Burn ! (1969)

Burn, Gillo Pontecorvo’s followup to The Battle of Algiers, is more talked about than actually watched. Unlike Heaven’s Gate, Burn — also known as  Queimada — is a legitimately great film, but, like Heaven’s Gate, its distribution was botched. First of all there are two versions. There’s the truncated version, 102 minutes in English, the only one widely available in the United States. The full version is about 130 minutes. Just before he died, Pontecorvo restored all the missing scenes, but, since he had lost the original audio, he re-dubbed it in Italian, essentially destroying the performance of its star Marlon Brando.

The culprit in the whole fiasco was none other than Generalissimo Francisco Franco. A few years before, Pontecorvo’s distributor Columbia had released a movie about the Spanish Civil War called Behold A Pale Horse. It so enraged the Spanish dictator that he decided to block Columbia’s entire catalogue. Responding to pressure from Columbia, Pontecorvo rewrote the script to make the villains Portuguese not Spanish. Portugal is a much smaller market. He also chopped all of the potentially offending scenes out of the original theatrical release in 1969. If Charles De Gualle held up The Battle of Algiers for 5 years, Francisco Franco managed to butcher Queimada before it ever got made.

To get the full effect of Burn, you probably need to see both versions. That being said, while the unabridged, Italian release isn’t available on DVD, I still think it’s worth watching the English version, currently on Youtube. While it has gaps in the plot that may leave you scratching your head, you will also get the full effect of Marlon Brando’s performance in English. Not only is Burn an indispensable comment on The Battle of Algiers, no amount of incompetent editing can take away from its visual impact, or from its unabashedly revolutionary politics.

If The Battle of Algiers is a fully realized masterpiece, then its last five minutes can sometimes be confusing. Why does the film dramatize a tactical, military victory of French imperialism, and yet end on a triumphal note, the strategic victory of revolutionary Algerian nationalism? Burn tells us why. The victory of the Algerian National Liberation Front depended on the French people having a limit, on their being unwilling to cross the line over into genocide, on the idea that they could look at themselves, realize that, in embracing torture, they had become the Nazis, and feel shame. But what happens when the imperialists have no bottom, when they’re incapable of shame? What happens when they’re even not a nation at all, but a corporation? Burn gives us the answer.

Burn opens on board a ship coming into an island in the Lesser Antilles, Queimada, a composite of Guadeloupe and Haiti (with perhaps a bit of Vietnam thrown in for good measure). William Walker, a professional revolutionary, agent provocateur, and agent of the British admiralty, is standing on deck with the ship’s captain, who’s giving him a brief history lesson. 300 years before,  the Portuguese met with such stiff resistance from the indigenous population that they resorted to genocide and environmental destruction, burning down all the island’s vegetation, extermining the natives, and importing black slaves from Africa. The bare white rocks visible as they sail into the harbor glisten in the sun because they’re still made up of the scorched bones of the dead, giving the island its name, “Queimada,” or “Burn.” Eventually, Queimada recovered, becoming such a lucrative, slave-based exporter of sugar that the British government now wants a piece of it.

William Walker’s job is to foment a rebellion against the Portuguese among the slaves, and organize the whites and mulattos, the planters and latifundists, into a republic willing to give trade concessions to Great Britain and the Royal Sugar Company. He succeeds, teaching an ex-slave and luggage porter named Jose Delores, played by non-actor Evaristo Márquez, to be a revolutionary general and popular champion, a character very clearly meant to evoke Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution. He also convinces the island’s creoles, the white elite, that a wage labor economy is better than a slave economy. It’s better to pay for a prostitute by the hour than to support a wife. He picks out a nationalist leader, Teddy Sanchez, an elegant puppet who, like Barack Obama, spreaks in glittering generalities without substance,  and pushes him into assassinating the Portuguese colonial governor — literally holding the gun in his hand and aiming it for him — the signal for a general insurrection in the capitol, and sets him up as the first president of the independent Republic of Queimada.

Ten years later, after an unsuccessful mission to Indochina — “a place none of you have heard of” — Walker returns to Queimada, this time not as an agent of the British government but as an agent of the Royal Sugar Company, and this time not to stir up a rebellion, but to put one down. While Teddy Sanchez is still President and still a compliant puppet, Jose Delores has turned out to be a genuine revolutionary, an incorruptible tribune of the people who can neither be bought nor bullied into making the same mistake twice. Walker had previously convinced him to demobilize his army. But after the former slaves had realized that they liked being wage slaves no more than they liked being chattel slaves, prostitutes not wives, Delores organized a guerrilla army in the high sierra, living among impoverished villagers who, according to Walker, are natural revolutionaries because they have nothing to lose. He is, in short, a threat not only to the creole, puppet government, but to the Royal Sugar Company’s bottom line.

That Pontecorvo see Burn as at least partly an allegory for the United States occupation of Vietnam becomes clear when Walker swings into action. First he has Teddy Sanchez, Queimada’s Diem, lined up against the wall and shot. Sanchez not only turned out to be an incompetant strongman, but, for a brief moment, dared to suggest that the interests of Queimada weren’t the same as the interests of the Royal Sugar Company. I couldn’t but help think of Barack Obama. Perhaps that’s why he shows such baffling loyalty to Wall Street and the banks.

Teddy Sanchez dispatched, Walker then organizes a counterinsurgency campaign far more deadly than the one we saw in The Battle of Algiers. William Walker is no Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu. He doesn’t use a scalpel. He uses a flamethrower. Like the United States in Vietnam, he’s willing to burn down the whole island to prevent it from becoming a “bad example” to other colonial possessions of the British Empire. He’s willing to “destroy the village in order to save it.”

As Walker destroys more and more of the island, works himself up into a rage because he can neither capture nor kill Jose Delores, as the holocaust of Queimada unfolds, we see the ugly reality of imperialism unmasked. For William Walker and the British empire, the black proletarians of Queimada aren’t even prostitutes. They’re not even human. They’re product, raw material, an inferior race to be exterminated along with their natural habitat in order to teach the world a lesson. Thou shalt not rebel against your capitalist masters. Queimada visualizes like few other movies the nexus between racism, capitalism, imperialism, and the white man’s diseased urge to control not only his fellow human beings but nature itself. No wonder Franco wanted it killed.

I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see someone get a knife in the gut than I was after watching William Walker get his just desserts. But is there hope at the end of Queimada, or is the film unremittingly dark? Jose Delores proves himself to be genuinely incorruptible, calmly going to his death rather than escape and denounce the revolution. “Fire doesn’t destroy everything,” he says to one of his guards. “A blade of grass, of hope, will always remain. Some day the white man will die in his own fire.” Perhaps he will. But will he take the rest of the world with him? Our response to global warming has not been encouraging.

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3 comments

  1. […] Freeman is no community organizer. He’s exactly like Marlon Brando’s William Walker in Pontecorvo’s Burn. He’s a military adviser, a professional revolutionary who’s observed the world from […]

  2. […] distributer, Columbia Pictures, blocking their entire catalog in Spain for over 5 years. He even bullied the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo into butchering his great film Queimada, into rewriting the script to make the villains Portuguese not Spanish, and into cutting out over […]

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