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Gillo Pontecorvo



Queimada (a.k.a Burn!) 1968 | dir Gillo Pontecorvo | writ Francos Salinas & Giorgio Arlorio (story & screenplay) | prod Alberto Grimaldi | cine Marcello Gatti & Giuseppe Ruzzolini | edt Mario Morla | music Ennio Morricone

star Marlon Brando (Sir William Walker) Evaristo Marquez (Jose Dolores) Renato Salvatore (Teddy Sanchez) Norman Hill (Shelton) Thomas Lyons (Gen. Alonso Prada)

§§ Credits appear over a montage that sums up the violence of the sugar rebellions in the Antilles Islands of the Caribbean in the 18th Century. Burning plantations, bodies, soldiers, fleeing slaves, the population in tragic turmoil, etc. The motifs of fire and blood -- repeated throughout the film -- are immediately established.

A sailing ship approaches the Portuguese island of Queimada [meaning: fire or burnt rum] bearing Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando), a handsome agent provocateur retained by the British Admiralty. When he steps onto the quay a muscular black man approaches him in the crowd, says, "Your bags, senor?" Thus Walker meets Jose Dolores (Evarista Marquez), the man who will become his friend, then enemy and nemesis.

The meeting is brief, however. From his hotel room, Walker witnesses the death by garrote of the black rebel Santiago; when his widow and children come to collect his body with a hand cart, Walker follows them on horseback.

Their home village is in the hills, and the way is steep. Walker dismounts, helps them pull the cart, tries to engage the widow in conversation. He wants to meet a friend of Santiago's, "a man like Santiago." This eventually leads him back to Jose Dolores, who is kneeling in prayer in a church. Walker accuses him of stealing his bags, then sequesters him for some white man discipline. Walker isn't a sadist or even a de facto racist, he simply has an agenda. He challenges Jose by smashing him around, by provoking the instinctive rebel within him. It's an interesting scene, as it establishes the power differential between the master and the slave, the white and the black. It's a rapid education -- perhaps too rapid to be believable -- and might be an example of why many consider Pontecorvo's didactic style agit propaganda. Soon they are exchanging drinks -- Walker's habitual flask of whiskey and Jose's saucer of rum -- and Walker is grooming Jose to lead the next insurrection.

Brando in Queimada

Santiago (Queimada)

Jose Dolores

Walker is crafty, though. At first he makes the mission personal, not political. They will rob the local Banco Esprito Santo, split the gold, escape on a ship Walker says he has waiting, and then they can go their separate ways. "Even to Africa?" says Jose. "Even to Africa," says Walker.

They rob the bank, and Jose and his gang return to their village in the hills. Walker meanwhile is working the other side of the subterfuge. He meets with the principal plantation owners, suggests they overthrow the puppet Portuguese regime, and tells them where he believes the stolen gold is. In essence he's setting up an alliance between the disgruntled local ruling class -- many of whom are mestizo -- and the slave class, the blacks who work the sugar plantations and suffer the brutal indignities of colonialism. This is all to the advantage of the British Admiralty within the complex history of European competition in the Caribbean and central America, and the contagion of the French and American revolutions. The narrative here isn't easy to follow, and even the alert viewer might lose the plot. Voice dubbing, quasi documentary time shifting, multiple characters (with little characterization), and expositional dialogue heavy with politics obscures the action within the spectacle and the tragedy.

Walker arrives at the village with horses and rifles, just ahead of the Portuguese slave soldiers sent to track down the robbers. At this point he convinces Jose Dolores to stand and fight for the freedom of his people rather than escape with the gold, assume the dubious life of a pirate. The magic of his fantastic persuasion doesn't end here: even though the soldiers appear to be only minutes away, Walker has enough time to a) persuade the villagers to stay and fight, and b) demonstrate to the men how to load and prime a musket. Cut to: a bunch of dead soldiers scattered on the scorched ground. Whether hours or days elapsed between the lesson and the event matters not -- this is history by dialectical montage.

Walker then meets with the planter Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatore), tells him, "England wants what you want -- Free Trade." Their goals coincide with progress and civilization, etcetera. Thus Walker manipulates everyone like a god playing both sides against the middle and no one disputes the wisdom of his agenda. Teddy agrees to a putsch with the support of Jose that will make him, Teddy, President; afterwards he meets Jose Dolores -- now General -- to discuss a new constitution. Jose sits on a throne in a bare room, wearing a shabby uniform in a sad parody of the colonial culture he has rebelled against. In the streets, the people celebrate to the beat of the voodoo drum.

Of course paradise doesn't arrive, although Walker leaves Queimada for 10 years to take care of business elsewhere, still no aficionado of rum, a cynic who deals in the art of real politic while retaining a soft spot for Jose Dolores.

