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 out.
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 out.
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 TV’s.
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.