Criterion Prediction #39: Burn!, by Alexander Miller
Title: Burn! aka Queimada
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Cast: Marlon Brando, Evaristo Márquez, Renato Salvatori, Dana Ghia, Carlo Palmucci
Synopsis: The British government installs mercenary/agent provocateur William Walker in the fictitious island Queimada to stage a slave revolt with the intent that it will destabilize the Portuguese administration in order to exploit the lucrative sugar trade.
Critique: Pontecorvo and credited screenwriters Giorgio Arlorio and Franco Solinas used the real-life exploits of William Walker and his various privately-funded military exploits in South America as a foundation to explore (and condemn) colonialism and foreign occupation of any kinds. Enabled with a broader canvas, you can connect Burn! to the Haitian Revolution, the Malê Slave Revolt, and even the conflict in Vietnam (keep in mind this was filmed around the same time as the violent escalation of the Tet Offensive).
There’s a substantial level of contrast between Burn! and The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo’s most famous film – the director’s treatment of the material might read like cross purposes, but Pontecorvo’s blend of realism and epic grandeur proves to be a winning formula.
Marlon Brando might not be the first name you associate with neo-realism, especially at this point in his career when he was box office poison. However, Brando and Pontecorvo’s political acumen aligned so well it aided the production; even when the temperamental star locked horns with the detail-oriented director, their mutual appreciation for the material sustained them. Despite his inherent difficulties, Brando’s performance is outstanding. He rightly considered Burn! to be some of his finest work. Next to Brando was Evaristo Maárquez, an illiterate native herdsman who had never even seen a movie before, let alone act in one. Pontecorvo’s insistence on realism resulted in casting many native Portuguese, and Maárquez’s screen character (as well as the countless supporting players and extras played by natives) lend to the films raw sense of historical accuracy.
Rough-hewn and realistic, with moments that feel like a genuine documentary, Pontecorvo takes full advantage of an ample budget provided by producer Alberto Grimaldi, who recognized the director’s brilliance after the critical success of Kapò and The Battle of Algiers. Pontecorvo never lacked ambition, but major studio backing provided him with a larger scope than he ever had before. Burn! not only looks terrific, replete with astonishing battle sequences, costumes, forts, and old-timey ships, but it maintains a defiant anticolonialist message. Though the final product feels a little uneven, and there’s some expository dialogue (kind of a necessity considering the material), I would like to assume the full-length version (which adds twenty minutes) would round these edges off.
The visual spectacle paired with a star of Brando’s stature might seem off-putting, especially for those who identify with the director’s incisive earlier work, but Burn! is a standout example of realized ambition. The scale is on par with the work of David Lean, but the message is a revolutionary rebel yell, an unlikely but fascinating combination. It’s one of the few instances where a director whose incendiary style (no pun intended) isn’t marred, but bolstered mainstream backing, international attention.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: It is easy to overlook (or simply forget about) Laserdiscs entirely, but Criterion featured some pretty amazing titles back in the days of this outmoded format. Many titles have been revived in Criterion’s DVD/Blu-ray line; Black Orpheus, Seven Samurai, The Big Chill, others not so much. Among those many titles is Burn!, and with Cat People on the way it seems like Criterion can still draw from the Laserdisc well. Does that mean I shouldn’t give up hope for a Blu-ray release of Menace II Society?
Criterion does right by plenty of films, but their standout releases (in my opinion) are those that provide multiple versions and cuts of the movie in question. The Leopard includes the English-dubbed U.S. release, Red River features both theatrical and prerelease versions (same with My Darling Clementine), not to mention, the “Love Conquers All” edition of Brazil.
Like many Italian co-productions of the era, almost all of the dialogue in Burn! was dubbed, and cut into various running times. In the truncated English-language version, we hear Brando’s voice but almost everyone else is dubbed and it clocks in nearly twenty minutes shy of the official cut. The Italian/Spanish language version runs 122 minutes, flows a bit smoother, but it’s hard to see Brando on screen without hearing his voice. Sources (Wikipedia) indicate that the “restored” version runs 132 minutes, and although I have not tracked it down, I would hedge my bets on that being the definitive edition of Burn!. Considering these various language tracks and running times, I think Criterion is the only game in town up to the curious task of cobbling this into a cohesive feature, providing both language tracks, and hopefully tuning up the audio because that Ennio Morricone’s score is awesome.
Some qualifiers for a film getting the Criterion treatment are motivated by the auteur theory, distribution (or rights) or an overlooked movie that is in need of reappraisal. All of those arguments can be made for Burn!, not to mention it was a Criterion Laserdisc, and if you check the scorecard, it wouldn’t be the first. Although the critical reaction to this film is mixed, there’s a good chance the Criterion treatment, presenting the film in its best form would reinvigorate its so-so reputation.