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Burn!

Burn!(1970)

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teaser Burn! (1970)

With its fierce focus on the lethal effect of shifting political winds upon exploited have-nots, Gillo Pontecorvo's Burn! (1969) means to take the long historical view. Half didactic allegory, half war movie, its contention that revolutionary struggle is ever-present has been borne out by the parallels drawn between it and the Vietnam conflict, current at the time of its release, and today's bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, respectively, once seen as US allies, became US enemies. Ultimately, however, Burn! is very much rooted in the time it was made - the seething '60s.

Its driving forces are Gillo Pontecorvo and Marlon Brando, both abetted by the music of the blazingly prolific Ennio Morricone. Pontecorvo, the Italian leftist director, came to the project on waves of international acclaim for The Battle of Algiers (1966), about the bitter struggle of Algerians to drive out their French colonial rulers. With its documentary look and intense passions, Algiers to this day remains a handbook for insurrectionists and governments alike. Brando, coming off a mixed reception arising from his embrace of the Black Panthers, is onscreen throughout, bringing shadings, complexities and emotive dimension to a character who could easily have disappeared in clouds of didacticism.

He plays Sir William Walker, an Englishman and agent provocateur working for Her Majesty's government. (Although the name is the same, Brando's character is not to be confused with the actual William Walker, a pre-Civil War military adventurer from Tennessee, who, backed by pro-slavery elements, tried to wrest Baja, California from Mexico, actually did conquer and rule Nicaragua for a while, was defeated in Costa Rica, executed in Honduras, and was depicted in Alex Cox's Walker (1987), by Ed Harris). He says he has come to the film's apocryphal Caribbean island to help the Portuguese suppress a slave revolt. But, skilled manipulator that he is, he uses the slave revolt to unseat the Portuguese, assassinating the colonial governor and helping install a new provisional government that says all the right things about freedom, and may even mean them.

The problem with Burn! is that it's more didactic, schematic and thematic than dramatic. Brando rises to the test set him by the material, finding countless ways to make immediate this ambulatory cartoon of colonialism and deceit. Digging into his Fletcher Christian characterization from the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), he's foppish, even effete in manner - a shrewd choice in that it contrasts with his character's brutish, ruthless blood-letting. No sooner have the Portuguese executed one rebel leader, than the man Brando first encounters as a waterfront porter who carries his bags, Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez), emerges as the next to combine anger and leadership qualities.

Walker finds himself admiring Jose, quite apart from his usefulness to Walker's plan of subversion. He uses Jose's home-grown revolt to subvert the Portuguese. Then in the film's second half, he returns 10 years later in the employ of Britain's troop-backed Royal Sugar Company to sabotage the revolution so that England can replace both Portugal and the locals as the beneficiaries of the island's robust cash crop - sugar cane. The casting gamble on Marquez, who had never seen a film before, much less appeared in one, paid off. As the rebel embodying stature, dignity and principle in contrast to the lies and betrayals of the whites, stands his ground, holds the screen, helping underpin the black-white political/moral dichotomy. (We're told that the original Caribbean inhabitants have been replaced with slaves brought from Africa.)

Burn! takes its name from the scorched-earth policy of the Portuguese, who burned the canefields to squelch a prior revolt, and the island's new exploiters, the English, who repeat the tactic to put down the armed resistance they meet, as the insurrectionists are flushed out of the canefields and mountain villages and gunned down. The island that could have been Haiti or Guadalupe is called Quemada - the film's title when it was released in Italy. The word is Spanish for burned, clearly here intended in the metaphorical sense as well as the literal. Although Walker coolly administers death, he's not above yelling at a black government rifleman and asking him why he isn't fighting with the rebels. In fact the film is at its best when it departs from its agitprop trajectory, and its revolutionary pronouncements right out of the Frantz Fanon playbook.

Most of the ambiguity and complexity is there thanks to Brando (although Marquez's steadfast nobility gives him a strong counterweight to push off against). What makes Brando's Walker interesting is that he that he never settles for being a caricature of the clichd oppressor. He's cynical, diabolical when he sells the idea of granting the slaves their freedom on the grounds that they'll remain economic slaves. He's a ruthless embodiment of the economics of greed and profit at any price, whether he had to bludgeon or seduce his way to them, anticipating his killer in The Missouri Breaks (1976), who lulls his victims with talk before shooting them. And yet, and yet. It's the and yet that keeps him and Burn! watchable.

