Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969. Starring: Marlon Brando, Evaristo Marquez, English. Drama.

Your high school English teacher always said everybody had a story in them. The Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo was a filmmaker who only had one story, a story of revolution that he attempted to tell in as many ways as possible. As a Jew trying to survive in Italy during the Second World War, Pontecorvo became a Marxist. Going into hiding, he organized Partisans to fight the fascist government and also wrote for the Communist Party’s underground newspaper. His early exposure and involvement in radical leftist politics led to his adoption of Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial theories, ideas that he would subsequently develop in his magnum opus Battle of Algiers (1965) and later in Burn!

Battle of Algiers ideological ambiguity angered many conservative viewers and critics upon its release only three years after the French loss of the Algerian War. At the time the French right wing terrorist group OAS (the villains of Fred Zinneman’s Day of the Jackal) was still active and had attempted to assassinate the French president Charles de Gaulle three years before for his role in the decay of the French empire. Battle of Algiers was banned in France for five years, ostensibly for showing the atrocities committed by the French armed forces and the Algerian insurgents’ National Liberation Front with the same objective remove. The events portrayed in the film were carefully researched to accurately represent similar occurrences from 1954-1960. In contrast, Pontecorvo’s next film had only a tenuous connection to any factual incidences. The protagonist, William Walker, played by Marlon Brando, is very loosely based on the 19th century American rogue adventurer of the same name who while under contract from the Nicaraguan government to put down a rebellion ended up declaring himself President of Nicaragua. His story is told in Alex Cox’s brilliant film, Walker, finally available from Criterion, starring Ed Harris with a score composed by Joe Strummer.

In Burn!, Walker is an agent of the British government sent to foment a slave rebellion on the island of Quiemada in the Lesser Antilles under Portuguese control. There he indoctrinates a young man named Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez) with liberal ideas, inspiring him to organize other slaves into action against the government. In order to gain an advantage in purchasing sugar at more favorable prices for his employer, Walker engineers a complicated and violent scheme to set up a puppet provisional government and marginalize Dolores. Slavery is abolished in Quiemada, but the government is weak and open to manipulation by the sugar interests. In Burn! and Battle of Algiers the only professional actor in the cast is the Western anti-hero, while the rest are non-professionals, a holdover from Pontecorvo’s early training in the Italian neo-realist school. While Battle of Algiers has a grainy look with lots of hand held shots, Burn! has a more brutal, lush aesthetic evocative of Sergio Leone pictures, not surprisingly since they both shared the same producer, Alberto Grimaldi. Pontecorvo employed Ennio Morricone again to do the film’s score, but he doesn’t approach the percussive inventiveness of Battle of Algiers, and he wouldn’t again until The Investigation of A Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). In Burn! we see the singularly Italian practice of freeze frames and zooms that were adopted a decade later by American directors like Brian de Palma.

Much is made of the film’s allegorical connections to Vietnam, but surprisingly little has been written on its references to African independence struggles. At the time of the film’s production it had been only 15 years since Italy had relinquished control of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Libya (and then only because it was part of its reparations for being on the losing side of WWII) and Portugal was still fighting intensely to retain control of Angola. In the second half of the film the Vietnam parallels become more obvious. Walker returns twelve years later to Quiemada to hunt down Jose Dolores, who has been leading a rebellion against the oppressive sugar companies that control the island and reduce the islanders to indigence. The rebel forces are small, but they have the support of the people and their knowledge of the difficult terrain has allowed them to hide indefinitely. (This is sounding familiar.) When the President of Quiemada attempts to put an end to the destruction and starvation that has occurred as a consequence of the brutal actions of the local army (augmented by “friendly” overseas forces), he is deposed in an armed coup by his top general, just as Ngo Dinh Diem was deposed by General Duong Van Minh in 1963. Marlon Brando was an outspoken liberal, a defender of Jewish, Black, and Native American causes, and he said publically on several occasions that Burn! was his favorite of his performances. His role of an inscrutable man whose machinations put him one step ahead of every other character gives a Mephistophelian cast to his performance.

Burn! should be seen as a companion piece to the Battle of Algiers. While the former was based on real events, Burn! is Pontecorvo’s archetypal revolution. Brando is the archetypal conflicted oppressor, attached to Western ideas of consumption, power, and individualism, while Marquez is the archetypal revolutionary, once subjugated, now the upholder of the Enlightenment ideals once espoused by duplicitous Western society. Battle of Algiers had an episodic narrative, while Burn! has a more traditional story structure. Fans of the groundbreaking Battle of Algiers, should watch Burn! for Pontecorvo’s attempt at an abstract, yet more conventional, retelling of the same story of revolutionary struggle.

Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Dec 20, 2008 8:03pm
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