Combustible Celluloid
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With: Marlon Brando, Evaristo Marquez, Norman Hill, Thomas Lyons
Written by: Franco Solinas, Giorgio Arlorio, Gillo Pontecorvo (uncredited)
Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo
MPAA Rating: R for some violence and nudity
Language: English, Italian with English subtitles
Running Time: -99
Date: 12/21/1969

Burn! (1969)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Sugar Town

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Restored in 2004, Gillo Pontecorvo's extraordinary 1969 film tells the story of William Walker (Marlon Brando), a kind of agent provocateur sent to a fictitious Caribbean island to instigate a slave revolt and gain control of the island's sugar. He trains a black leader, Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez), who fights against the Portuguese and the British to achieve freedom for the slaves. Walker leaves and must return ten years later to help destroy the very thing he created.

Of course, it's far more complicated than that, and Pontecorvo is acutely aware of the modern-day political parallels with his story, especially that of Vietnam. Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, The Wide Blue Road) crafts a huge, colorful epic more tuned in to specific time and place than a Hollywood film might be. Everything feels up close and immediate, and Brando ties everything together with his clever performance. He mixes just the right amount of compassion and distance for Walker to do his job effectively.

As with Visconti's The Leopard -- which also had an American star -- Burn! was cut for its English language release, and the longer, much better Italian version, also known as Queimada, is considered the definitive cut. Yet, we definitely miss something by not having Brando's voice, and his coy English accent, in this new restored version. Perhaps a DVD release will include both versions for posterity. The legendary Ennio Morricone provides the film's rousing, enticing score.

In 1988, Ed Harris played the same character in Alex Cox's Walker.

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