Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn! is a fascinating film in many ways, not least because it was produced at all. A big budget historical spectacular, with a major star in the lead (Marlon Brando), it offers an unabashedly Marxist interpretation of colonialism and Third World development. Even allowing for the fact that it was made during the politically turbulent 1960s, the prospect of a major studio sinking millions into a project that argues for the violent overthrow of global capitalism demonstrates a magisterial self-hatred bordering on lunacy. That, or colossal stupidity.
Brando plays William Walker, a 19th century British agent provocateur sent to the fictional Caribbean island of Quemada to foment an insurrection against its Portuguese masters and install a puppet “democratic” regime friendly to the English. To light the fuse, Walker arms a group of slaves, led by José Dolores (Evaristo Márquez). Their rebellion succeeds and Walker leaves. Dolores quickly falls out with the Brits as well, however, so after a few years, Walker returns to quell a new rebellion, with disastrous results.
The director of Burn!, Gillo Pontecorvo, is best known for The Battle of Algiers, an explosive dramatization of the Algerian struggle against French domination. His talent is for large-scale action in which the crowd is effectively the protagonist. In both films, events have a documentary-like vividness and immediacy, involving viewers emotionally because we feel we are there. Pontecorvo accomplishes this sense of presence without resorting to the personalized conflicts central to most historical drama. The fight between Walker and Dolores is personal, but their individual differences are subordinate to their historical roles—and Walker is on the wrong side of history.
Brando brings a surprising degree of wit to a character he probably despised. For example, there is a scene in which Walker asks a group of businessmen to compare the cost of keeping their wives to the one-time payment for a prostitute in order to demonstrate the economic advantages of wage labor over slavery. Brando makes the comparison as if it were simply rational, impartial calculation, lending a familiarity to the outrage that makes it doubly despicable. He manages to treat Walker’s destructive objectification with an almost comic lightness, even grace, that ends up all the more damning.
Despite Brando’s charm, Walker is doomed from the start. Trapped in the Marxist schema that views the triumph of the oppressed as an inevitability, Walker is a self-loathing heap of “capitalist” contradictions. Any “victory” he or his allies may achieve will be fleeting. To make sure you get the point, when Dolores is finally captured, he gives the soldier guarding him a lengthy lecture about historical determinism. True to the faith, Dolores sees his failure as just one step in the long struggle to ultimate victory and freedom.
Like all millenarian claims, you either believe, or you don’t. The forty plus years since the film’s release don’t provide much supporting evidence, but that doesn’t make the myth any less compelling.