Burn!, or Queimada, is a 1969 historical film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. It stars Marlon Brando, with Evaristo Márquez and Renato Salvatori. It was written by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio, who based the fictional story partly on the activities of William Walker, an American filibuster involved in the 1855 invasion of Nicaragua, and whose name was used for Brando’s character. The music was composed by Ennio Morricone, with the beautiful, anthemic “Abolisson” (“abolição,” or “abolition”–i.e., abolition of slavery, or abolition of private property) playing during the film’s opening credits.
Burn! has been critically acclaimed in the US and abroad. Edward Said praised it and Pontecorvo’s film, The Battle of Algiers, saying they “…stand unmatched and unexcelled since they were made in the 60s. Both films together constitute a political and aesthetic standard never again equaled.” The film gives a raw and uncompromising depiction of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery. Of these three evils, David N. Meyer said in The Brooklyn Rail that “…few other films ever address them at all,” something Michael Parenti has also observed. Indeed, anti-imperialist cinema like Burn! typically gets minimal distribution in theaters…for reasons that should be obvious.
Here is a link to quotes from the film, and here is a link to the full movie, partly in English and partly in Italian with English subtitles.
Sir William Walker is an agent provocateur, sent to the island of Queimada in 1844 by the British Admiralty, for the purpose of stirring up a slave revolt among the blacks on the island to remove the Portuguese regime, so the Antilles Royal Sugar Company can take over and economically exploit the place. In the Lesser Antilles, Queimada literally means “burnt,” because the Portuguese once had to burn the entire island down to put down the resistance of the indigenous people, after whose deaths blacks were brought to the island to work the cane fields.
The flames of Queimada are the hellfire of imperialism.
It’s interesting how in this film we have an American actor playing a British character based on an American, a casting that suggests the intersection of American and British imperialism. The notion of burning the entire island down, in a film made in 1969, when the Vietnam War was still going on, also invites comparison between the destructiveness of the imperialism of the past with modern imperialism, with its napalm fire and bombings of all those people today who try to defy the US/NATO empire.
Empire rules by a cunning combination of the carrot and the stick. We usually note the stick, but don’t pay enough attention to the carrot. Burn! brings our focus to the carrot in how we see Walker entice José Dolores (Márquez) into leading a slave rebellion to help the British oust the Portuguese.
In all of Walker’s machinations we also see an example of inter-imperialist conflict. As competitors in the production and sale of sugar, the British and Portuguese naturally dislike each other, as we see in the altercations between Walker and Portuguese soldiers at the beginning of the film.
We should wince when we see the stark contrast between the wealthy whites, in their fine clothing, getting off the boat with Walker, on the one hand, and the appalling poverty of the blacks, the children of whom are typically half- or fully naked. José appears, offering to carry Walker’s bags: this offer of service will be a motif repeated in the middle of the film and at the end, with strongly ironic overtones…of the sort of the Hegelian master/slave dialectic.
Walker’s original intention on coming to Queimada has been to meet with a black rebel named Santiago, but the rebel has been caught, and he is to be executed. Walker is informed of the bad news by Teddy Sanchez (Salvatori, in dark makeup), a man of mixed African and European background with revolutionary ideals for the island, but ultimately an ineffectual leader. José is standing by as Walker hears the news, a kind of foreshadowing that he will soon replace Santiago, for Walker’s purposes.
Walker later provokes a Portuguese soldier to get himself arrested, so he can watch Santiago’s brutal execution, which includes the use of the garrote and decapitation, from the window of his prison cell. Being white and wealthy, though, Walker can get a lawyer and be freed promptly.
He follows the widow and children of Santiago as they carry his headless corpse from the prison back up a hill to their home. He gives them a hand in carrying the cart part of the way up the hill; in this act of his, knowing how two-faced he really is, we can see in Walker a personification of the liberal who pretends to care for the downtrodden, but who is really just using these people for his own ends.
We see a similar thing going on today when our movie stars are all simping for Ukraine (Ben Stiller, Sean Penn, Mark Hamill, etc.), pretending they care about the suffering of Ukrainians, when it’s really about promoting the interests of the US/NATO empire, even to the point of defending neo-Nazis (however much the celebrities in question are unaware of, or in denial of, that ugly reality). In this way, it is fitting that a Hollywood actor is playing Walker, a bad guy pretending to be a good guy (though, in Brando‘s defence, he did reject his Godfather Oscar as a protest against Hollywood’s mistreatment of Native Americans; also, Brando considered his performance in Burn! to have been the best of his career).
Alberto Grimaldi, producer of Burn!, wanted Sidney Poitier to play José, but Pontecorvo wanted Márquez for the role. I agree with the director’s choice, not out of disrespect for Poitier, of course, but because an unknown actor is more fitting to play the underdog José.
Since Santiago is dead, Walker needs someone to replace him, someone brave, who takes initiative, someone with nothing to lose. He spots these qualities in José, and tests the black man by abusing him with strikes to the face, calling him a “black ape” who stole his bags when he was arrested, slandering his dead mother, and asking if everything a white man says is correct. At first, José is submissive, suggesting he won’t make a good revolutionary leader…then José tries attacking Walker with a machete.
José is Walker’s man, after all.
What’s ironic in Walker’s provocations of José is that his white supremacism is, of course, genuine, rather than merely posturing as a test to awaken José’s rage. The reality of that white supremacism will be clear to José in good time.
Such dialectical juxtapositions of contraries as these are a theme running throughout the movie. Walker as both “friend” and foe of the blacks, the carrot and stick of imperialism, wealthy whites in their finery among half-naked blacks, and half-white, half-black Sanchez, who lives among the privileged but, sympathetic to the blacks, is ultimately powerless and useless to their cause. Even the band of blacks whom José gathers to commit a bank robbery, meet in a church…and the bank–house of the wealth of the privileged Portuguese–is the Banco Espírito Santo.
The Portuguese soldiers will be distracted by drunk, reveling blacks at night, making the robbery much easier. After informing the Portuguese of where José and his men are, Walker supplies his revolutionaries with weapons and teaches them how to use them. His playing of one side against the other reminds us of how two-faced Walker is.
Since Walker has lied to the Portuguese about a supposedly small number of black thieves, they overconfidently send too few soldiers to retrieve the stolen money, and they are killed by José’s men, an encouragement to his people. Soon they’ll have to fight more Portuguese, of course, and in the process, Walker’s robbery grows into a full-blown revolution.
In making José into a revolutionary leader, Walker has made him into both a blessing and a thorn in the side of the British, as we’ll soon see…another example of the theme of juxtaposed opposites in the film.
While José’s revolution is carrying on, Walker of course has his own, British agenda. In a meeting with a group of wealthy white men, Walker discusses how paid workers will be economically preferable to slaves.
In making his case, he uses a shrewd, if “impertinent,” metaphor: men’s use of wives vs. their use of prostitutes. The wife, in the context of the patriarchal family, is analogous to the slave; she’s her husband’s chattel, but all of her expenses are paid by him, even her burial, if he should survive her. The prostitute, on the other hand, is analogous to the modern-day wage labourer; in belonging to no man (her pimp notwithstanding!), she is “freer,” but her client pays only for her services, and she has to pay for her expenses all out of her own pocket.
This analogy is another example of the film’s dialectical juxtapositions of opposites. The British Empire ended slavery not so much out of humanitarian reasons (though these, as well as slave revolts, were significant factors) as out of the economic reasons Walker has laid out in his women-as-property analogy. Slaves are freed, a good thing; but now they’re wage slaves who are no longer provided for, a bad thing.
So, freeing the black slaves isn’t really freeing them, any more than a prostitute is freed…not if the Antilles Royal Sugar Company can help it. This means that Walker et al cannot allow José Dolores to become another Toussaint L’Ouverture.
For a time, the blacks are happy, celebrating, dancing, and making music. What’s left of the Portuguese regime is allowing them a day of freedoms, the “Dia de Reis,” a kind of Saturnalia. The increasingly demoralized Portuguese soldiers can only stand around in disgust at the sight of the costumed revelers.
Now, just as Walker is using the blacks for his purposes, so is he using Sanchez, whose blackness he sees more than his whiteness. At the same time, presumably because of that whiteness, Walker is more direct with Sanchez about how he is using him–to assassinate the Portuguese governor so Sanchez can head the new provisional government, freeing Britain to exploit the sugar cane industry.
José and his men are to lay down their arms and be workers for the Antilles Royal Sugar Company in exchange for the abolition of slavery in Queimada. We hear Morricone’s “Abolisson” again at this point in the film.
José, wearing the uniform of one of the Portuguese soldiers, doesn’t yet know of Walker’s double-dealing, and he still imagines that “Inglês” is his friend. José still thinks that Queimada belongs to him and his people.
