Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Gillo Pontecorvo's stature as a political filmmaker will forever rest on his achievement in Battle of Algiers. Burn! came out well into a Marxist mini-revolution in the Italian cinema. It reached America just before our own short-lived trifling with revolutionary themes, which in reality amounted to little more than a few longhair art pictures - big studios were turning out drek like Che! Burn! played because it was considered a commercial hopeful, even with Marlon Brando at a career low ... this was the kind of picture that made him an iffy prospect to star in The Godfather three years later. Even the new title reflects the Hollywood desire to co-opt revolution as a commercial genre: Burn! sounds like a bogus epic about Black Power.
The 1830s. British Agent Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) arrives to foment revolution on Queimada, a Portuguese island in the West Indian Antilles. Leading a young porter named Jose Dolores (Evaristo Márquez) into a bank robbery, he soon has the illiterate man leading an army of liberation. Walker also approaches the business interests of the island led by Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori). The businessmen also want freedom from Portuguese control so Walker spurs them into overthrowing the country's president just as Dolores' army reaches the capital. Faced with 'friendly' white city folk eager to help his revolution, and knowing nothing of economics. Márquez turns his revolution over to 'wiser' hands. Ten years later, Walker is approached again in London, this time by a better-organized sugar Trust. Márquez has again picked up the revolution, and is interfering with business. Walker is dispatched back to Quemada to put a quick end to the rebellion.
Burn! is mainly notable for being a ground-breaker on the subject of colonialism. The Portuguese of Queimada (the filmmakers made them Spaniards until Spain objected) wanted the enormous profits of sugar cane, and to that end wiped out a rebellious indigenous population and then 're-staffed' with African slaves. When the cynical manipulator Walker arrives they've just finished beheading a popular black rebel leader.
Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arolino's script is all rebellious incident interrupted by scenes of Marlon Brando conning both blacks and whites into doing his bidding. The sequence of events skips over actual bank robberies and pitched battles but we feel the weight of the peasant rebellion just the same. Much of this is due to the honesty and power of actor Evaristo Márquez as the ignorant porter that takes on the weight of responsibility for his people. He's easily swayed by Brando's cool agent provocateur -- Walker knows that as soon as Jose Dolores has Portuguese troops after him, his only path will be toward rebellion. Walker fans those flames with one hand while telling the white landowners that they'd better take control of the revolution before Márquez has them all executed. Neither side gets what it wants - the ultimate victory is Walker's when he delivers the former Portuguese colony into the hands of English financiers.
The twist in Burn! that so surprised us was that it convincingly showed the utter ruthlessness of business interests with armies to enforce their will on disenfranchised, helpless peasant populations. Walker rigs the game to go one way, and ten years later returns on the other side, wiping out both of the original rebellions in the name of an English sugar company. And the second time around England is barely involved at all - he's no longer working for the Admiralty and his actions haven't a shred of legality.
Colonial armies vs. ragged rebels could easily become repetitive but Gillo Pontecorvo manages to keep it all interesting. Most of the action is filmed Spaghetti Western style, with long lenses; the picture is refreshingly free of excess brutality as Brando's walker prefers to talk most of the time. Producer Alberto Grimaldi lines up Ennio Morricone for an okay score featuring African percussion. One chanted rebel theme, however, sounds a lot like Morricone's work for Navajo Joe. What Grimaldi can't come up with are English soldiers. The costumes are okay but only a few faces in close-up are convincing. Scenes of rebels pursued through burning cane fields remind us of The Big Gundown, another Grimaldi Spaghetti with a politically committed script. The title sequence looks like the handiwork of the man responsible for the titles on the Dollars films.
Burn! stacks up as a primer on colonial misdeeds with a script that doesn't force interpretations of contemporary global power struggles -- although Walker does mention interesting work coming up in Indo-China! I don't remember any great furor over the movie, perhaps because it was in period costume and also because critics were too amused by taking potshots at Brando's performance. He's actually very good, avoiding the narcissism and fussy foolery of, say, Mutiny on the Bounty.
Sony's DVD (with "MGM" on the packaging) of Burn! is an okay but not thrilling transfer of a movie that probably could use a restoration reach-back to better elements. Colors are on the rough side and the grain a bit high, although the image has good contrast. There are no extras, just the usual steaming stack of recent Sony trailers.
The web controversy this time around concerns the version of Burn! on the disc. John Kirk of MGM has restored an original Italian-language cut that is twenty minutes longer. It's been shown in theaters but has never been transferred, presumably because Brando is dubbed into Italian and English-speaking audiences presumably want to hear his own voice. If this were an independent DVD release the long version would doubtlessly be offered, changing to Italian with English subs for the missing scenes. No big American studio has done this kind of thing ... frankly, explaining the concept to a Home Video department would be a frustrating exercise: "See more of the picture? Why?" And Burn! isn't going to light up the charts to a degree warranting special editions with two versions included, etc. and so forth. I'll be looking for Burn! at the New Beverly or a museum showing, because now I'm curious to find out what I missed. There is a curious center section where a narrator breaks in to give a quick rundown on what's happened to Walker and the island of Queimada for the last ten years ...
After my experience with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly it's too bad we couldn't have been aware of this problem ten years ago, when Brando might (I stress might) have been induced to re-dub the rest of his scenes. Or perhaps he did dub them when the film was new, and those tracks were included in the contents of an entire MGM-UA vault that was thrown away in 1989 ... alternate versions, audio elements ... you know, useless stuff. If what I've heard about Brando is true, he wasn't in the habit of doing anything for big studios without demanding the kind of paychecks that buy islands in the South Seas, so maybe it's just as well that we didn't know.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Video: Fair + (it would be Good if it were the long version)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 11, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson