Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Actors: Marlon Brando, Evaristo Márquez
Runtime: 132 min
In the golden age of colonialism, British government sends an agent to a tropical island under Portuguese rule with the mission to start a slave rebellion, so that Britain would take over the island, for its significant sugar cane production. However, after the British take over and formally abolish slavery, the former slaves realize that the wage-labor is also a form of slavery, and decide to revolt again.
In a simple and comprehensible way, Burn! addresses complex questions of freedom: struggle for freedom, different interpretations of and approaches to the meaning of freedom, as well as of the suppression of freedom, oppression and colonialism. It deals with the anti-colonial struggle as the conflict between the colonizer and the colonized, which is, in its essence, a class conflict.
This can best be seen around the middle of the film when Jose Dolores, leader of the slave revolt, ceases to be unaware tool for British interests and becomes a truly aware historical subject and thus becoming a model of conscious and revolutionary anti-colonial struggle. One of the captured insurgents, who expects to be executed, explains to his captors: “Jose Dolores says that if what we have in our country is civilisation… a civilisation of white men, then we are better uncivilised because it is better to know where to go and not know how, then it is to know how to go and not know where. And then Jose Dolores says that if a man works for another, even if he is called a worker he remains a slave, and it will allways be the same since there are those who own the plantations, and those who cut, own the machete, to cut cane for the owners. And then Jose Dolores says that we must cut heads instead of cane.” Later in the movie, Hose Dolores himself explains: “If a man gives you freedom it is not freedom. Freedom is something you… you alone must take.”
This movie merges historical events that took place in Brazil, Cuba, Santo Domingo, Jamaica, and elsewhere. In its background is a mosaic of historical facts and I’d like to draw your attention to some of them. The isle of Queimada is, in the context of the world situation of 1969, clear allusion to Cuba. Burning of the entire island in order to defeat the guerrillas is a clear reference to Vietnam and the US use of napalm. Indochina is even mentioned in the film. Our protagonist Jose Dolores is an obvious reference of Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution. In the movie, there is even an explicit comparison between the two. The Haitian Revolution of 1791 was the most successful slave revolt in history – a ragtag bunch of slaves won against three European colonial powers – French, British, and Spanish empires. It resulted in Haiti becoming the second free nation in the Americas and the first modern country run by people of African descent. Idea that slave rebellion must be severely suppressed in order to prevent it becoming a model and inspiration to other rebellions irresistibly resembles the US doctrine of the threat of a communist ‘domino effect’.
William Walker, British agent in the movie, was historically the US adventurer and mercenary who, among other things, organized a private military expedition to Nicaragua in 1855. This expedition was funded by Cornelius Vanderbilt, a tycoon who controlled transportation in Nicaragua, since at that time the Panama Canal hasn’t been constructed yet and trade between New York and San Francisco was conducted through Nicaragua. Walker took over Nicaragua, declared himself president and ruled until 1857 when he was driven out by a coalition of Central American armies. The day of Walker’s defeat is celebrated as a national holiday in Costa Rica.
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