Burn! – Uncut
If we’re to believe the point of view of the Dr. Mengele doppelganger in the recent revenge-on-the-Nazis thriller The Debt, then the SS believed that the reason the Jews were the perfect victims was because they were not going to fight back. Not that they weren’t strong people, but that they believed in self-preservation. To rebel individually meant you would get killed, and self-sacrifice was not in their vocabulary. Wise, fearful sheep was closer to what the villain in The Debt was describing.
Now, in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn!, Marlon Brando’s character of William Walker finds himself in a conversation with a businessman on the island of Queimada regarding the slave revolt that Walker has secretly orchestrated. The man says* to Walker, “It’s very odd that black people have so much courage and ability.”
Obviously, both sentiments are rooted in ignorance, racism and underestimation. But, rather than the tepid and simplistic revenge film that director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Proof) came up with for The Debt, Pontecorvo had a much larger canvas in mind for Burn! Unfortunately, because of the political climate at the time, until this screening, we were only able to see a fraction of it.
You see, in 1964, Fred Zinnemann (A Man for all Seasons, High Noon, The Day of the Jackal) made Behold a Pale Horse for Columbia. That film was one of the first to go into the heavy details of the Spanish Civil War, which was the reason that it was banned in Spain. As a result, fascist dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco banned all Columbia films from opening in Spain, costing the studio millions of dollars.
So when, on the heels of his controversial, worldwide hit, 1966’s The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo wanted to make a film** about a slave revolt on a Spanish-run island, Franco (and, therefore, Spain) objected to the screenplay and threatened not to show the film at all. In turn, United Artists balked on financing the film about the slave revolt engineered by William Walker in order to find a way to profit off of the burgeoning sugar trade. So Pontecorvo made a deal to change the setting of the film to an island run by the Portuguese (and the title to Queimada, which means burnt in Portuguese), even if, historically, it made no sense. The thinking was that Portugal was a lot smaller market of people to offend than Spain.
That early concession was one of the few Pontecorvo was willing to make voluntarily. He insisted that Brando star in the film (he was in his “wilderness” years at this point), despite the studio’s insistence on casting a bigger, more bankable star, like Steve McQueen. That turned out to be a key decision, because Brando’s daring in turning Walker into a dandy fop with an affected accent lends tons of subtext to his scenes with the slave, Jose Dolores (non-actor Evaristo Márquez). Brando manipulates Dolores into becoming a rebel leader. But, as far as we can tell, Walker has no real motive for starting the revolt; he’s just an employee of the British government with a very specific salary. The homoerotic subtext*** makes even more sense in the uncut version, where we see that Walker has abandoned his young, blonde wife and is always out at sea, traveling on “business.” Whether the brief scene with the wife (and the surrounding section detailing Walker’s anxiousness about staying in one place for too long) was cut to eliminate the sexual subtext is unclear. But, by taking it out, it muddies Walker’s motives entirely. If you don’t want to believe there’s something sexual going on between Walker and Jose Dolores, you could at least buy into Walker’s nomadic nature, as well as his need to get out of a country before everyone wises up to him.
Why, if Pontecorvo had already changed the setting to appease Spain and United Artists, did the film suffer further cuts? Well, the film went over budget, with Brando causing lots of trouble on set. (He spoke no language other than English, and the Italian crew and Spanish extras were not fond of him.) And, before the film was to open in the U.S., United Artists hired an editor to tighten up the film and cut most of the incendiary political material. The cuts made the film exponentially more simplistic. This decision never made a lot of sense, because the studio eventually buried the film, dumping it in later 1970 and just hoping it would go away.**** Why spend the money cutting it if you’re just going to bury it, anyway?
For years, the only way to see the film was in this butchered American version. But luckily in 2004 Pontecorvo, just before his death, cut together what was as close as he could get to his original vision. Unfortunately, he only had Italian audio, and most of the lengthy speeches that Brando expertly performed, became overly dry and didactic. Still, it’s a preferable film, as almost all of the cuts made are not only heartbreaking because of the quality of the scenes, but bewildering. The opening moments of the film have the captain of a ship explaining to Walker the history of the island, all of the locations that will become relevant, the various potential identity and racial conflicts. The American edited version of this scene is short and useless, just telling us the bare minimum, not delving into any of the pain that is paramount to the film. At the time of its original release, the criticism of the film was that the first hour was rather garbled and rushed and the tension and power of the film was in the mostly dialogue-free and furiously violent second half.
Of course, all of the changes made to Pontecorvo’s original version take place in the first hour of the film (amounting to somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 17 minutes). And the second hour is that much more powerful with the proper context set up. (It’s important to know that the natives are subtly being converted to Christianity and that their assimilation isn’t all that smooth.) Because it isn’t as if generations of slavery can be turned around simply because one of your own is given some temporary power. You’re not going to have a handle on the economic complications inherent in running a country when you’ve never had to worry about this sort of stuff before because you’ve just relied on those who exploit you. We see that it isn’t just Walker who has sinister intentions, as all of the white people are aware of what they are doing, only ever feeling threatened when the slaves begin to understand the con game at work.
There are absolutely unforgettable scenes establishing the symmetrical nature of how Walker behaves and Jose Dolores reacts. Walker teaches Jose Dolores that he’ll experience the pain of mass murder only when he’s up close. But Walker can justify it from afar, when they’re not people, but just little dots (like Orson Welles in The Third Man). If there’s a better explanation for how people can justify exploitation and colonialism, I don’t know what it is.
* This line is in the uncut version of the film that was presented by Medium Rare Cinema. The line was cut from the American version.
** It was called, at the time, Quemada (the Spanish word for burnt).
*** A few years after Burn!, Brando made Last Tango in Paris, another exploration of masculinity, this time in the opposite direction, with Brando’s character going as far as he can to become a prototypical alpha male, guided only by testosterone, so he can get over the memory of his recently deceased wife. Last Tango, like Burn!, specializes in quick bursts of melodrama and violence, throwing the viewer off completely.
**** The film carries a 1968 copyright.