This rarely seen, overlooked gem, featuring what may be one of Marlon Brando’s most fascinating characterizations, was Gillo Pontecorvo’s worthy follow-up to his political masterpiece The Battle of Algiers. The brilliant radical Italian director achieved something unique in cinema, by wedding, as he said, “the romantic adventure and the film of ideas.” Although Burn! recalls an Errol Flynn swashbuckler, it is primarily a devastating attack on imperialistic nations—particularly 19th-century Portugal and Great Britain depicted in the film, and by implication, the United States and its involvement in the Vietnam war.
The Battle of Algiers, which Pontecorvo made documentary-style, was filmed with a cast of unknowns in grainy/scratchy black and white for a mere $800,000. Burn!, written by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio, cost $3,000,000, with an international superstar, beautiful color cinematography, great attention to costumes and pageantry, and a rousing score by Ennio Morricone (who scored all of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” westerns). The injection of spectacle, however, didn’t mean Pontecorvo intended to tone down the politics. Whereas Battle is about the tactics employed by urban revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries in cities around the world where oppression exists (not just the Algiers of 1954-63), Burn! is the perfect complement, dealing with the tactics employed by both peasant-slave revolutionaries and imperialists in the Third World. Its theme is identical: revolutions against colonialists do not end when leaders are killed, but go on and on, until there is total success.
Inspired by historical events, Burn! begins in 1845 on a Caribbean island controlled by Portugal (fearing a Spanish boycott, United Artists “suggested” Pontecorvo switch the controlling country from the historically accurate Spain). In the 16th century, the Portuguese set fire to the island to quell the native uprising, exterminating the entire population. They then imported black slaves from Africa to replace the dead Indians on the island’s sugar plantations.
Egomaniacal British secret agent Sir William Walker (Brando) arrives at the island to instigate a slave revolt. The intellectual, foppish Walker befriends a defiant black dock worker, José Dolores (Evaristo Marquez), and preaches to him about freedom. He persuades Dolores to commit a rebellious act, which leads to full-fledged “spontaneous revolution” by blacks throughout the island. With Walker teaching the hero Dolores and his followers how to fight, they chase the Portuguese off the island. They expect freedom, but Walker convinces them they aren’t equipped to rule an island. Instead he installs a native leader who will be a puppet for the British. Walker has done his job well.
For the first half of the film, Walker is our hero. He is brave, pragmatic, smart, witty, and seemingly respectful of Dolores and the other blacks. But in the second half, which takes place ten years later, Walker returns to the island to put down an armed insurrection led by Dolores. He burns the countryside, smoking out and executing the rebels, and arrests his former friend. With this heinous act Walker becomes a loathsome figure, one of the many brilliant men in history who choose to serve the wrong side.
Marlon Brando’s most effective scenes are those with Marquez, who also has tremendous presence. Who is this unknown actor who holds his own with Brando, radiating the authority of Paul Robeson in his most dignified roles? He was an illiterate Colombian cane-cutter, who had never even seen a movie. He gives an amazing performance, particularly considering that Brando had to cue Marquez by nudging him below frame level every time he was supposed to speak or move.
Brando became ill during the lengthy, strenuous production, necessitating changes in location filming from Colombia to such diverse locales as the Virgin Islands, France, Rome, and Morocco. Yet, he gives one of his most compelling, cerebral performances. Burt Lancaster and Richard Burton were considered for Walker, but Pontecorvo decided that “the only one who could do this role was Brando. There are many moments when there is no time for dialogue, and when we need the synthesis of Brando’s acting and his face. When things are psychological, we trust the face of Brando.”