José will soon learn the disillusioning truth, though. He’s already uncomfortable having to negotiate a new Queimada constitution with a provisional government made up of white men. He is cool even when meeting Sanchez, seeing his white skin more than his black; this is all in spite of how Sanchez warmly greets him and sincerely hopes for the best for José’s people. He warns Sanchez to be plain with him during the negotiations.
Over the course of a month of discussions with the whites over how to establish the new constitution, it becomes clear to José that they have no intention of relinquishing control of Queimada. To their obviously self-serving suggestions, he can only say “No.” In frustration, he leaves the room, calling them all “Bastards.”
They rationalize their control over the sugar cane industry by insisting it will be good for the blacks economically, but José can see through these white exploiters. All that matters to them is maintaining a maximization of profit, while he cares about his people. He orders his men to remove all the whites from the building.
Walker carries on with the rationalizing, telling José that his politically inexperienced blacks cannot modernize Queimada without the help of the whites. Walker speaks of who, other than the whites, will handle commerce, teach in Queimada’s schools, and cure the sick among the blacks; but as anyone familiar with colonialism will tell you, those whites will handle commerce, teach in schools, and cure the sick only for the benefit of other wealthy whites. The poor blacks won’t enjoy any of those benefits.
José knows that it’s better, for Queimada to go forward, if the whites go away. The blacks, in their inexperience of modern forms of government, commerce, education, and medicine, will surely stumble many times, but they’ll also learn from their mistakes, and in doing so, they’ll move much farther forward, in due time, than they will as exploited wage slaves, forever mired in poverty, because their white slave masters have never had any intention of giving up their power.
José goes outside at night to reunite with his people. He’s saddened by his disappointments with the whites, but to see his people again, those he loves and who love him, brings a smile back on his face.
Walker finds José in a tent, and with a revolver he is prepared to shoot the revolutionary he’s created; but José finally agrees to his men’s laying down of their arms and returning to the plantations. He can see the pragmatism of going along with the British, to prevent extreme poverty and starvation from engulfing the island; but he warns Walker of who has the machetes, which can cut off heads as well as the cane.
In his warning to the British, who in their selling of the cane that he and his people cut, in their dependence on their black workers, the British are reminded of the slave/master dialectic. This observation should be seen in connection with the following scene the next day, when José offers again to carry Walker’s bags, “for a friend,” as the agent provocateur is going to his ship to leave Queimada. This offer to carry Walker’s bags should be remembered at the end of the film, again in symbolic connection with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic.
Walker is going to Indochina, to do more of his imperialist cajoling there. He shares a pleasant drink with José, the two of them exchanging friendly smiles, before he boards his ship. His fake friendship with José perfectly exemplifies the two-faced nature of liberals towards those oppressed by imperialism, something the oppressed should be ever wary of.
Ten years later, Walker is sought out so he can go back to Queimada and quell an uprising of José’s in response to the British takeover of the island. What must be emphasized here is how imperialism is in the service of wealthy capitalists. It isn’t just governments who are bullying the blacks of Queimada.
A scene at the London Stock Exchange demonstrates clearly how the financial success of the sugar businesses has given them great political power over their plantations. Men from the Antilles Royal Sugar Company look for Walker, so he can do something about José. He is found in a pub, in the middle of a fistfight that he wins; this detail adds to our understanding of Walker’s brutishness, for we even see him hit the two men seeking him out.
When Walker returns to Queimada, we find not only José rebelling against British exploitation, but also Teddy Sanchez is growing to be uncooperative. Paid for by the Antilles Royal Sugar Company, Walker will act as a military advisor to help put down José’s rebellion. In this we can see clearly how imperialism and colonialism are working in the interests of capitalism; this point would normally be so obvious that it wouldn’t need to be said, except that right-wing libertarians generally refuse to admit that their precious “free market” is ever guilty of any wrongdoing. Government acts alone in these forms of wickedness, in their opinion.
Sanchez hopes Walker will be able to negotiate with José as he had before–to offer the blacks equal civil rights, higher wages, and a general amnesty. The other men in power are hoping Walker will simply get rid of him, and Walker is leaning towards their way of solving the problem.
Another example of the carrot/stick tactic of imperialism is having many black men on the island work as soldiers for the British. We see some of them round up a group of insurgents, line them against the side of a building, and shoot them. One can imagine how the other, powerless blacks must look on these uniformed men as traitors to their own people.