This 10 year hiatus lacks dramatic power as the decline of the new republic isn't adequately shown [it's summed up in a sidebar during a meeting between Walker and the planters]. So the decade goes missing with both sides of the story. Rather simply two agents of the sugar growers track down Walker in a seedy London tavern where he's in the middle of a brawl. They offer him money, and he agrees to return to Queimada and hunt Jose Dolores who has rebelled against the new government and is carrying on a guerrilla campaign from the sierras.

It's a big story to be sure, and a romantic one, although not romantic in the feminine sense. There are no significant female characters, only fighting men and dead bodies, horses and dogs. While Pontecorvo's objective was to blend the romantic adventure and the film of ideas, Walker exists as a poet without a lover. He has the words, he has the horse, he has the politics, but he has no woman. Jose Dolores has the look, the words, and the machete, but no woman. Of all the principals, he exists as an idea rather than as a character. If the goal here was to create Lord Byron meets Black Orpheus, then the romance definitely goes missing.

In some sequences, Ennio Morricone's score with its harmonium and mad revivalist-tent choruses suggests parody rather than realism, seems at odds with this somber story.

However, the fact that 20 minutes was cut from the director's original 132 minute Italian version doesn't help, and perhaps one day this version of Queimada will be available in North America. You can see the brilliance in the authenticity of period and setting, and it would be helpful to see the entirety of what Pontecorvo created.

There's a lot of panorama in this film, as Pontecorvo is the master of the long shot. Much of the action is at a distance, seen through a telescope, seen from a hillside looking down or looking up. Or the wide view, the omniscient view... a running slave pursued by dogs, emerging from the stand of mature cane... or Walker standing with his back to the burning field and the low bloated sun. It's a documentary view, a newsreel view, an ideological view... at times an authentic view.

In the second half, Pontecorvo finds the rhythm of his story in the tension between dialogue and landscape, irony and history. Walker and the redcoats hunt the rebels in the sierra. The drums keep beating, the fires burning, and Jesus rides a white horse. The sayings of Jose Dolores are repeated by the black population as maxims for a future revolution.

While the highly superstitious Pontecorvo might've been a lapsed Marxist, he wasn't adverse to the deification of his victims, and Jose Dolores goes to the gallows secure in the knowledge that through his legend he will rise again. If you compare his character to that of the amazing Toussaint-Louverture, the black freeman who fought a guerrilla war against the French (and the British & Spanish) in the 1790s that led to the establishment of a black republic in Haiti, you will recognize clear similarities; in fact the entire story of Queimada owes much to the story of Haiti.

The character of Sir William Walker is quite similar to that of his namesake, William Walker the American mercenary who staged a coup in Nicaragua and had himself made President for a brief period. This followed similar stunts in the Mexican state of Sonora and Lower California. He was executed by firing squad in Honduras in 1860, an incorrigible apostle of Manifest Destiny. Again, the idea of a man of action, he who can manipulate people, shape history, become a legend. The difference, of course, is that Brando's character wants no power for himself. He doesn't know why he does what he does, and he just wants to do it well. An artist? The alter-ego of Pontecorvo himself? While Pontecorvo isn't credited with the screenplay, you suspect a great deal of the story came from him, especially when you compare it to his most famous film, The Battle of Algiers (1966).

Queimada: burning canefield

your bags, senor?

Why would Queimada be Marlon Brando's favorite film? Especially when he hated Pontecorvo's obsessive direction of (up to) 49 takes per scene, and in fact deserted the shoot in Cartagena, Colombia, before the film was finished? Problems with bandits, heat and horrible conditions, a stoned-out crew... miscommunication.... (Pontecorvo spoke no English & packed a pistol) made the experience less than ideal for him. But "you have to separate people from their talent," said Brando in his acerbic recollection of Pontecorvo in Lawrence Grobel's Conversations with Brando (1991).

According to Peter Manso in his Brando biography, this wasn't a good period in the actor's life. He was in a middle-age skid, drinking heavily, doing acid, and binge-eating while holed-up in his Mulholland Drive house, and when the Pontecorvo film came along he welcomed the project as a chance to re-legitimize his career.

Action films like Morituri (1966) and The Night Of The Following Day (1967) were hack jobs done for money -- Queimada was something else, a serious script that fitted well with his social activism on behalf of the American Indian and the black civil rights movement. While he played his fake Nazi agent provocateur in Morituri to perfection, his portrayal of Sir William Walker seems less effective, although it allowed him to be both a thug and an intellectual, exploit the strengths of his acting style. He has the look, no question -- the stocky English bulldog, arrogant, cynical and dangerous, yet behind it all, a humanist. No clowning, just serious work.

"Now listen to me you black ape," says Walker, "I didn't start this. I arrived here and you were already butchering one another." Jose, who has refused to speak to Walker, just spits in his face. At this point he gives up trying to save Jose, goes to the site of the gallows where he finds a worker trying to make a noose. Walker takes the rope, deftly applies the hangman's knot, says, "You see, Paco, this is how they do it." Indeed. Walker mounts his horse; he doesn't wait around for Jose's execution, as he must hurry to his own.

© Lawrence Russell / March 2010

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