"Get these people up out of the dirt - we're supposed to be winning their hearts and minds," barks Chris Cooper's Colonel Hardacre at the beginning of John Sayles' Amigo, riding into the small village his troops have just invaded and occupied. The backdrop is an uprising during the Philippine-American War in 1900, but it's clear from this line of dialogue alone that the writer-director has more contemporary matters on his agenda. Amigo's theme is the community under attack, a line you could argue Sayles first set out in his script for 1978's Piranha (reworked to far less pointed ends earlier this year) and politically finessed in the likes of Matewan and Limbo. Here, the natives of Luzon are busy repairing their roofs, tilling the fields and making their own moonshine out of bark when the yanquis ride in, spitting and syphilitic, and on the hunt for a notorious bandit - who just so happens to be hiding out in those self-same fields.
Monsoon conditions replace those of the desert, but the similarities to events in the Gulf are otherwise plentiful. The young American troops don't speak the lingo, and suffer for it - professionally, romantically; proposed democratic elections don't go as planned (or as the occupying forces want); civilian women and children take hits when battle eventually breaks out. Even the torture methods - pouring water down a prisoner's throat down a long tube, with the aim of literally flushing the bandit's whereabouts out - come to look awfully familiar. Yet one of the leftist subtexts is that communities where individuals are regarded as equals are better suited in their innate flexibility and adaptability to outwit systems where order is imposed from the top down. (Which, as the recent World Cup amply demonstrated, is applicable beyond warfare: it may be the reason Spain and Holland made the final, and the likes of England didn't.)
It's been five years since a Sayles movie reached UK screens - the comparatively starry Silver City - and Amigo is a noticeably sparer, rougher-hewn production, an enforced move back in the direction of grass-roots filmmaking that aligns the director closer to his artisan subjects. His use of actors is unexpected, resembling a cut-price Malick: with Cooper having scarcely more screen time than he did in The Town, and the (long-awaited?) re-emergence of DJ Qualls postponed until the halfway mark, it's down to non-professionals and only semi-recognisable faces - chiefly Garret Dillahunt's clenched Lt. Compton - to hold the fort. Without the dramatic finish of, say, Men With Guns, Sayles's previous excursion into jungle warfare, its earnestness threatens to become monotonous - how many indigenous weaving interludes does one film need? - yet Amigo grows in weight over its two hours, helped by the sparky performances of the film's non-English speakers. Sayles remains a keen, attentive student of the lessons to be gleaned from history - keener, you might say, than many at the top level of his government - and this latest restates his already considerable claim to being America's cinematic conscience.
Amigo screens on Friday 15 at 9pm and Saturday 16 at 1pm at the Vue West End, and on Sunday 17 at 3.30pm in NFT2.