It’s not “The Godfather”. “Burn” is Brando’s best film, and Jesse Kornbluth tells us why.
How much do you love Marlon Brando?
So…have you seen the film that Brando thought had “the best acting I’ve ever done?
No. Not “The Godfather.” “Burn.”
You haven’t seen “Burn” — indeed, you may never have heard of it — because:
1) It was made in 1970, before you were born.
2) It’s an action movie/political thriller about colonialism, and any film that came out at the height of the Vietnam war and exposed — or even discussed— economic and racial exploitation had no chance of success. In fact, despite positive reviews, its American distributor raced to get it out of the theaters.
3) For donkey’s years, there was only a sucky VHS tape.
Why you should, at your earliest opportunity, see this movie:
1) It’s Gillo Pontecorvo’s follow-up to Battle of Algiers a film about colonialism and terrorism so evergreen that the Pentagon screened it before we invaded Iraq.
2) Unlike “Battle of Algiers” — made in black-and-white and shot to look like a documentary — “Burn” is a big-screen epic, set in an exotic location, shot in color.
3) Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack could be his greatest ever. If you’ve ever heard the Missa Luba, imagine it on steroids. Or just watch the opening credits of “Burn.”
4) Marlon Brando.
5) It is so exciting — I mean intellectually exciting, emotionally exciting, even, dare I say, spiritually exciting — that you’ll never forget it, never stop quoting from it, never stop arguing with it.
What’s “Burn” about? In Portuguese, “burn” is “quiemada.” (In the film, it’s the name of a fictional Caribbean Island; in Europe, it was also the movie’s title.) In the 1600s, the “natives” rebelled. The Portuguese response: burn the sugar fields and kill thousands, then bring over slaves from Africa. (So far, so factual. In many ways, this is the story of Haiti and the 1790s uprising led by Toussaint-Louverture.)
The movie starts in the early 1800s. The slaves are restless. The sugar they harvest is a big cash crop. A splendid time for the English to stir up more trouble. — and move the Portuguese out.
Sir William Walker” — Marlon Brando — is the British agent. (Feel free to see him as a CIA operative.) He’s a fop in a lavender scarf, flask of whiskey never out of reach. Cynical? Cold? He finds a slave named José Dolores (played by Evaristo Márquez, a non-actor who had, in fact, never seen a movie) and convinces him to lead a revolt. It succeeds. But no way are the ex-slaves capable of governing — “Who will buy your sugar, José?” — so Brando encourages them to let the English run things.
More slavery or “freedom” — that’s the first big decision for Queimada. After the Portuguese have been expelled, Brando makes the case for “freedom” to the white leaders. [On the video, this amazing monologue begins at 8:30.]
Sir William Walker: Gentlemen, let me ask you a question. Now, my metaphor may seem a trifle impertinent, but I think it’s very much to the point. Which do you prefer — or should I say, which do you find more convenient: a wife, or one of these mulatto girls? No, no, please don’t misunderstand: I am talking strictly in terms of economics. What is the cost of the product? What is the product yield? The product, in this case, being love — uh, purely physical love, since sentiments obviously play no part in economics.
Sir William Walker: Quite. Now, a wife must be provided with a home, with food, with dresses, with medical attention, etc, etc. You’re obliged to keep her a whole lifetime even when she’s grown old and perhaps a trifle unproductive. And then, of course, if you have the bad luck to survive her, you have to pay for the funeral!.
Sir William Walker: It’s true, isn’t it? Gentlemen, I know it’s amusing, but those are the facts, aren’t they? Now with a prostitute, on the other hand, it’s quite a different matter, isn’t it? You see, there’s no need to lodge her or feed her, certainly no need to dress her or to bury her, thank God. She’s yours only when you need her, you pay her only for that service, and you pay her by the hour! Which, gentlemen, is more important — and more convenient: a slave or a paid worker?
Rather brilliant, don’t you think? And it comes to pass: England manages a “free” Quemada. And Brando goes back to England.
Jump ahead twelve years. José Dolores has come to understand how little has changed for his people. Now he’s a rebel leader, commander of an ever-growing insurrectionary militia.
Time for Brando to return to Queimada and put down the man he befriended and mentored. And time for me to say no more. Except this: “Burn” is more thrilling than any political screed I’ve ever read. And this: Even if you’re sick of politics, you may find this movie unforgettable.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler.