Film Review #144: Burn!
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Cast: Marlon Brando, Evaristo Márquez, Renato Salvatori
If we didn’t already compare Iraq to Vietnam, this 1969 movie would conjure the parallels for us with its proxy story of 19th century colonialism. It’s 1855 on the island of Queimada, a fictional former Portuguese colony in the Caribbean. A British “military advisor” to the embattled young republic, sent by the Royal Sugar Company to quell a six-year insurgency by former slaves, coolly surveys the smoking ruins of a village and its surrounding blackened forest. A decade earlier, Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) first approaching this island to instigate revolt, stood on a ship’s deck as the captain explained that Queimada translates from the Portuguese as “burnt,” commemorating how the first Europeans there rid this island of its resistant indigenous people before replacing them with slave labor, half of whom died on the voyage from Africa.
Sometimes, Walker observes now, as much to himself as the soldier beside him, you have to destroy a village to save it.
Even with Brando in the lead – a performance he called his best, in a project he chose over Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Burn! was just a short blip on a few US screens when United Artists quietly released an “American version” in 1970, excised of twenty minutes from Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo’s own final cut. A 1991 VHS of that version still surfaces in a few rental shops.
Then, after the US invasion of Iraq, Pontecorvo’s monumental, better-known film about a pivotal moment in the end of French rule in North Africa, The Battle of Algiers (1966), began screening at US festivals, and Criterion’s three-disc DVD set followed in 2005. Bedfellows as strange as the IRA and the Pentagon have used The Battle of Algiers for training in guerilla warfare. That film’s resurgence surely pulled Burn! along with it, boosted further by a reappraisal of Brando’s work after his 2004 death and then Pontecorvo’s death in 2006.
Pontecorvo filmed The Battle of Algiers with a cinema vérité look at the scene of historical action less than five years after Algeria’s independence – real-life rebel leader Saadi Yacef sought Pontecorvo to propose making such a film and largely plays himself in the movie – while Burn! instead recapitulates the process of colonialism costumed as an adventure yarn.
Brando does affect long blond curls and a series of blue and lavender silk neck scarves, but there’s little swash-buckling. Instead, we join Walker with his own late arrival on the island. He has come seeking to aid a rebel leader named Santiago, whom he sees executed gruesomely, first by garrote and then beheading, in the courtyard below his hotel room - the first of several executions foretold by gallows on the beach in the opening montage. Walker follows Santiago’s widow and headless body to a remote mountain village. (One the film’s most stunning shots encompasses a close-up of this resolutely silent woman and her small children hauling the cart that bears Santiago’s body beneath a bloody shroud, with the fore-shortened Portuguese fort rising massively behind them next to the ocean and beyond, on the horizon, the tiny silhouette of Walker on horseback.) But Santiago’s fighters have melted back into everyday life.
So Walker improvises: having lost his rebel, he sets out to identify a promising replacement and create a new one. This would be Jose Dolores (Evaristo Márquez, in his only film role), the porter who first carried Walker’s bags when he arrived.
Walker tricks Dolores into revolutionary action and consciousness by degrees, turning a sham bank robbery into a real village defense. Surprising himself (but surely not Walker), Dolores even blurts out a sort of stump speech rallying the villagers to be “real men.” Later Walker explains to Dolores what he has done. (This neatly illustrates a favorite Western assumption that enslaved peoples would not think of freedom on their own). Walker persuades assassination, installs Queimada’s first puppet president in the person of Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori), and brokers English take-over of the sugar plantations.
A decade later, the people starve. Dolores has again taken up arms. Teddy Sanchez, actually swayed by some genuine liberal ideal, balks at English instructions and their distasteful consequences. Located mid-brawl in a London pub, Walker returns to Queimada and addresses all these parties with dispassionate, lethal dispatch. His next assignment will be Indochina.
Though Brando rated this his best performance, Pontecorvo found the actor difficult. They quarreled over noisy sets (Brando wore ear plugs) and close-ups (Brando didn’t want them), but mostly over the character of Walker. Their perseverance produced a masterful, many-layered performance.
In Brando’s mouth Walker’s dialogue is convincing as real human speech rather than political theory. Walker the operative reduces most things to “a simple calculation." In explaining his plan to burn the island’s forests and mountain villages a second time, he notes that a guerilla has “20, 30, maybe 50 times as much” commitment as a regular solider. Earlier, recruiting Teddy Sanchez and the other plantation owners to establish their republic and abolish slavery as their first act, he compares the economic advantage of hiring whores over marrying wives to the long-term benefit of paying wages over keeping slaves. Walker’s intriguing recognition of common ground between the lot of women and slaves, of course, is a mirror image of the alliances stirring at the same time to the north in the US abolitionist movement.
And Walker’s emotional attachment to Jose Dolores – Brando’s contribution – is equally powerful as Walker’s instrumental view of policy. This bond lights up their triumphant horse-back meeting on the beach amidst Dolores’ ragtag army, later prompts Walker’s gesture to let the defeated rebel ride rather than stumble behind on foot and deepens such various moments as when Walker contemplates shooting Dolores or begs him to flee rather than accept hanging.
Film critic Amy Taubin likens Walker’s methods to seduction, suggesting that Brando plays him as a closeted gay man, echoing his own role two years before in Reflections in a Golden Eye. Their eyes do lock across a crowded marketplace as Walker cruises likely prospects. Whether we accept Taubin’s reading literally or take the sexual undercurrent as something merely suggestive, it contributes to fleshing out the film’s politics and extends other sexual images already there. In this light, for example, when Dolores puts on the vanquished Portuguese general’s fancy jacket, it becomes a kind of political drag as much as a more obvious reference to Franz Fanon’s notion of the oppressed copying their oppressors.
Not a bad film for this Primary season, as we ponder what “change” really means. Come back next week for The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo’s visual sweep and Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks.
This review appeared in the 1/10/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.