Monday, February 12, 2007


dir. Gillo Pontecorvo

Sir William Walker can out-puppet Don Corleone any day of the week.

February 12, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

Not unlike Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s previous feature, The Battle of Algiers, Burn! is a sprawling, rambling, geographically contained epic of timeless urgency. The lesson is a simple one. No person can free another person; a person can only free themself. The method by which this lesson is taught is the interesting thing here. An unusually and appropriately restrained Marlon Brando plays an Englishman with flowing locks of hair. This hair, along with his collected demeanor first suggests the classic “white man out to save the black people” narrative, though Mr. Brando turns out to be the classic “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

He lands on a Portuguese Caribbean colony where, naturally, Africans have been enslaved to work sugar plantations. After witnessing a government endorsed beheading of a “friend,” our white knight helps the deceased’s family carry the beheaded body back to their home. He then proceeds to hang around looking for the smallest indication of rebellion amongst the enslaved. Once he discovers this, in the form of Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez), a band of revolutionaries is formed and Brando leads his pupils by the hand through a successful revolution. This first portion of the movie is riveting political thriller/revolutionary cinema stuff, and it all carries the impressive weight of a “why dunnit?” rather than a “who dunnit?” Why is Brando’s Sir William Walker doing this? Is it out of hate of the Portuguese? Has he been hired to free the people for their own good? Yeah, right. Sir William is on that island for the same reason any imperialist country has any presence in any “unstable” country. Money.

Abruptly Sir William convinces Jose that he is unfit to actually run an organized government and installs a puppet ruler. Britain wins! 10 years pass; talk about abrupt, a title card just flashes on screen. Brando no longer holds any interest in the island he fought so hard for. It was all in a day’s work, and now he is enlisted by his government for another day’s work, this time fighting against the still wound up and enslaved islanders and their still powerful leader, Jose Dolores. The second half of the movie is far more ambiguous and difficult to comprehend than the first, due to the fact so much time has passed and that Britain and therefore Sir Williams Walker’s interests are in stark opposition to their previous allies. This is a historical norm with imperialist governments, and it has never been so pointedly represented.

Brando’s character, through the first half of the picture, is presented as a morally ambiguous presence, but this ambiguity is exposed as heartless and inhumane, no matter if his actions seem well intentioned in the first portion. No matter if this imperialist nation is fighting for “good” or “evil” they are still “evil,” but more than evil, greedy. Brando plagues this island like a curse, and this time around the violence takes on a far more affecting strain in the form of civil war. The island is divided between those who decided to follow the puppet leader, and thus Dolores’ troops now war, not against English or Portuguese soldiers, but against their own people. Brando simply observes, a political puppet master with only the slightest twang of guilt over the chaos he caused at the behest of his nation.

Sir William Walker is a fascinating, complex creature and Brando plays it all with maniacal detachment in his eyes. Struggling to figure him out, Jose becomes the audience’s eyes and ears, which adds to the complexity of the movie’s structure, considering Jose is not the main character. Sir William is our hero, and it is often a horror to be left alone with him. Ennio Morricone adds a gripping musical theme of epic heroism with an underlying current of menace, as the camerawork acts similarly, shaking through a chaotic mass of extras, yielding a grand scope of intimacy and uncertainty. The uncertainty yields passages that are uneven and less interesting than others, but Burn! remains one of the most politically complex movies I’ve seen, even if the morals of the story are beat over your head in the final moments.

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