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THE UNDERRATED PRESIDENT

Learning a thing or two about the Filipino from the eyes of Manuel Quezon

Published

By DOM GALEON

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DEALING WITH CHANCE A scene between Col. Dwight Eisenhower and Pres. Manuel Quezon, played by David Bianco and Raymond Bagatsing, respectively (Star Cinema)

The Filipino people are on the march, toward their destiny, to conquer their place in the sun. —Manuel Luis Quezon, Aug. 19, 1938

Back when I used to teach Philippine history, I came across the recording of Manuel Luis Quezon’s oath-taking as President of the Philippine Commonwealth. Someone uploaded a copy of it on YouTube, which I would play in class. For my students, and even for myself, it was fascinating to hear the voice of someone who lived so long ago (he was sworn in as President in 1935), someone whom many of us see only in black-and-white photographs or in orange-colored 20-peso bills.

Admittedly, I would say very little about Quezon’s time as president— his efforts in helping secure independence from the US, pushing for passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act; how he managed to evade capture by the Japanese at the outbreak of the war in the Pacific. Although I knew that Quezon helped save the lives of over 1,200 German and Austrian Jews by welcoming them as refugees in the Philippines, I don’t think I had ever mentioned that to my class, or if I did it was only in passing.

Looking back, and especially now that I had seen this brilliant film Quezon’s Game, I realize I should probably have mentioned this inspiring episode in his life. But to be honest, I had known very little about what truly happened, how President Quezon managed to secure safe passage from Germany to the Philippines for at least 1,200 Jewish souls, except the fact that he worked very closely with US High Commissioner Paul V McNutt. 

 

 

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RISKING IT ALL Clockwise: The Frieder brothers, Alex and Herbert (Billy Rau Gallion and Tony Ahn), and Paul V. McNutt (James Paoleli), worked hard to secure passage for the Jews despite the risk of losing everything (Star Cinema)

 

From the film, I know now that Dwight Eisenhower, who would later become the chief Allied commander to liberate Europe from the Nazis and then later President of the US, also helped. Then there was the Cincinnati-born cigar manufacturer Alex Frieder. It was he and his brother, Herbert, who supposedly brought the plight of the German and Austrian Jews to the attention of Quezon. And yes, historically, it was over a poker game.

That was where the whole film was built. Quezon’s game referred to both his favorite card game and to the game of chance, of politics, of public opinion that he played to sway the US government into granting visas to the Jews he wanted to save. Yes, I am aware that filmmakers have a creative license to make the narrative a bit more dramatic, but I think it is well within reason to accept the underlying motivation the film presented behind Quezon’s decision to help the Jews: He wanted to be remembered for doing the right thing when everyone else, when even the US and Canada, did not want to lift a finger to help the Jews.

In moments reminiscent of scenes from Schindler’s List, the film presents Quezon, portrayed wonderfully by Raymond Bagatsing who even got the President’s accent almost perfect, grappling with his conscience, torn between doing something to help the Jews and assuring his allies in government who were warning him of the political repercussions of his decision, dejected by the American government’s apathy, burdened by the responsibility to choose who among the Jews could be saved, and bothered by the thought that he could’ve done more.

What the film presents is a very human Manuel Quezon, one who admits to have been politically ambitious, who was often branded as “vain” by both his friends and political foes (most notably, by Emilio Aguinaldo). But it was this same Manuel Quezon who, perhaps brought about by the realization that he didn’t have much time left due to the relapse of his tuberculosis, had a change of heart. His political ambitions were replaced with a genuine desire to do the right thing.

Yet even this was rooted in what Gen. Douglas MacArthur, at least in the film, said was Quezon’s overwhelming “faith in his people.” I am not sure if the American general really said that. What I do know is that Quezon, on more than one occasion, spoke with high regard for the Filipino.

“I have an abiding faith in our people. I know that they have all the faculties needed to become a powerful and enlightened nation,” Quezon said in a speech he gave in 1938. “The Filipino is not inferior to any man of any race. His physical, intellectual, and moral qualities are as excellent as those of the proudest stock of mankind.”

Even with a province and a city named after him, plus a 20-peso bill with his likeness printed in it, Manuel Quezon is an underrated president. Underrated because history—or at least many of us today—seem to have forgotten what he has done to secure our independence from the Americans and his efforts to save a number of Jews from being persecuted in Nazi-occupied Europe. Quezon’s Game, therefore, is a timely film. We need to be reminded of what Filipinos are capable of. We need to remember that we can do so much more.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH QUEZON’S GAME NOW 

By the time you read this, it’s very probable that they’ve already pulled out Quezon’s Game from many of the movie houses. But it is always possible to clamor for the film to be shown again. Here are five reasons why you should watch it.

  1. Because you are a Filipino.

This should go without saying. The film is about one of the most iconic Filipinos who have ever lived. It is also about the Filipino spirit, about how we, as a people, can rise up to the challenge of the times. You’ll learn a thing or two.

     2. Because it is a good story.

And a good film. Quezon’s Game is well made. It has fantastic cinematography, with shots that show the beauty of Las Casas de Acuzar, which mirrors how Manila looked like in the 1930s.

     3. Because it is history.

Every good citizen should be a diligent student of history. You know what they say about the past repeating itself, right? Quezon’s Game serves as a good reminder of past mistakes as well as past victories.

     4. Because we need to show the local film industry that we want quality movies.

It’s about time we, as moviegoers, demand for high caliber local films. Shown side-by-side giant Hollywood titles, Quezon’s Game was able to hold its ground. It’s the kind of movie we need, one that can compete with international films.

    5.  Because we live in a time of great change.

Ours is an era of development, of a refreshed sense of independence as we try to make a mark in this globalized world not as another country’s little brother but as an equal. In as much as Quezon secured our independence, we are securing our spot on the world stage.

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