Burn! (Quemada!) (1969)

Colonialism and postcolonialismArt. Fiction Film/Vidéo en ligneBRANDO, Marlon (1924-1984)

Engrossing drama by Gillo Pontecorvo, laced with political allegory and based on a true incident, stars Marlon Brando as a British agent sent to a 19th-century Caribbean island to instigate a revolt by sugar cane workers against their Portuguese overseers

Gillo Pontecorvo’s "Burn!" must surely be one of the most underrated films of recent years. This can be explained in part by its involved and intricate plot which, on first viewing, is difficult to follow. Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) soldier of fortune, adventurer and an envoy of the British Crown is sent during the 1840’s to an island named Quemada. The island was originally burned to cinder in the scorched earth conquest by the Portuguese who claimed it as a colony- hence the name "Quemada" which means "burnt." Walker’s mission is to foment a revolution against Portugal among the oppressed peasantry with a view to replacing Portuguese control with that of Great Britain.

He arms a peasant named Jose Dolores whom he first tests for daring and bitterness. With a small band of followers, Dolores, guided by Walker, robs the Bank of Portugal of its gold and goes on to lead the struggle against the Portuguese. After victory, Dolores discovers that the new ruler of the island will be not himself, but a local bourgeois named Teddy Sanchez.

The political aspirations of "Burn!" are ambitious. Unlike "The Battle of Algiers", Pontecorvo’s earlier film, which takes the easier target of colonialism and the desire for independence, without examination of social formations or the political consciousness of the F.L.N., Burn! recognizes that direct colonial rule is but one form of control. Without goals that go beyond mere physical absence of the colonizer’s army, economic and social exploitation will be maintained for alien interests by intermediaries, independent in name alone.

Neocolonialism is shown a far more invidious and clever enemy. The powerful evocation of the dynamics of America’s practice in Vietnam, with its graphic depiction of "Vietnamization," must surely be a major reason for the critical skittishness towards "Burns!" in the USA.

Pontecorvo has Walker make his next stop Indochina on first leaving Quemada, a piece of historical impressionism, since France and not England occupied Indochina in the 1840’s. It is a bitter irony when his friend Jose Dolores, not yet awakened to betrayal, innocently offers Walker a toast "to Indochina."


"Burn!" takes on this challenging theme. One of the film’s most subtle insights is that colonialism so succeeds in damaging its victims that should they take power, they have in advance been deprived of the means of exercising it.

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