‘Quezon’s Game’ is worth watching

I never encountered the name “Quezon” until it became part of a movie title: “Quezon’s Game,” which I found to be a quiet revelation.
Manuel Quezon was president of the Philippines at the time of World War II. I didn’t know much about his country, either, but after seeing the film, I wanted to know more about it as well as the man. I have since learned that Filipino history is long and more than a bit confusing, the relationship to the United States dating back to our country’s battles with Spain before the turn of the 20th century. But this movie is centered on what happened much later, when Quezon learned about Nazi atrocities and determined to do whatever he could to rescue Jews from the jaws of Hitler. Yes, it’s a Holocaust story, but one that’s never really been told before.
The players in this very real drama included U.S. General Eisenhower — then a colonel serving under Douglas MacArthur, a group of powerful, wealthy businessmen and President Quezon’s wife. She pushed her husband’s buttons, and with her urging found a way to overcome opposition and seeming impossibility, thus enabling the rescue of 1,200 Jews. It’s akin to the Spielberg/Schindler’s List saga we’ve all seen before, but why did so few of us know about this one until it came to the big screen?
I’ve saved two reviews of this film, and they are glaringly different. The Dallas Morning News reprinted Frank Scheck’s opinion from The Hollywood Reporter; he gave it a killing D rating. In the TJP, Susan Kandell Wilkofsky was much kinder, of course emphasizing its Jewish roots: British national Matthew Rosen heard the true story from today’s Jewish Association of the Philippines, and he and his Filipino wife became the film’s co-producers. Scheck praises the story’s cinematic possibilities and its need to be told — even so belatedly — but deplores what he cites as “poor production values, ham-fisted screenplay and uneven performances.”
I suppose many non-Jews would indeed find this movie long and tiresome; there is little action beyond endless talk between men of power in rooms filled with smoke from their own cigars. But there are tender moments when Quezon’s wife Aurora urges her husband on with his seemingly impossible plans, even as he is suffering from a disease she (and he) knows will soon end his life.
My dog in this hunt is the disease itself! It’s identified as tuberculosis, but I had an aunt who died at exactly the same time as Quezon; she too had been diagnosed with “TB” and sent for the then-prescribed “treatments” — rest cures at places with lots of good weather. But my own father was a doctor/researcher who opposed the diagnosis of the day, insisting it was lung cancer. At that time, the word “cancer” was so frightening that people refused to say it out loud, but I believe this was the never-to-be-proven illness of the man who didn’t live long enough to see his island nation secure its independence.
When men with money were waffling over costs and logistics, Aurora suggested her husband appeal directly to the Filipino people for help in meeting his goal, and the film ends with its most moving moments: small boats pulling into harbor, the people in them stepping onto land and thanking their benefactors — more than a bit “hokey,” but no more so than the end parade in “Schindler’s List.” Quezon’s last question was “Could I have done more?” It has been answered much later with “You did!” by a count of some 9,000 identified descendants of the people he saved.
This film played briefly in Dallas, Fort Worth and Plano to moderately sized audiences. If you weren’t among those who saw it locally, try to find it for home viewing. Then take a deep breath, let the story roll, and absorb another necessary piece of our 20th century Jewish history. And afterward, write your own reviews!
Harriet Gross can be reached at harrietgross@sbcglobal.net

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