March 1, 2009
Burn! (1969)
Grade: 69/100

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Stars: Marlon Brando, Evaristo Márquez, Renato Salvatori

What it's about. Set in the mid-19th century on the Carribean island of Queimada. The film is divided into two halves. In the first part, Queimada is a Portuguese colony. Marlon Brando, an agent of the English government, arrives and promptly instigates a coup that places the sugar cane plantations under economic control of the British.

He works with two vastly different men, hotel clerk Sanchez (Renato Salvatori) and a black porter, Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez). Sanchez is a naive patriot who believes that blacks will toil peacefully on the sugar cane plantations while their white owners enjoy the proceeds. Dolores, trained by Brando to be a black military leader, unsurprisingly finds this system unjust, but is unsure of what to do about it. Eventually, he concedes to political reality, and disarms his people.

The second half of the film takes place ten years later. By now, Dolores leads a small guerilla band in the mountains of Queimada that interferes with plantation output. Sanchez's army cannot eliminate them, because Sanchez cannot be ruthless. Instead, Sanchez tracks down Brando, and hires him to resolve the conflict. Brando finds that Dolores is now an inflexible revolutionary who must be eliminated.

There are two versions of Burn!. The one I saw is in English and runs 112 minutes. The other version, which is hard to find, is 132 minutes long and is dubbed in Italian.

How others will see it. Director Gillo Pontecorvo was hot off the biggest critical and commercial success of his entire career, The Battle of Algiers (1966) . His idea for Burn! was an easy sell to Alberto Grimaldi, a producer for the better two films of the hugely profitable Clint Eastwood "Man Without a Name" spaghetti western trio. The formula was similar: take an A-list Hollywood actor, a man with some machismo, and place him in a historical setting where he proves the master of his environment. Even the scores had much in common, for they were provided by the same man, Ennio Morricone, by now famous for the opening theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly .

It didn't work. Burn! was a box office flop. Brando was in a career rut that didn't end until two years later with The Godfather. The same folks who lined up to watch Clint Eastwood in his quest for gold treasure had no interest in seeing Brando play a tropical plantation mercenary.

How I felt about it. That was too bad, because they missed a particularly good film. While the moral of Burn! is subject to substantial debate, there's little doubt that the story's telling is well done.

The sympathy of Brando and Sanchez toward economically deprived blacks is unduly influenced by modern political correctness, and there's much less racial contempt than surely existed in the middle of the 19th century. But the revisionist depiction of colonial Antillies does make the film more likable, and much seems credible, particularly the hunt for guerilla leader Jose Dolores and the coup d'état of the well intentioned but hapless Sanchez.

Unlike his generals, Sanchez never understood that Queimada isn't ruled by either Sanchez or Dolores. It certainly isn't run by Marlon Brando, who admits that he is merely an instrument. It's controlled by English sugar interests, whose motivation is profit and whose method is imperialism.

I have read that Brando's character is loosely based on a real-life William Walker, an American from the same time period who tried to exploit Latin America via revolution and repression. But the fictional character and his purported namesake have little in common, aside from a desire to profit from third world strife.