Walker saves one of the men to be shot, needing him to mediate between Walker and José. Though he saves the man’s life for this purpose, because the man tries to run away, Walker shoots him in the leg. In this act, we see, in a symbolic sense, how even when Walker does something good in itself, bad always accompanies the good–more juxtaposing of opposites.
In his conversation with Walker, the man repeats what he’s heard José say, which is the reason for this revolt: the plantation workers, toiling away for the most paltry of wages, are still slaves because they have only machetes, but no ownership of the sugar cane business. We Marxists have always understood how the same basic contradiction has existed throughout history, regardless of if it’s in the form of master vs. slave, feudal lord vs. peasant, or bourgeoisie vs. proletariat: those who own the land and means of production have the power, and they will always be at war with their powerless labourers.
Walker tells the man, just before he is to ride off on a horse to tell José of Walker’s intentions, that he will be pleased to see him. Walker even has the man give José an alcoholic drink as a gift. Such acts are yet more examples of the two-faced liberal pretending to be the friend of the man he’s oppressing.
Walker asks a black soldier working for the imperialists why he isn’t fighting on José’s side. The man doesn’t answer, having a look of shame on his face, but the answer is obvious: his work is safer and better paid…hence, Walker’s smile.
Walker’s container of alcohol is returned from José, with a message on it, saying that he doesn’t drink anymore. José is wise to Walker’s lies now. The message has been sent to him on a cart with dead imperialist soldiers tied to it. It’s obvious that José is done with negotiating. This is war.
In preparing for this war, Walker as the military adviser notes how, in spite of how the imperialists have far more men, weapons, money, etc. than José’s men have, the imperialists haven’t been able to defeat José for these six years; apart from the guerrillas’ inaccessible location, the reason for this frustration is that the imperialists fight for their pay and because they have to, whereas the guerrillas fight for an idea, because they have nothing to lose but their lives. They fight for their love of freedom, and this love motivates them in a way that nothing comparable can for the imperialists. Revolutionaries must never forget this edge they have over the powerful, and must use this edge to steel their courage.
The black collaborators manage to find where the guerrillas and the people they’re protecting are, and they round up the people; then, carrying torches, they burn down the forests where the guerrillas have been hiding. As with the Portuguese, the imperialists’ method of victory is total, indiscriminate destruction, with no respect for plant life, just like the “innocents raped with napalm fire” during the Vietnam War.
A dying black collaborator tells his comrades that the guerrillas emerged from the fire, themselves burning, and killed him and his fellow collaborators there at a fort. The dying man describes the guerrillas as inhuman devils, an obvious projection of how inhuman and devilish the torchers of the forest are.
The imperialists find other villages where the rebels’ people are living, and the black collaborators round them up, too, and burn down their homes. Dogs chase a guerrilla through the fields until he comes to a clearing, then he is shot.
Sanchez, ever torn between his wish to help the blacks and his being forced to help the whites (perfectly symbolized in his half-white, half-black skin), tells all the rounded-up people that the war is José’s fault, it will end soon, and they will all go back to work. The frown on his face shows how reluctant he is in telling them this.
Bread is offered on a cart to the hungry people, and while they are expected to sit and wait patiently for it to be distributed, they rush for the cart, and the collaborators have to fire their rifles to bring about order. Sanchez, in his growing frustration, makes an attempt to take control of the government for the sake of the blacks. His unwillingness to cooperate with the Antilles Royal Sugar Company will be his undoing. In his downfall, we see how the government is controlled by the capitalists, not vice versa.
British redcoats arrive on the island to help defeat José. Sanchez is arrested on a trumped-up charge of treason, and he is executed by firing squad. His arrest is “in the name of the people of Queimada,”…but we all know which people are being referred to here.
The redcoats start fighting the guerrillas, and we see them rounding up the blacks, including women and children. We see the trauma in the eyes of a naked black boy when he has rifles pointed at him. Cannon and rifle fire have left a fog of smoke and a sea of flame all over the plantations…Queimada, indeed. Guerrillas are getting shot left, right, and centre, including the one who mediated between Walker and José.
Shelton (played by Norman Hill) complains of the destruction of the sugar cane plants that has resulted from the battle. After explaining that the plants can be grown again for future exploitation by the Antilles Company, Walker tells Shelton why the island is named Queimada, and that the danger of revolutionary fervour passing from here to other exploited islands greatly outweighs any momentary loss of profits.
