word putang ina (roughly translated as "son of a bitch") in the film in an effort to connect the film to the Filipino millennial generation which was the film's target audience. There were also inaccuracies in the film's battle scenes. In its depiction of the Battle of Santo Tomas, the Filipinos are shown to be victorious against the Americans when in fact it was the Americans who won and they only suffered two casualties. Also, the man who saved Luna after his brave charge on horseback wasn't Colonel Roman as depicted in film, but was actually Alejandro Avecilla.
Historian and columnist John Nery notes that an important part of Luna's personal history, his non-support of the first phase of the Philippine revolution - is not mentioned in the film, although he also notes that the event takes place outside the movie's timeframe, and the film does not contradict it. Notes Nery, "Luna’s atonement is not part of the movie’s backstory (although on viewing the movie a second time I imagined it would easily fit the movie’s main narrative). Does this lessen director Jerrold Tarog’s work, or lead actor John Arcilla’s art? I do not think so, because the movie approaches the Luna story on its own terms."
One of the creative liberties taken by the film with the historical timeline is that it portrays Apolinario Mabini as still holding a position of leadership at Luna's funeral, in June 1899; historically, however, Mabini had been pressured by his political adversaries into resigning from government a month earlier, in May 1899, replaced in his post as Prime Minister by Pedro Paterno. The film portrays the relationship between Mabini and Pedro Paterno as amicable.
Isabel and conspiracy theories related to Ysidra Cojuangco
In an interview with CNN Philippines' Pia Hontiveros, Tarog revealed that the name of the character Isabel, played by Mylene Dizon, is "a wink" to conspiracy theorists who believe there was a relationship between Luna and Ysidra Cojuangco. According to the theory, made popular early in the term of President Benigno Aquino III, who is a descendant of Cojuangco, money squirreled away by Luna from the revolution was actually the source of the Cojuangco family fortune. However, Tarog also revealed that he found no evidence of any such relationship between Ysidra and Luna, and that the name was thus nothing more than a humorous reference. Instead, Tarog revealed that Dizon's character was a composite of several of Luna's lovers and Nicolasa Dayrit, the woman who tried to intervene between Mascardo and Luna during their argument.
Given the socio-political nature of the film's themes, and the production's success relative to the majority of the Philippines' indie films and historical films, numerous aspects of the public reception to the film have been covered in media.
One of the more unusual aspects of the public response to Heneral Luna was the successful campaign to put the film back in theaters. At first, more than half of the theaters that premiered the movie on September 9 had pulled it out after less than 5 days, which is typical practice for commercial movie theaters showing independent Filipino films. By September 16, only 40 of the 101 theaters that premiered it were still showing it. This resulted in a clamor among netizens and artists to bring the film back. This helped create word of mouth publicity for the film after its first week, resulting in packed cinemas on the film's first weekend. As a result, cinemas decided to screen the film again, with second and third week box office results significantly higher than the first. By the end of the film's first weekend, Heneral Luna was showing in 120 cinemas - higher than the number of cinemas that originally screened it.
The film's popularity has also led to some criticism of the Philippine educational system, due to reports of numerous incidents - including one during a Q&A with actor Epy Quizon, who portrayed Apolinario Mabini in the film - in which school-age youths asked why Mabini never stood up throughout the film, implying a lack of familiarity with the famously paralytic statesman. President Benigno Aquino III noted this as well. In the 2015 Gawad Apolinario Mabini awarding ceremonies on September 29, 2015, he noted the issue was "a reflection of how little some of the youth know about history," considering Mabini's intelligence played a role in building the Philippines' democratic institution. He later hinted about tasking Education Secretary Armin Luistro to resolve the impasse.
A number of historians have noted that the Film's portrayal of Emilio Aguinaldo is more negative than it thought to be by the viewers due to the plot. Reacting to the film, Transport secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya, who is one of Aguinaldo's descendants, said that he maintains his belief that his great grandfather did not assassinate Luna.
However, the director has indicated that one of the hopes of the planned trilogy is to present a more rounded portrayal of Aguinaldo. Actor Mon Confiado was given specific instructions never to portray Aguinaldo as a villain - while the audience might see him as a villain because of the plot, the portrayal itself would hinge on character motivations, such as the need for self-preservation, and never simple villainy.
Upon learning that bootleg copies of the film were already circulating, the cast and crew of the film campaigned on social media to discourage potential viewers from buying unlicensed copies of the film, and were soon joined by fans posting image macroes and other such memes encouraging viewers to support the film instead of unauthorized copies. The Optical Media Board and the Philippine National Police made raids against the distribution of illegal DVD copies of the film.
Noting the breakout success of Heneral Luna, director Jerrold Tarog said there are plans to make it the first of a trilogy if it generated enough revenues. The other two films would individually focus on Gregorio del Pilar and Manuel L. Quezon. Tarog likened the mid-credits scene of Heneral Luna to mid- or end-credit scenes of films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that show potential plot points in an upcoming film. Tarog has also expressed interest in making a film featuring female revolutionary Teresa Magbanua, who led troops in the Visayas region during the war.
At an interview on Radio Republic, Tarog indicated that his next project as a director would either be an adaptation of Arnold Arre's The Mythology Class, or the sequel to Heneral Luna, whose title he revealed to be Goryo (which would eventually be changed later to Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral) , confirming that it would focus on Gregorio del Pilar. At a special thanksgiving party on October 29, 2015 - Antonio Luna's 149th birth anniversary - co-producer EA Rocha confirmed that the del Pilar biopic is "in development" with a projected release scheduled in a few years time.
On February 6 2017, Tarog announced through his Twitter account that a short film bridging the events of Heneral Luna to that of Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral would be released on February 15 alongside the film I'm Drunk, I Love You. The 20-minute short film, titled Angelito, would focus on the fate of the Bernal brothers after Luna's assassination; with Paulo Avelino, Alex Medina and Art Acuña resuming their roles in Heneral Luna.