May have lost its allegorical power now that Vietnam is no longer a cause but even more compelling for standing as a generic condemnation of imperialism. The Vietnam connection is invoked immediately as Englishman Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) on arrival is told that the Portuguese conquered the island hundreds of years before simply by setting fire to it until all the natives had perished or fled and restocking it with slaves from elsewhere. For a 1960s audience, that summoned up images of U.S. military use of napalm and carpet bombing.
The idea must have stuck in Walker’s head because that’s exactly the strategy he devises towards the end of the movie. Beyond his title, and the fact that he looks and talks like an upper-class Englishman of the mid 1800s, Walker is one of these shady characters you often found in the Colonies doing shady work for the British government. While this island is ruled by the Portuguese rather than the British, that’s about to change since the British find Portuguese attitudes to free trade too restrictive.
So Walker sets about creating the spark for an explosion. Having earmarked the local bank for an easy heist, he recruits Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez) to head a team of locals. Of course, such a large-scale robbery ensures pursuit. Capture is evaded when Walker produces a cache of rifles aware that in defending themselves the natives will trigger revolution. Walker then goes to work on the upper-classes, explaining how much better off they would be if they could side with the rebellion and overthrow the Portuguese.
Mission accomplished, he scoots off home, only to return when corruption has so destroyed the island, now a British colony, that Jose Dolores is back creating rebellion. Old friend becomes foe and is ruthlessly hunted down.
You can’t help but admire Walker’s guile. To create a large enough distraction to pull off the robbery he simply gets the entire town population drunk on free booze, giving soldiers more than enough rioting to cope with. To provide the circumstances to assassinate the President, he takes advantage of the costuming for a festival, allowing people to sneak past guards in any disguise. But when cunning doesn’t work, it’s down to brute force. The group with the biggest army, more weapons and the greater degree of ruthlessness will always win.
This isn’t one of those movies that sets out to idolise a rebel leader or where a small band of outlaws outwit the ruling power with clever ruses or filled with duels or ambushes or full-on battles. This is about the puppeteers, the men who use violence for their own commercial ends.
Like General Custer, Walker is a man with a job to do, even while he might despise it and certainly is filled with disgust at the ruling party. He claims he is not the author of either group’s misfortune but merely “the instrument.” On his return, he argues, “I didn’t start it; when I arrived you were already butchering each other.” In other words, blameless, just following the orders of either government or employer. But he takes pride in doing his job “well,” no matter the cost.
Every action has consequence. Even attempting to save Jose Dolores’s life, it is with consequence in mind. Let him live and set him free elsewhere and he will be viewed as a traitor. Kill him and he will be seen as a martyr, the most dangerous currency for incipient rebellion.
He knows exactly what buttons to press. In order to convince the ruling band of natives to support revolution in the first place, he makes a comparison with prostitution. You hire a sex worker by the hour to fulfil a need, you are not required, as with a wife, to dress her and feed her and look after her for her entire life. Should the employers free their slaves, that would eliminate the need for a lifetime of care (no matter how little) but could hire them as required.
The brutality is not dwelt upon, no The Wild Bunch-style bloody carnage, just a growing number of corpses on either side depending which group has the upper hand. The difference between the brutal Portuguese and the sedate English is in their approach to execution. The Portuguese rely on the garotte, by which a steel band fixed round the neck is slowly twisted until life is extinguished. The English prefer the speed of the gallows.
Marlon Brando considered this one of his finest performances and I am inclined to agree. There is no showboating either way, neither inflating a character nor deflating him, as the actor was apt to do when playing a loser. Instead, Walker never loses a grip on his emotions, no temper, no tears, just saying whatever someone wanted to hear, guiding with a hidden hand, a man who might have invented the term “results-based.” It is the calmest you will ever see Brando, and you might catch elements of this portrayal in his Godfather pushing pawns into place. But you won’t see here a single explosion of anger. For a non-actor, Evaristo Marquez gives a superb performance, though mostly he is also restrained, as if he was learning from a master.
Director Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, 1966) takes a semi-documentary approach to the subject, concentrating on the machinations, no attempt to pull audience heartstrings with images of poverty. The garotte death does the work of explaining the brutality to come.
But there are three brilliant scenes that showcase the unstoppable character of war. In the best, the rebels, trying to escape an island ablaze, seek shelter on the higher ground. But this arid region is also exposed, no jungle here to provide cover, and scrambling up the naked slopes they are picked off, in long shot, one by one.
In the second example, the closest Walker comes to emotion is waking up one morning to the sound of a gallows being built. He takes a moment, listening, aware perhaps, though unwilling to admit it, that the harvest of a seed sown is about to be reaped. Brando is such a good actor that sadness only appears as a flicker of regret that the rebellion he began took a wrong turn once it was taken over by the wrong hands.
And, technically, his hands are clean. He is never seen firing a weapon. In the last of this trio of scenes, the English introduce hanging to the island. But since no one possesses the expertise to make a noose strong enough to support a head, Walker shows how.
There are two versions of this movie. It was filmed as Quiemada and this version is 17 minutes longer than the one released as Burn! I would urge you to see the far more atmospheric former. Editing down the picture, the distributors took out much of the background material. As a plus, there is a score by Ennio Morricone.
One of the best films ever made about the politics of war and the destructive force of commerce.