Burn! (1970): Pontecorvo’s Indictment of Colonialism, Starring Brando

Marlon Brando’s involvement in Burn! reflected his wish to make films about political causes he believed in.

In 1968, disturbed and depressed by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, he was engaged in civil rights causes, particularly those pertaining to blacks and Native Americans.

Brando admired Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant epic, The Battle of Algiers, which received a 1967 Oscar nomination as the best foreign film. A political film, it served as a rallying cause for youths of the western world. Similarly, Burn! can be seen as an indictment of colonialism, international Big Business, and slavery.

Pontecorvo claimed that he intended to make a romantic adventure and film of ideas, but despite initial enthusiasm, the director and actor did not get along and by the end of the difficult nine-month-shoot they were not on speaking terms.

Co-written by Pontecorvo, his reliable scribe Franco Solinas, and Giorgio Arlorio, the story is inspired by an old factual incident, when the Spanish army razed a Caribbean island in order to quell a native uprising.

The island became known as Quemada (Spanish word for burnt). Replacing the exterminated population with a colony of slaves, the Spaniards set up the island as a sugar-cane industry, with proceeds sent to Spain for the next three centuries.

The present Spanish government objected to the film, refusing the company permission to shoot sequences in Spain, and threatening to boycott it. The Italian and French producers then decided to shift the project to the Portuguese; the original title of the film was Quemada, but now the letter i was added to give it the Portuguese spelling of Queimada.

In North America, United Artists didn’t hold high hopes about the film’s commercial prospects and indeed, it failed.

Burn! begins in 1845, when Sir William Walker (Brando) arrives on the island of Queimada, as a seemingly innocent traveler but functioning as a British government agent, instructed to investigate a revolution that will break the Portuguese hold on the island and allow the British to take control of the sugar-cane industry.

Queimada has a population of 200,000, of whom only five thousand are Europeans. Searching for a subject to train as a revolutionary, Walker selects Jos?© Dolores (Evaristo Marquez), a strong, handsome black dock-worker. Walker also enlists Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori), an almost-white clerk with political ambitions. He then persuades Dolores to rob a bank, after which he informs on him, turning the man into an outlaw. Walker instructs Dolores and his followers how to use firearms, instilling in them the idea of overthrowing the Portuguese government.

Once a year the slaves are allowed to celebrate on the streets in costume, singing and dancing. During this chaotic occasion, Walker and Sanchez walk to the palace and kill the governor. Sanchez is greeted by the masses as the hero of the revolution. Walker’s scheme succeeds, and the economic policy, which bound the island to Portugal, is broken and is now open to the world market. Dolores, an inspiring rebel leader but incapable of governing disbands his army and allows Sanchez to assume the presidency. Sanchez signs an agreement with England, giving it control of the island¬ís sugarcane output, and Walker returns to London.

The narrative then jumps ten years ahead when Walker is a drunken drifter. However, because of his work in Queimada, the British sugar merchants ask him to return to the island, where trouble has arisen with corruption in the Sanchez regime and another revolution led by Dolores. British interests are now at stake and Walker recognizes the need to eliminate his own pupil. Fields, forests and villages are burned in the warfare between Dolores guerilla bands and the British military headed by Walker. Sanchez realizes that the British used his country. Before long, Walker arrests the president, charges him with treason, and arranges for his killing by a firing squad.

Adding Sanchez black troops to the British forces, Walker wins the fight against Dolores, but only after the island has been ruined by fire and pillage. The mentor and his student confront each other. Walker tells Jose It was inevitable that you had to lose.  But Jose refuses to accept Walker’s hand, and he also refuses to take advantage of Walker’s offer of escape, preferring to be executed and die as a martyr. The confused Walker asks him, What kind of revenge is it if you’re dead, to which Jose replies, If a man gives you freedom, it is not freedom. Freedom is something you take for yourself.

Walker has defeated himself by creating a true revolutionary. With the island’s trouble quelled, Walker prepares to leave. He makes his way through the crowds to his boat, but a black man who offers to carry his suitcases stabs him to death with a knife.

Pontecorvo handles well the action sequences, with masses of extras (twenty thousand were used in Colombia), engaged in exciting, violent street fights that have the feel of a docudrama. He stages exciting scenes of the wild carnival, which serves as a cover for the governor¬ís assassination, the victorious black soldiers running along the beaches, the riots in the villages, and the battles in the mountains that culminate in Dolores’ capture.

A blatantly political film, Burn displays Marxist ideology in its anti-colonial struggle. Made in the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, parallels between the two situations were drawn by critics and viewers, even it if British, not Americans, were the villains of the piece.

Shooting the film in Colombia, with headquarters in Cartagena, meant transporting crew and equipment to a remote location. As a result, the shoot took full nine months. Most of the footage was shot in Colombia, but Brando, tired of the long process, left the location. Hence, the sequence of capturing Jose Dolores was filmed near Marrakech, Morocco; the London sequences were shot in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios; the scene of a brigantine approaching the port of Queimada was filmed in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; and the port activity was staged in San Malo, in northern France.

Brando’s interpretation of William Walker recalls his role of Fletcher Christian in Mutiny of the Bounty (1962), playing another English gentleman, whose gentle speech and soft manners mask iron will and tough intent. As perceived by Brando, Walker is not a villain but a pragmatist with a tough task to accomplish. This differs from Pontecorvo, who sees him as the evil catalyst of the story. Brando wanted to give him a lighter, bemused manner and a darker, outrageous humor.

“Burn” suffers from being a heavy-handed film, and Pontecorvo, who had directed only three films prior to this, insisted on a largely amateur cast. Half of the principal players had never acted before, and as Brando’s co-star, Pontecorvo selected Evaristo Marquez, an illiterate Colombian cane-cutter who had never seen a film. Communication was also a major problem: Brando spoke to his director in French, to the crew in Italian and to his peers in Spanish.


I am grateful to Tony Thomas and to the Research Center of the Library of AMPAS for providing details about the making and reception of this picture.


Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez) Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori) Shelton (Norman Hill) General Prada (Tom Lyons) Guarina (Wanani) Juanito (Joseph Persuad) Henry (Gianpiero Albertini) Jack (Carlo Pammucci) Lady Bella (Cecily Browne) Francesca (Dana Ghia) Ramon (Maurice Rodriguez) English Major (Alejandro Obregon)


An Alberto Grimaldi Production, co-produced with Produzioni Europee Associates (Rome) and Les Productions Artistes Associes (Paris). Produced by Alberto GRimaldi. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Screenplay by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio, based on an original story by Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio. Photographed in Deluxe Color by Marcello Gatti. Art direction by Sergio Canevari. Edited by Mario Morra.

Musical score by Ennio Morricone.

Running time: 112 minutes.