Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Burn, baby, Burn!
Last night, as part of our regular series of socialist films in Swindon, we showed “Burn” directed by Gillo Pontecovo. The Portuguese language version “Quemada” is unavailable, and in any event the original cinema release in Britain was dubbed, and in the curious way that spaghetti westerns work, the dubbing somehow adds to the exoticism and authenticity.
This is an amazing film, and Marlon Brando plays Sir William Walker, the same actually existing historical character who was subject of Alex Cox’s piss-poor 1987 film, “Walker”. (It was an tremendous conceit of Cox that he sought to surpass the Pontecovo and Brando film!) Rather improving upon history, Pontecovo makes Walker an Englishman, an agent provocateur who stirs up slave revolt and a movement for national liberation from Portugal, in the interests of the British crown and sugar companies.
Nothing is simple, as Brando creates his own Toussaint Louverture, by manipulating a slave rebellion, under the leadership of amazingly charismatic actor, Evaristo Marquez. Simultaneously, he coaches the slave owners towards recognising the advantages of wage labour and independence, and the necessity of heading off the slave revolt into constitutional paths. In arguments of acute contemporary relevence when the film was made, the victorious slave army find that their cultural poverty undermines the potential of their victory over colonialism - they simply need the expertise of the former slave owners.
Brando pulls off an amazing role, because he is both historically convincing as a charming agent of perfidious Albion, while at the same time his part allows him to express in words, for the benefit of the audience, the developing realisation of their class interests by the capitalists and rebellious slaves. Had the role been played by a lesser actor (Ed Harris in "Walker", for example!), this would have been creaky, but the animal presence of Brando leaves no room for scepticism.
Ten years later, Brando returns as the agent of the sugar companies, and provokes a coup, the introduction of British troops, and a classic Vietnam style counter-insurgency war (The film was made in 1969!) to destroy the guerrillas, who have taken to arms again once they realise that wage labour is just another form of slavery. The final victory goes to Evaristo Marquez, who choses to hang, rather than be given freedom at the whim of his conquerors, thus he keeps the spirt of rebellion alive. As his fictional character, General Jose Dolores, explains: freedom is not worth having if it is given, it has to be taken.
It is inexplicable that this film is so little known.