Tag Archives: Gillo Pontecorvo

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.

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

If you want to understand Gillo Pontecorvo’s acclaimed film about the Algerian war of independence, it helps to keep a few things in mind. First of all, the screenplay was written by Saadi Yacef, one of the leaders of the NLF, while he was in a French prison. Second, even though The Battle of Algiers is about a French military victory, it was banned in France for five years. Third, it was re-released in a high-quality format in the United States in 2004 by the Criterion Collection at least partly because it had been screened at the Pentagon as a “how to manual” for counterinsurgency. If the de Gaulle administration found the Battle of Algiers embarrassing and potentially inflammatory, then the Bush administration believed it was a useful way to prepare the American people for the long “war on terror.”

In other words, The Battle of Algiers is many things to many people. For the American liberal elite, film critics from Pauline Kael on down, the film is about about the “cycle of violence” that begins when anti-colonial rebels resort to terrorism. They will usually point to the rightfully acclaimed scene where a female NLF member plants a bomb inside a “milk bar” in the European quarter of Algiers and looks into the eyes of her intended victims, women, teenagers, before she walks out and leaves them to their doom. I had uncomfortable flashbacks to the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. The explosion, when it happens, probably looks bigger than it did in real life. The real bombing killed 3 people and wounded 70 more. The bombing in the film looks as if  it kills dozens.

Radicals, on the other hand, will almost always point to the dramatic, surging protest scenes. ‘Not a foot of documentary footage was used in this film,” the disclaimer at the beginning of The Battle of Algiers used to read, and you can see why. There hasn’t been revolutionary agitprop this good since Eisenstein’s October. De Gualle’s sensors were onto something Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby missed. Pontecorvo is the most dangerous of Marxists, Pauline Kael remarked, a “Marxist poet.”

The Battle of Algiers is dominated by two characters, Ali LaPointe, played by Brahim Haggiag, and Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin. Except for the sexy female guerillas who plant the bomb in the milk bar, the rest of the cast might as well not exist, so thoroughly do Brahim Haggiag and Jean Martin make the film theirs. Saadi Yacef, the screenwriter, plays a thinly fictionalized version of himself, but I couldn’t figure out who he was. The Battle of Algiers opens with a bang, or, to be more accurate, a scream, a torture scene. The French have just water boarded an old man who, after struggling to resist, finally gives in and tells them where Ali LaPointe, the last surviving leader of the rebellion, is hiding. We flash back to 1954. LaPointe, is a small time street hustler trying to scam a few francs in the European quarter of Algiers. When a woman points him out to the police, he takes off. He’s nimble and fast, and would escape, but a group of white Frenchman trip him up. One of the young men, a sneering little blond in a preppy sweater, laughs out loud, and LaPointe sucker punches him, crushing his jaw. A thick, gooey mass of blood and mucus oozes out of his mouth onto his pale skin.

Ali LaPointe’s rise through the ranks of the FLN mirrors the FLN’s rise to the leadership of the nationalist rebellion in Algiers. He’s radicalized in prison. He’s allowed to join the FLN after he shows himself willing to assassinate a French policeman. The rebels begin a two-pronged campaign. They shut down the drug dealers, pimps and scam artists who prey on the Muslim population, and keep them passive and apolitical. They assassinate random French policeman. After the French colonists retaliate, planting a gigantic bomb in the Muslim district that kills 70 people, the FLN retaliates in turn. The “cycle of violence” is indeed under way, but what most of the American reviews miss is that at no times does Pontecorvo or the screenwriter Saadi Yacef insist that it’s a senseless cycle of violence. Rather, the violence is shown to be an inevitable part of the “cycle of revolution.” No colonial power, from the British in 1776 to the Americans in Vietnam in 1973, has ever left voluntarily. When Larbi Ben M’hidi, one of the top FLN commanders, is asked by a news reporter if using baskets to carry bombs into the European quarter of Algiers is cowardly, he says that it is indeed cowardly,but not as cowardly as it is for the imperialists to bomb villages from the air.

“Give us your bombers,” he says, “and you can have our baskets.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu has none of the sentimental horror of violence of the typical American liberal film critic, but he’s no Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly, no knuckle dragging racist or anti-Muslim bigot. Rather, like a French John Paul Vann, he’s an apolitical technocrat, even a liberal, but, unlike William Westmoreland or Robert McNamara, he understands how to make counterinsurgency work. If Mathieu understands counterinsurgency deep inside his bones, it’s because he’s seen it from the other side. A member of the French Resistance during World War II, it never quite occurs to him that the Algerians would want the French out Algeria as much as the French wanted the Nazis out of France. Or maybe he does. Maybe he’s just a racist who believes white Frenchman have a right to their independence in a way brown skinned Algerians don’t. Maybe he knows everything he’s doing is morally evil, but, as a soldier, he’s willing to save the empire for the sentimental liberals who don’t understand what colonialism really means. Indeed, as Mathieu points out to a reporter during a press conference, the “white privilege” of the French colony in Algiers depends on strongmen like himself doing the dirty work for people who claim to be above it all.

In any event, he’s Ali LaPointe’s mirror image. Ali LaPointe is fire. Mathieu is ice. LaPointe is the idealized proletarian, the salt of the earth molded into a socialist recruiting poster. Mathieu barely has a body at all. He’s the dispassionate logic of colonialism taken to its brutal, sordid conclusion.

The French military victory is a moral defeat. Mathieu uses torture, not as a blunt instrument of terror, but as as the well-calibrated tool he needs to isolate the leadership of the FLN. But it’s all meaningless in the end. If the FLN plays into Mathieu’s hands by calling their ill-advised general strike, then Mathieu, in turn, plays into the FLN’s hands. Water boarding, forced labor, and military government succeed in defeating the FLN as an organization. But they also split France in half exactly the way the Nazis did. There are the pied noirs, the right-wing terrorists and colonialists, the white supremacists and unabashed imperialists who, we presume, are willing to let the Nazis occupy their souls exactly the way the German army occupied French soil. Vichy lives on in Algiers, but there is also the democratic, civilized side of France, the old integrationist, Jacobin ideal that wanted to “civilize” the Algerians, not colonize them. “Why are the Sartres always on the other side?” Mathieu asks when a reporter talks about the mood in Paris. By the end of the film French democrats, although we never see them on screen, have had enough. De Gualle is ready to end the occupation, to lose Algeria in order to prevent a civil war.

If there’s a lesson for revolutionaries in The Battle of Algiers, it’s a sobering lesson. You can free your country from the occupier, but you won’t see the promised land. Occupy Wall Street wanted to start off with the leaderless revolution, but it doesn’t work that way in the real world. You need leaders willing to sacrifice themselves, go to jail, go into hiding, face torture, get murdered by the state like Larbi Ben M’hidi, to see their whole carefully built organization exterminated by a carefully drawn up,and inevitable reign of terror. Ali LaPointe is everything an Occupy anarchist, or a right wing libertarian is not, a man willing to die for his freedom. “Are you afraid now?” he asks a French policeman as he holds him at gun point, and, yes, that French policeman was afraid. More importantly, however, the French people had a limit. France wasn’t Vichy and Vichy wasn’t France.

But what happens when occupiers not only are willing to become Nazis but don’t have to face the Soviet or the Anglo American armies? When the imperialists are willing to destroy what they can’t control, and aren’t stopped by a power stronger than they are? For that you have to turn to Gillo Pontecorvo’s next great film, Burn.


As terrible as he is, a Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu is not the worst tool the imperialists have. There are much more destructive things that can be done to people who rebel.