José is spotted in Walker’s telescope; he is climbing a mountain with his fellow guerrillas. Here he is shot and captured. Just so we have no doubts about Walker’s duplicitous nature, he describes José as “a fine specimen” who started as a water and bag carrier, made into a revolutionary leader for England’s purposes, and then when he is no longer useful, he is eliminated, “a small masterpiece”; Walker says all of this while smiling.
Just as Walker has spoken of new sugar cane crops growing after a burning, so does José speak of a rebirth of revolutionary feeling after the imperialist fire has defeated him. José says this among the black collaborationists, as if to plant the seed in their minds, to move them to redeem themselves. José knows that others with replace him after he’s executed, hence he doesn’t fear death.
Walker comes over to greet José and shake his hand, but the latter of course won’t shake the hand of the man who’s stabbed him in the back so many times. Walker offers José drink, but he remains cool. Walker has a soldier give José his horse; this gift doesn’t make Walker any more his friend by the weight of an atom.
A naked black boy is found in one of the desolate villages; Walker orders a black collaborator to grab the boy and take him with them. We hear the cries and screams of the boy as he’s carried off. As this is happening, Walker rides over to José and angrily blames the victim, calling José a “black ape” again, and accusing him of starting the bloodshed, in true imperialist fashion. José spits in Walker’s face.
When José is to be hanged, Walker hopes to free him, not out of any sense of camaraderie or remorse (as the Wikipedia article spuriously claims), but because Walker fears making a martyr out of him, inspiring future revolutionaries. If Walker can make it seem to the blacks that José has betrayed them, or has fled death like a coward, then the spirit of revolution may die with him…or at least be weakened.
This attitude is what we should see in Walker when he enters José’s tent and tries to cut him loose. He feels no remorse whatsoever for having betrayed José. In offering him a chance to save his life, Walker is making no act of atonement. Earlier, we even see Walker tie the noose to hang José with.
José chooses to be hanged rather than run free, since he knows that staying alive would be convenient to the British. His martyrdom will indeed inspire future revolutionaries among the blacks; a spark of such inspiration is to be seen in the final scene, as Walker approaches the ship to take him off the island.
The frown we see on Walker’s face as he goes there is, as I said above, not a frown of remorse, despite what the liberal editors of Wikipedia would have you believe. His is a frown from having not done the best he could have done at his job, something he earlier said he prides himself on. He’s frowning at José’s martyrdom, a danger to the empire, and a sign that Walker has ultimately failed in his imperial project.
His failure is to be openly displayed when he hears a black man offer to carry his bags again. Hearing the voice from behind, Walker has a brief hope it’s the voice of José. He frowns in disappointment to see it’s a different man, who then sticks a knife in Walker’s gut.
As he lies dead on the ground, we see black workers looking from all around at him, frowning because of all the pain, suffering, and death that his machinations have caused them, but they’re also content to have finally got their revenge. After the burning, the spirit of revolution will be reborn.
This act of service, offering to take his bags, then stabbing him, is once again a symbolic manifestation of the master/slave dialectic. Capitalists will hang themselves on the very rope they make, just as they made José hang, since he so willingly allowed it. We don’t need the capitalists; they need us, the proletariat. It’s their very dependance on our work that will be their undoing, and this is what the taking of Walker’s bags, then the taking of his life, at this final moment of the film, symbolize.
We in today’s world can use Burn! to teach us to beware the carrot as well as the stick of imperialism. When they offer us freedom in manufacturing our consent for their wars, they’re really scheming to cause us to suffer more servitude to the depredations of empire, that juxtaposition of contraries that I mentioned above.
It’s obscene to call the Ukrainian war against Russia a struggle for Ukrainian freedom and democracy (as the European bootlickers of the US assert), when the very Ukrainian authorities being given all the Western money and aid include neo-Nazis who have banned eleven opposition parties and corruptly used much of the money for their own personal use. Indeed, a substantial portion of military hardware sent to Ukraine has ended up sold on the black market.
The war planned against China, using the Taiwanese no less as cannon fodder as the Ukrainians are being used, will also be spuriously presented in the media as a fight for democracy. The real plan is to weaken China and Russia, and to bring about regime change in the two countries, and therefore to ensure a lasting US hegemony. In Burn!, we see the same basic idea: use the blacks as cannon fodder to remove the Portuguese and ensure British hegemony on the island.
We mustn’t allow the Walkers of the world to have their way. We mustn’t be the José Dolores who goes along with such schemes, only to be stabbed in the back, dolorous in the end. Instead, we must be the José who takes up the real fight, and who spits in the face of the Walkers of the world.
If we carry his bags, we must carry a knife, too.