Brides of Sulu

Adelina Moreno and Eduardo de Castro in Brides of Sulu, from

A lot of us will know the commonly accepted figure of 80% of all films from the silent era as being considered lost. The figures varies for different territories, however (and whether you are counting fiction films only or all kinds of production). For America there is an estimated a survival rate of 7-12% for each year of the teens (feature films only), moving to 15-25% for the 1920s, but for China the figure is 95% loss, and for Japan the figure is between 95% and 99% loss. For the Philippines the figure is even worse – 100% loss of all native silent film production. Or at least that was what was thought. But silent films can lurk in some surprising places.

Brides of Sulu is an obscure American B-movie, made anywhere between 1933 and 1937 according to assorted sources. It’s included in the American Film Institute’s catalogue for the 1930s. The film tell of two lovers from the Philippine islands, one a Mohammedan princess (Venita), the other a pagan pearl diver (Assam). To escape her aranged marriage to a local chief, the couple flee to a remote island only to be pursued by her tribe, determined to kill Assam. It was filmed in the Philippines, though there is apparently no written account there of its production, and has an American narration (the country was still a colony of the USA at this time). The film was directed by one John Nelson, of whom nothing else (according to IMDb) is known, and stars two Phillipines film actors, Adelina Moreno and Eduardo de Castro, as well as local Moro tribesmen.

Now Brides of Sulu is to feature at Manila’s International Silent Film Festival, because recent scholarship indicates that the film was made out of one, if not two, Philippine silents. According to the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film:

There were two late silent-era Filipino films made in 1931 about the Moros of Sulu – Princess Tarhata (Araw Movies) and The Moro Pirate (Malayan Movies). The first was produced by the forgotten cinematographer Jose Domingo Badilla, while the latter was produced and directed by Jose Nepomuceno, acknowledged as the Father of the Philippine movie industry. Tarhata‘s lead actress is Adelina Moreno, while main actor of Moro Pirate is Eduardo de Castro …

… Coincidentally, both Moreno and De Castro, are the main starring actors in Brides of Sulu. The film also looks like it has two separate parts- the dramatically acted scenes and the documentary portions. Which raises the the intriguing possibility- is Brides the mutant offspring of the re-cutting and reconstitution of two earlier local films via the editing room? Then dubbed in English and re-editorialized for U.S. release with the intention of making it look like an American production so it would be easier to sell abroad? And who is director John Nelson? … Why are his initials the same as those of Jose Nepomuceno’s? So is the nationality of the film American or Filipino?

For the exciting conclusion, please attend the opening of the 5th International Silent Film Festival on Aug. 26 at the Shangri-la Mall Cinema …

Well, given that they promise an exciting conclusion, and given that the film is to screen at a silent film festival, I think we are safe in declaring that the Philippines has found one, or maybe two, films from its silent heritage, the first such films known to survive. Brides of Sulu has circulated on assorted obscure video labels for many years, and you can view the whole film on YouTube.

Extract from Brides of Sulu, in which Assam (Eduardo de Castro) faces up to Datu Tamboyan, father of Benita (Adelina Moreno)

Viewing the film undoubtedly suggests a silent film cannibalised by some opportunistic American producer with some actuality footage and narration to make an exotic B-movie release. Maybe Jose Nepomuceno, a revered figure in Philippine film history who directed their first fiction film, Dalagang Bukid, in 1919, is ‘John Nelson’, though there doesn’t seem much reason why this should be. No doubt all will be revealed at the International Silent Film Festival, which is now in its fifth year. The festival takes place 26-28 August at the Shang Cineplex (Cinema 2), Shangri-La Plaza, Mandaluyong Manila. Brides of Sulu will be screened with musical accoompaniment by Armor Rapista and the Panday Pandikal Cultural Troupe, which suggests that they will be dropping the American narration, which will be no bad thing. Other films screening at the festival are Nosferatu (Germany 1922), Akeyuku Sora (The Dawning Sky) (Japan 1929), L’Inferno (Dante’s Inferno) (Italy 1911), The Greek Miracle (Greece 1921) and Pilar Guerra (Spain 1926) – an impressive eclectic selection.

When certain information is reported on the provenance of Brides of Sulu, we will report it. Meanwhile, you can discover more about Jose Nepomuceno in a thesis by Nadi Tofighian of Stockholm University, The role of Jose Nepomuceno in the Philippine society: What language did his silent films speak? (2006), which shows what a rich history early Philippine filmmaking can boast, even without the films themselves to refer to.

8 responses

  1. My grandfather was “Eduardo de Castro” whose real name is Marvin Gardner. His middle name was Edward and mother’s last name was Castro. Adelina Moreno’s real name was Gilda Gales. The director was better known as “Jack” Nelson, veteran silent movie actor/director with 80+ films. Youtube: “robertg925”

  2. De Castro went on to direct the movie “Zamboanga” (1936), which followed similar story lines as Brides, with some of the same documentary footage, but he introduced the more fit and athletic Fernando Poe to play the lead role. This movie was more refined and the first “talkie”. Both Brides and Zambo have great film footage especially the vinta sailboats and the underwater scenes. Search Youtube.

  3. Many thanks for getting in touch and for the extra information. I see that it is you who put the film up on YouTube. It makes a lot more sense that the director was American rather than José Nepomuceno in disguise. So is The Brides of Sulu derived from Princess Tarhata or The Moro Pirate, or was it a separate ‘American’ production?

  4. I have another video on Youtube called “Perilous Paradise”, a narrated documentary that is a preview of the “Zamboanga” movie. What’s common with Brides of Sulu is the stock footage of island culture filmed on Jolo in the Sulu archipelago. My grandmother was born on Jolo and her father was a U.S. Army officer so De Castro mostly likely had connections to ensure the safety of the film crew. It probably wasn’t any safer than it is today. Most of the acting scenes were filmed in and around Manila. Hard to say the connection with the earlier movies since they are “lost” but there probably was. Same actors and a small cadre of filmmakers in a cozy Manila. My dad said he always knew which bar to find his dad (De Castro) for pocket money.

  5. Thank you for the further history, and for the link to your personal website ( with the family history information. It looks like the International Silent Film Festival people haven’t been in touch with you, but they should. The report below in the Philippine Daily Inquirer adds more information but is still making the clearly mistaken assumption that ‘John Nelson’ is Jose Nepomuceno. I’m also doubtful that Brides of Sulu derives from two fiction films – how would that work? – but one film, plus the documentary footage, would be a credible source. Is it possible that your grandfather brought a Philippine silent with him to the USA (if he was an extra in The Kid from Spain, as IMDb suggests) and got someone to convert it into Brides of Sulu?

  6. They did contact me about a year ago and I provided what little info that I had–what is on my website. I also shared some photos from behind the scenes that clearly show the director sitting with the actors. I got the photos from Gilda Gale’s family. I just added a “slideshow” to my Youtube account: “robertg925”. I hadn’t heard about the “Kid from Spain” film but wouldn’t be surprised if my grandfather was in the U.S. about that time. He started out as a merchant marine. Coincidentally, my great-grandfather, a Manila police officer, and Director Nelson both came from Tennessee.

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