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‘Lost’ RP film found in US archive

February 23, 2004


A copy of the film “Zamboanga,” a movie about the exotic life of south sea dwellers daringly shot in the remote island of Jolo in 1936 was found recently in the US.

With the recent discovery of the film print, plans are underway to repatriate the film back to the Philippines.

This February, it will be the festival opening film at the “Pelikula at Lipunan” to celebrate the Philippine movie industry’s forthcoming 85th anniversary.

“Zamboanga” was made 60 years ago by two American producers, Eddie Tait and George Harris. It is the first attempt to launch a Philippine-made film for international release.

Hoping that the success of the film would turn the Philippines into the Hollywood of the Orient, they produced, aimed for the American market.

But after its premiere in San Diego, California and its screening in New York on Dec. 10, 1937, nothing has been heard of it.

The film has for decades been considered a lost film, one of the hundreds made before World War II that is irretrievably lost. Until a copy was recently found.

During my last research trip as a senior Fulbright research scholar in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., I was surprised to be informed by a library staff, Zoran Sinobad, that there was a newly-acquired film about the Philippines, and would I be interested to take a look at it? I was lukewarm at the invitation because after years of rummaging through hundreds of film titles in the library’s collection, there must have been at least three films I came across with the name Zamboanga in them. None was the fabled Tait and Harris film. What could possibly make me think that this newly found film was the lost classic?

I only became interested when I was told that the film was newly-struck from an original print that came all the way from Finland. Now there’s a story. Why would a film about the Philippines turn up in a frigid country in the Scandinavian peninsula? Interesting!

My anxiety grew intense as I waited for the print to arrive while my departure date was nearing. But three days before I left, the print finally arrived. To my biggest shock, the film I hoped to find was right before my very eyes! After perhaps 60 years that the film has not been seen by any Filipino, there I was watching the film alone in the darkened viewing room of the archive. It was a thrill of a lifetime!

I sat spellbound for 65 minutes watching the young Fernando Poe display his masculine physique and the beauteous Rosa del Rosario glow in the well-photographed black-and-white film. Patterned in the genre of the south sea film made famous by Robert Flaherty’s “Moana,” the film capitalized on tales of exoticism. It showed the picturesque sea and the captivating landscape and with warring tribes and a kidnapped maiden to hook the audience’s attention.

The discovery of “Zamboanga” brings only to four the feature-length films made in the Philippines that survived the catastrophic war. A few hundred others failed to make it. Its rarity gives the film its aura of significance. The film joins the distinguished line-up of pre-war films “Tunay na Ina” (1938), “Pakiusap” (1938) and “Giliw Ko” (1938). But none beats “Zamboanga’s” production date of 1936. It is truly the mother of all studio-made films in the country!

Historically, “Zamboanga” came at a crucial moment in the history of filmmaking in the Philippines. Tait and Harris revolutionized local filmmaking when they established the first film studio, Filippine Films, in 1932. Their act ushered in the studio system that made it possible for subsequent native-owned studios like the LVN, Sampaguita, Premiere and Lebran to bring Philippine movies to their “golden era” in the ’50s.

Starting their career first as circus showmen, the two Americans later embarked on film production with the high hope of one day turning the Philippines into becoming Asia’s enviable film capital. Upon teaming up with George Harris, the former producer of Hollywood’s celebrated director, Frank Capra, Eddie Tait introduced technical innovations that upgraded the fledgling native film industry. The two brought with them not only up-to-date technology and expertise but also capital and the necessary clout to produce quality films.

Underwater photography

To make “Zamboanga,” the two Americans engaged themselves in nine months of film production in Jolo, the second largest island in the Sulu Sea. An American mestizo from Manila was employed to direct the film, Eduardo de Castro. William H. Jansen, a local cameraman, shot the film made stunning by his remarkable underwater photography.

When the principal photography was done, Harris brought the negatives to Hollywood in April 1937 and commenced the film’s post production. Louis R. Morse did the sound recording, Ralph Dixon did the editing and Dr. Edward Kilenyi was hired to do the musical scoring.

Exotic tale, native cast

Running for 65 minutes and shot in 35mm, the film is about a sea-faring tribe where a kindly and well-loved Datu Tanbuong rules. The tribe’s main occupation is pearl fishing. Danao (played by Poe), a handsome young pearl fisher, is betrothed to Minda (played by del Rosario), the datu’s granddaughter. Upon Danao’s return with a handful of impressive pearls, the datu announces a celebration.

Among those invited is Hadji Razul, a cruel and lustful ruler of another tribe of piratical Moros living in another island. Engaged in piracy and looting, he has illicit relations with a renegade American Captain, owner of a small trading schooner, who delivers him smuggled Chinese coolies.

Danao and Hadji fight over Minda when Hadji abducts the maiden during one of Danao’s diving expeditions. A tribal war ensues and peace was only restored when Danao rescues his woman and Hadji is killed. The ending shows the newly-married couple sailing into the sunset.