Marlon Brando is a step above just about anyone else you can think of. Laurence Olivier is close, and everyone has their favorites, but just on a skill level, Brando has to near the top. However you feel about the actor though, he helps his own case with the wide variety of films he did over his career. One of the first method actors, Brando was never pigeon-holed or cornered into one type of role. Watch a movie of his, and you'll almost always see something new.
For all his well-known movies though, some slip through the cracks, including 1969's Burn! which aired recently as part of a TCM-themed night. Interviewed by Larry King, Brando even said he thought this was his finest performance. Considering the movies he's been in and the quality of the parts he played, that's saying something. It surely is an odd movie that is hard to describe. Based ever so loosely on the real-life William Walker (really in name only), this story is even more difficult to compare to anything else because I've seen nothing even remotely similar. Is that a bad or good thing here though?
Working for the British government in the 1840s, an English mercenary, William Walker (Brando), arrives on the Caribbean island of Queimada, currently ruled by Portugal. England would like to gain control of the island and its vast fields of sugar cane so Walker is sent in to instigate a revolution amongst the thousands of poor black villagers living on the island. He starts by choosing a leader from the slave-like population, Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez), and soon the island is alive with rebellion. Walker's plan works, and Britain gains control of the island, allowing him to head home. Years pass though, and Walker is called in again. Dolores is at the forefront of another rebellion, and now Walker finds himself hired to take down the man he has built up.
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, Burn uses a predominantly amateur cast alongside Brando. There are a few exceptions (including Renato Salvatori as President Teddy Sanchez and Thomas Lyons as General Prada), but it gives the movie an odd feel. Gorgeous to look at, it was filmed in locations around the world including Colombia, Morocco, and Italy and is aided by a memorable score from Ennio Morricone, but something is missing that I can't put my finger on. Money was clearly spent on the project -- it quickly went over-budget -- but there still remains a feel of a cheap documentary as you watch the movie that is difficult to grasp, especially as I sit here looking back on the movie.
Coming off the huge success of his Battle of Algiers (a classic everyone should try and see), Pontecorvo tackles another movie with a message here. It is a story full of ideology, symbolism and bigger meanings than just one man fighting for his freedom. Like anything, it is a mix of the good and bad. 'Burn!' is a product of its times as we hear countless conversations about the rebellion on Queimada that could easily be transferred to the conflict in Vietnam at the time. Pontecorvo doesn't hit you over the head with his meaning, but it can be tedious at times. The dialogue goes on and on without an end in sight. Apparently after he finished the project, the Italian director had the movie taken away from him and re-edited. What was in the missing footage? Who knows for sure, but I'm guessing it could have helped fill out some of the holes in the story.
Defying you not to watch him whenever he is on-screen, Brando is the main reason to see this movie. His William Walker is a mercenary who works for whoever will pay him the most. He always wears a pistol at his side and carries a canteen full of whiskey over his shoulder, doing his job to the best ability. Walker doesn't have the principles, beliefs, and ideologies that the men who hired him do. In a great monologue late that explains much about his character, Walker explains he tried to do whatever was in front of him to the best of his abilities. As always, Brando commands a ton of respect whenever he is on-screen, and in an 112-minute movie I can't remember a scene he wasn't in. This is Brando's movie from start to finish.
Still now a few days later, I don't know how to rate this movie. Brando's starring performance can only take Burn! so far, and it did take me several sittings to get through the whole movie which felt much longer than 112 minutes. The storytelling had some major holes that can probably be attributed to the editing, but the final product is greatly affected by that editing. Granted, it wasn't Pontecorvo's fault or Brando's, but I saw the movie in front of me, not one most likely intended. Flawed overall, but certainly one worth looking into if nothing else.
Burn! <---opening credits (1969): ** 1/2 /****