Burn! (1969)

Burn! (Italian title: Queimada) is a 1969 Brando, and one of the great filibuster movies of the era.  It really was a theme around the turn of the 1970s.  In Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn! we not only get to see some of Brando’s best screen acting, but get to hear the refinements he’s made to the crazy English accent he almost perfected in Mutiny on the Bounty. Lots to recommend this one, then.

Having comfortably reached the top of his profession by 1960, it was good that Marlon Brando tried to consider what he could do to change the world.  Of course movie stars have professional powers, which they don’t often apply to their choice of work, choosing to handle any activism they undertake as part of their extra-curricular work — but Brando had loftier ideas than that.  

Before we become bogged down in the horrors of the ‘Marlon Brando Comments on Jews, Hollywood, and Israel’ debate, it’s important to remember that Brando’s intentions were always good, and they can be seen at their purest and most holy in the 1960s.  

Marlon Brando then, saw in the script of Burn!, and in its unique director Gillo Pontecorvo, the chance to present real arguments concerning the nature of wage labour, and how political interests can be masked as anything.  He dropped the opportunity to star in both Ryan’s Daughter and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.   Have you ever heard of those two films?  Probably.  But Burn!?  It’s less likely, and less likely still that you would even have seen Burn!

To briefly summarise Burn! (or Queimada to give it its other title), you would have to picture an historical epic set in the Antilles, showing how one British agent fomented a little revolution in order to overthrow the incumbent Portuguese colonial government, in order to replace it with British commercial interests.  It’s historically fascinating, and because it’s an epic, it’s not too didactic, and it certainly outs some home truths about world resources and economic interests, and despite its being a good film, certain factors have consigned it to the great bin of movie history, from which there is rarely any re-release.

Burn! is anti-colonial insofar as it tries its damndest to expose in its short two but epic two hours, just how far the misery extends when it comes to the securing of and protecting of commercial interests.  The island of Queimada is called Burn, or Burnt, because this is one of the great themes of its history.  Of course the sugar crop and many of the island’s inhabitants are burned in the film, but this is certainly not the first time this has happened.  At the start of the movie, as Brando’s character approaches the island, we learn that in its history, the island of Queimada has been burned several times, as a kind of colonial cleaning out effort.  Burning quashes local revolt, and at the same time renders Queimada economically useless.

Marlon Brando’s estate still earns $9 million dollars a year according to Forbes, which is impressive, and it would be well worth seeing a Marxist breakdown of that small economic  miracle.   

What Brando maybe didn’t know is that no matter how much effort you make to educate the proles via the medium of the Hollywood studio system, the studio will always find a way to (attempt to) entertain them also.  There are some sadly messy details at the heart of the production of Burn!  First there is the story of the director who had huge success with The Battle of Algiers, which was and still remains a genuine departure in filmmaking.  And there are predictable Brando battles.

Burn! swithers dramatically between set-piece action or crowd scenes, which are all very good, and what you might call didactic or ideas scenes in which the political and economic facts of the situation are presented.  Rarely do the two come3 together, although there is a powerful five seconds at the half way point which makes the film’s main profound Marxist argument, when we cut to London while a voiceover reminds us that all of this mayhem, torture, cruelty, fighting and poverty exists so that the English (or do we call them British?) may have sugar in their tea.

Although Burn! is unashamedly Marxist in its historical slant, these politics are in no way allowed to overshadow the drama.  The idea is fantastic — that we should see a film which follows the fortunes of everyone in the chain, from the starving plantation babies, to the slave owners, to the chattering and military classes and the nascent governments of the Antilles.  It is clear that Burn’s director Gillo Pontecorvo had great skills, but that he wasn’t quite used to the mainstream convention that ties themes and action together, rather than presenting them separately.  Gillo Pontecorvo also appears to have little idea about basic storytelling, a fact which becomes shockingly clear in the brief London segment at the half way mark.  In Burn’s London scene, Gillo Pontecorvo presents the idea that William Walker, Brando’s character, has fallen into darker habits and has spent his time drinking and brawling, although it’s fairly ridiculous.

Predictably with Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn!, the production went over budget and Marlon Brando argued heavily with the director, eventually walking off set.  Whatever happened, it sounds like typical Brando, a man who perhaps didn’t know what he wanted, but tended to find out through trial and error, argument and debate.  These fights that he became involved with, many of which ended in inaction or stalemate, always make me think of Marlon Brando’s hotel.  When he had fallenl in love with Tahiti in the 1960s, Brando bought a 12-island atoll, Tetiaroa, which he intended to make partly an environmental laboratory and partly a resort.  Brando eventually had a hotel built on Tetiaroa, but it went through so many redsigns and changes that it eventually simply closed.  

It’s hard to get to grips with a film like Burn! which looks like it was shot on toilet paper, and not celluloid, with a soundtrack recorded in somebody’s bedroom.  It’s a shame.  When you watch Burn! it is very hard not to imagine what the crowd scenes, the rural scenes, the battles and the landscapes and seascapes would have looked like if they had been shot in CinemaScope or at least in Technicolor and with a decent filmstock.  Instead, the 2004 release, which at least has the virtue of being Gillo Pontecorvo’s edit and has Marlon Brando’s real voice, looks terrible, and barely worth watching.  

Do consider Brando, please, who was doing some of the best work of his career therefore, on the actor’s side of a camera that at times doesn’t appear to have been working very well.  As an actor, Brando can only show up and do his best, which he does.  It is simply not in his power to make the actual film stock decent.  To top of this insult, Burn! is an epic which appears to be shot on a standard television frame size, which again is not appropriate.  Epic of course, should be built for cinema, and there are history lessons throughout which should and must be seen, but maybe never will

I can’t leave this article about Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn! without making mention of Ennio Morricone’s beautiful and effective score.  I can still here it years after seeing the film.  Morricone has done so much for us, and so little of it we know — bless him the most. I think.