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Queimada: Gillo Pontecorvo’s political satire featuring a tour de force from Marlon Brando

Our Rating: 9.5 IMDb Ratings: 7.0 Genre: Action | Drama Cast: Marlon Brando, Evaristo Márquez, Norman Hill Language: Italian | Portuguese Country: Italy | France(1969) Runtime: 115 min Color: Color Queimada (as known as Burn!) is a 1969 motion-picture directed by celebrated Italian moviemaker Gillo Pontecorvo. Queimada is Pontecorvo’s follow up to his critically acclaimed magnum opus, Battle of Algiers—an epic war movie based on the events surrounding the Algerian War. Queimada stars American movie-icon Marlon Brando in the lead role of a mercenary named Sir William Walker. At the time of its release, Queimada failed at the box-office resulting in huge financial loses. The major reason for movie's failure was the elimination of several politically sensitive scenes from the originally shot material. The scenes were cut primarily to appease the political circles in the movie's potential markets. Pontecorvo had initially wanted to structure his movie around a slave-revolt set in an Spanish colonial island. But, Spain's fascist dictator Francisco Franco objected to the imperialistic portrayal of Spain in the original screenplay and threatened to put a ban on the movie. Daunted by Franco's threat, especially considering the Spanish dictator's ruthless reputation, Ponteocorvo decided to change the movie's setting to a Portuguese island. With its anti-war, anti-racist themes, Queimada serves to be a powerful political drama that gets better with each viewing.



Marlon Brando as Sir William Walker in Gillo Pontecorvo's Queimada






The highlight of the movie, apart from its controversial themes, is undoubtedly Brando’s larger than life portrayal of Sir William Walker. In a career spanning over five decades, Brando gave a plethora of breathtaking performances which include the tour de force of a hot-headed brute in A Streetcar Named Desire, the Oscar-winning portrayal of an ex-prize fighter turned longshoreman trying to fight against the all-pervasive corruption in On the Waterfront, the icy portrayal of an outlaw betrayed by his partner in One-Eyed Jacks, the heart-wrenching portrayal of a recluse widower in Last Tango in Paris, and the unforgettable portrayal of an aging patriarch of an organised crime dynasty in The Godfather. Among the myriad of performances that Brando delivered during his long illustrious career, it’s quite remarkable that he rated his portrayal of an agent provocateur in Pontecorvo’s Queimada as his best ever. In his autobiography "Songs My Mother Taught Me", Brando revealed, "I did some of my best acting in 'Burn!'". Brando also admitted to it during an interview with Larry King on CNN as the latter, apparently disinterested in discussing a relatively unknown movie during the precious little time he had with the great actor, never allowed Brando to justify his choice.

The Captain briefs Sir William Walker about Queimada


According to the briefing given to Sir William Walker at the beginning of his journey, Queimada is the one of the hundreds of islands of the Lesser Antilles. Queimada has a literal meaning of “Burnt” which it derives from the fact that the Portuguese once had to burn the island to ashes in order to put an end to the resistance of the native Indians. Since the indigenes were obliterated during the assault, slaves were brought from Africa to take care of the sugarcane plantations. Walker, an American mercenary, is hired by the British to instigate the indigenes to help start a revolution against the Portuguese so that the English nation can exercise its control over the sugar production in the island of Queimada. But, few years later, when the revolution regurgitates posing a direct threat to the English conquest of Lesser Antilles, they decide to put an end to it by suppressing the very revolutionaries they had once spawned.


The Portuguese execute a Guerrilla Rebel named Santiago


On the face of it, the movie deals with imperialism of the nineteenth century wherein colonial superpowers like England enslaved the black in the name of civilizing them—a seemingly moral obligation that the English laureate Rudyard Kipling so eloquently referred to as “The White Man’s Burden”. But, if one digs deeper the tale that is presented here appears to be both universal as well as timeless. A couple of centuries back, it was sugar that was perceived as a priced commodity, one that could make or break a fortune, but in the contemporary context, oil is the commodity that holds that coveted spot. Such is the power of Queimada that the conflict depicted in the movie can be aptly applied to several scenarios of past few decades. While in the movie it is the overambitious English sugar plantation company that held the actual sway over the Governments of Queimada as well as Great Britain, today we have petrochemical giants that happen to dictate their terms to the governments of the world. Queimada serves to be a smack in the face for all the perpetrators of mankind who have ever tried to exploit or patronize a certain oppressed section of humanity on the basis of color, creed, race, caste, sex, or religion.

Santiago's Widow and Children drag Santigo's Dead Body


What makes Marlon Brando’s portrayal singular is the element of unfathomable complexity associated with it. Sir William Walker is a ruthless mercenary, a filibuster, an agent provocateur, who knows no bounds when it comes to fulfilling his mission, and yet he has a certain element of humaneness that makes him likable. Behind the facade of a manipulative mercenary there exists a disgruntled, self-loathing persona trying desperately to escape his overwhelming guilt. Ironically, every move that he makes takes him deeper and deeper into the quicksand of his guilt as the escape becomes impossible. Brando’s William Walker is a cross between a wolf and a sheep, a fiend and a beloved, an inflictor and a savior, a demon and an angel, a usurper and a guardian, a misanthrope and an altruist, and a mercenary and a messiah. It is this ambiguity that makes Brando’s portrayal unique and remarkably magnificent. Walker is a gifted orator, a master manipulator, an opportunistic pacifier who dresses with the perfection of a fop. His aristocratic attire offers a striking contrast to the shabby appearance of the war-torn natives. Interestingly, Pontecorvo wanted Brando's portrayal of Sir William Walker to be out and out bad, but it Brando who insisted on putting up a grey-shaded caricature for Walker.

Queimada (1969): William Walker and President Sanchez


Vintage Franco Solinas, Brando, during the course of the movie, gets to deliver some unforgettable lines, including a monologue in which he expatiates on the economics of using a paid worker vis-a-vis a slave by comparing it to the advantages of choosing a prostitute over a wife. However, my most favorite moment comes when Sir William Walker exhorts the power-hungry politicians of Queimada to offer amnesty to the guerrilla leader Jose Dolores warning them about the overwhelming power of a myth in comparison to a man, for unlike a man a myth cannot be killed and only grows to become a legend. Brando is well supported by the rest of the cast that mainly consists of Italian actors and amateurs. The team and Marcello Gatti and Giuseppe Ruzzolini have done wonders to movie’s cinematography as the events seem to be taking place in front of the eyes rather than on the screen. Master composer Ennio Morricone’s poignant music greatly complements the movie’s motifs immensely adding to the beauty and power of the movie.

Queimada: William Walker and Jose Dolores savor English Whisky


Overall, Queimada serves to be a great specimen of filmmaking contributed by a great mix of direction, acting, screenplay, music, and cinematography. Pontecorvo triumphs in his great attempt to mock and mourn the plight of the oppressed indigenes during the colonial era while simultaneously presenting a great parallel to highlight the global crises post World War-II. Queimada may not serve to be the ideal sort of a cinematic experience for an average viewer, but it surely caters well to the needs of a thinking viewer who is not averse to getting out of his/her comfort zone in order to savor intelligent cinema. https://youtu.be/hSTl7HUXQnI


This analysis of Queimada by Murtaza Ali first appeared on his popular blog site, The Potpourri of Vestiges. The link is embedded here for further reference.


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