One Man’s Hero

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States was aroused to respond to unprovoked aggression. When the United States performed a similar act of aggression against México in 1846 and marched triumphantly in México City in 1848, world public opinion was not mobilized against Washington. The Mexican War has been forgotten north but not south of the border—at least not until the release of One Man’s Hero, directed by Lance Hool. The film focuses on one fighting unit in that war—the San Patricio Battalion, named for St. Patrick. The San Patricios were Irish who left the potato famine in Ireland to go to the United States, where they were promised American citizenship if they joined the army. But not all were given citizenship, and they were flogged for attending Catholic mass along with Mexicans when they were assigned to a post on the border. Some 500 Irish then decided to defect to México, but President James Polk launched aggression against México in pursuit of “manifest destiny” soon after they resettled, whereupon they were granted Mexican citizenship in exchange for their services as soldiers fighting for México. The leader of the San Patricios is Captain John Reilley (played by Tom Berenger), whose loyalty to México is assured when he falls in love with Marta (played by Daniela Romo). After heroic battle with the Americans, the San Patricios who have not died in the war are eventually captured, tried, and convicted of treason. The film also contrasts the conduct of two American generals—the brutal Winfield Scott (played by Patrick Bergin) and the more honorable Zachary Taylor (played by James Gammon), but Scott prevails over Taylor by executing the surviving San Patricios except for Reilley, whose cheeks were instead branded with the letter “D” for “deserter.” One Man’s Hero should shock American audiences into understanding why gringos are hated in México. Produced with funding from México and Spain, the Spanish title Héroes sin patria (Heroes Without a County) is certainly more dramatic and meaningful than the enigmatic One Man’s Hero, but neither title gives sufficient attention to the brave Irish who were a credit to their ancestry, reciting poetry in the prelude to defeat in battle. However, the film might have made even more impact if it pointed out that Henry David Thoreau developed his theory of civil disobedience to explain why he refused to pay taxes to support the war, and that Abraham Lincoln actively opposed the war as a member of Congress at the time. It is simply too late to indict President Polk and General Scott for war crimes but perhaps not too late for an American president to apologize to México, though the United States is unlikely to return Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah as Yugoslav forces were forced to retreat from Kosovo. The two-year delay from completion of the film to general release in Hollywood speaks volumes about the controversial nature of the film, which the Political Film Society has nominated for three awards—as an exposé and a film raising consciousness of the need to improve human rights and to resolve conflicts peacefully. MH