It was suggested at the time that Brando's choice to go with flowing scarves and flowing locks to go with his vanilla ice cream plantation garb was meant to convey a homosexual subtext, an attraction Walker felt for Jose. Perhaps. The smile on Walker's face at the end, when the film comes full circle and he prepares to sail away again, and a new Jose type asks to carry his bags to the ship, suggests there might be such a thread. Just as effective, though, is the baggage symbolism bookending the film. What's the baggage? Whose is it? Who's merely carrying it for pennies? And while Walker has the trappings and bearing of arrogance, he's also forced to face a certain self-loathing that Brando works into the man.

This is most clearly conveyed the only time the film departs from its schematics, posturing and philosophizing to risk anything that feels like real emotion. After Walker has watched almost indifferently the capture of Jose, and the construction (by, yes, black workers) of the gallows that will hang him, he makes his way to Jose's tent and offers him the chance to flee to freedom, presumably conflicted by his role in bringing down so clearly principled a man. Jose rejects the offer, and a tear rolls down Walker's hitherto dry cheek. He embodies authority disgusted by the things it must do to perpetuate itself.

It is here that Morricone's score is at its most potent. Burn! was only one of 29 scores the now venerable Italian composer and conductor - with something like 500 to his credit - wrote in 1969 alone. Unlike the music he made that regenerated the Western genre with his boyhood schoolmate in Rome, Sergio Leone, with the use of such sounds as guitars, harmonicas and whistling, Morricone abandoned his characteristic lush string textures for Burn! Dipping into ethnomusicography, Morricone employs drums to remind us of the simmering underclass, seen in montage and through blood-red filters at the beginning and end. He contrasts it with churchy music for their European overlords. But Morricone, graduate of Rome's venerable Santa Cecilia Conservatory, well versed in the classics, knew exactly where to go for the film's climactic scene, showing us what was gained and what was lost by the rebel martyr's appointment with the gallows, and the survivor's guilt. Stealing from the best, Morricone quoted the famous theme from Bach's "Come, Sweet Death."

He almost might have been keying it to the film, too, the troubles of which were legend, even in a field where many films are difficult births. While Morricone soldiered away in Rome, the shoot dragged on, over schedule, over budget and overstressed, in Colombia, near Cartagena, where heat, danger and tension sapped everyone. Brando and Pontecorvo grew increasingly estranged, agreeing in the end only that Burn! was important and needed to be made. When Brando walked off the shoot in Colombia, never, he said, to return there, the film was completed in Morocco to accommodate him. Brando, who later said that some of his best acting was to be seen in Burn!, grew increasingly balky at Pontecorvo's insistence and accused the director of flying in the face of the film's thrust by paying the black actors less money and feeding them cheaper food than the whites. Others later accused the film of backpedaling from its anti-colonialism by acceding to the Franco government's request to change the colonizing nation in the film from its original Spain to Portugal, with its smaller film exhibition revenues.

Pontecorvo did resist the studio's initial insistence on casting Steve McQueen and then Charles Bronson for the role Brando eventually played, and kept the film free of Hollywoodization by not falling in with the studio's wish to cast Sidney Poitier as the rebel leader. He might have pointed to Brando's disastrous attempt to form his own utopian community on a Tahitian island the actor bought. If Burn! doesn't exactly have a lot of skeletons in its closet, it nevertheless has a sub-basement full of contradictions and ironies.

Producers: Alberto Grimaldi
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Screenplay: Franco Solinas, Giorgio Arlorio (story); Franco Solinas, Giorgio Arlorio (screenplay); Gillo Pontecorvo(story) uncredited
Cinematography: Marcello Gatti, Giuseppe Ruzzolini
Art Direction: Piero Gherardi
Music: Ennio Morricone
Film Editing: Mario Morra
Cast: Marlon Brando (Sir William Walker), Evaristo Mrquez (Jos Dolores), Norman Hill (Shelton), Thomas Lyons (Gen. Alonso Prada), Renato Salvatori (Teddy Sanchez), Valeria Ferran Wanani (Guarina), Giampiero Albertini (Henry Thompson), Carlo Palmucci (Jack), Dana Ghia (Francesca), Joseph P. Persaud (Juanito).
C-110m. Letterboxed.

by Jay Carr

Sources:
Wikipedia
Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando, by Stefan Kanfer, Knopf, 2008
Songs My Mother Taught Me, by Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey, Random House, 1994
Brando: The Biography, by Peter Manso, Hyperion, 1994
Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death, by Christopher Frayling, Faber & Faber, 2000
Clint Eastwood, by Richard Schickel, Knopf, 1996
IMDb

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