People always ask me what my all time favorite film is. 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 blu-ray DVD set from Criterion) is a searing and exciting docudrama which deals with the beginnings of the Algerian Resistance movement in the late 50′s to throw French colonialists out of the country and gain independence. I don’t have enough words to tell you about that film. It’s perfect as far as I’m concerned, and I urge all readers out there to check it out.
But this piece isn’t about that film, but rather on Pontecorvo’s followup film, “Burn!” which was financed and distributed by United Artists and released the U.S in 1970. It starred Marlon Brando, who said later, that he felt he gave perhaps his best performance in the film! Pontecorvo, who died in 2006, only made a handful of films, but when he did, they were something to behold as “Burn” is.
Set in the mid-19th century Brando plays a mercenary working for British business interests who comes to the fictionalized Portuguese controlled West Indian island of Queimada (Burn). His mission is to foment a black slave rebellion in order to force the Portuguese out. However, once they’re gone, the British intend to move in and run the place, making a fortune from tea and other goods.
The only thing Brando’s character needs, however, is to find someone with the leadership and rebellious qualities, and the charisma to lead such a revolt. He eventually finds him in Jose Dolores, played by 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 while Dolores is taught the tricks and trades of starting a rebellion. But things go very sour when, after the Portuguese are thrown out, Dolores realizes that he has been set up as a pasty and is forced to relinquish control to the British.
Years later, the British businessmen running the island and making a fortune have a hard time with Dolores and his scrappy 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 watched it many times, and every time, I see something new. It is without question one of the most radical and revolutionary films ever made by a major film studio. But then again, as I have said before more than once, the late 1960′s and the 1970′s were a Golden Age for all sorts of films; perhaps the greatest decade ever for films, and audiences as well, who weren’t afraid to take on controversial and difficult issues.
Today’s movies, I dare say, have become eunuchs in effect. “Burn!” is a complex, challenging, unapologetically hardcore leftest political film that deals quite bluntly with race, colonialism, the exploitation of the “Third World” and greedy, cynical capitalism. It’s just as relevant today as it was, when it was released back in 1970.
The film is available on DVD on Fox/MGM label. However two disappointing things about the DVD: it’s not anamorphic; and it’s the U.S. 112 minute version, which is 20 minutes shorter than the version released overseas. Why Fox/MGM decided to do that is puzzling since there is an excellent restored print and negative of the longer version, which has been screened in the U.S. that was available to make a DVD from. However, the good news is that some specialty label, such as Twilight Time, which has released several United Artists titles from the 60’s and 70’s, or perhaps Criterion, will release the longer version on their label some day.
But try to check it out anyway, in whatever version you have access to. It’s worth it.