Now that 12 Years
A Slave has been out for a while and has become the subject of much
discussion, I think it’s time to
consider another film I’ve had on my mind that also deals with
the subject of slavery – Burn!
I wrote about Burn!
(AKA Queimada) over three years ago here on this site and I think it’s
now definitely time for a revisit. It’s a film that must be seen. And notice
I said must be seen, not that it should be
seen. I think it’s that essential.
But to start off, people always ask me what my all time
favorite film is. However, that’s a question with an impossible answer. I can’t
name just one; but stuck for an answer I always tell them it’s the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers by Italian
director Gillo Pontecorvo.
The film (which is available in a deluxe 3 DVD set from Criterion) is a searing and exciting
docu-drama which deals with the beginning of the Algerian Resistance movement in
the late 50′s to throw the French colonialists out of the country and gain its
own independence. I don’t have enough words to tell you about that film. It is
perfect as far as I’m concerned, and I urge all readers out there to check it
But this piece isn’t about that film; it’s about Pontecorvo’s followup to that film, which was released in the U.S. by United Artists in 1970 – Burn! starring Marlon Brando, who felt that his role
in the film was one of his best acting performances ever.
Pontecorvo, who died in 2006, made some 22 films
in his career – half of them documentaries and most of them never released in the
U.S., but those few that were, are something to behold as Burn! is.
And Burn!, like all of Pontecorvo’s films, reflect his unabashed
leftist radical beliefs. As he once said himself: “I am not an out-and-out
revolutionary. I am merely a man of the Left…” But suffice it to say, judging from Algiers and Burn!, revolution was not a dirty word to him. In fact I think it was something he
thought was necessary
Set in the mid-19th century, Brando plays a British mercenary,
working for British business interests, who comes to the Portuguese controlled
West Indian island of Queimada. His mission is to foment a black slave rebellion to force the Portuguese
The pan is that, once The Portuguese are thrown out, the British roll in and run the place, making a fortune from tea, sugar and other goods, using, of course, the very
same slave labor they pretended they wanted to help free.
The only thing Brando’s character needs is to find someone to
lead the revolt; and he finds that person in Jose Dolores, played by the
remarkably charismatic Evariato Marquez,
a non professional Pontecorvo discovered for the part (believe it or not, the
part was originally supposed to be played by Sidney Poitier, who bowed out).
Together they form a bond, but things go very sour when,
after the rebellion, Delores realizes that he had been set up as a pasty, and is pressured to relinquish control to the British.
Ten years later, the British businessmen, now running the
island, are now having a hard time with Dolores and his band of rebels causing
considerable trouble in a futile attempt to gain back control, and Brando is
brought back to the island to stop them. He’s the one who started it, so he’s
the one to end it. What happens and how it eventually ends, I won’t tell you.
You’ll just have to check out the film for yourself. But the final shot in
the film will haunt you, I guarantee.
Burn is simply extraordinary. I have seen it many times, and every time I see something new. It is without question one of the most
radical and revolutionary films ever financed by a major film studio. But the
late 60′s and the 70′s were a Golden Age for all sorts of films. Yes, you have
your 12 Years A Slave, but films like that today are few and far in between. Today, movies have become eunuchs in effect.
Burn! is a complex, challenging film that deals quite
bluntly with race, colonialism, the exploitation of the Third World and
capitalism. It doesn’t pull any punches or take the easy way out. It’s just as relevant today, as it was when it came out back in 1970.
The film is available on DVD via the Fox/MGM label. However, two disappointing things about the DVD are that, though it is widescreen
in the correct format ratio, it is not anamorphically enhanced for wide screen
The second problem is that the available DVD is the U.S. 112-minute version, which is 20
minutes shorter than the overseas version. Why Fox/MGM decided to do that, is
puzzling since there is an excellent restored print and negative of the longer
version that has been screened here in the U.S., and evidently was available to
make a DVD from. I saw the longer version a few years ago in a theater and
it looks terrific.
The one possible good news is that the specialty home
video label Twilight Time, starting
next month, will be releasing older United Artists films from the 1960s and
70s, in brand new remastered blu-ray editions, so it’s possible that Burn! is on their list of UA films.
Do yourself a favor and see Burn! It’s
that good and important.