Burn! Marlon Brando’s favourite film


At the begin­ning of the 1960s Mar­lon Bran­do’s life and career took a turn. As Kari­na Long­worth doc­u­ments on her metic­u­lous­ly researched and com­pelling com­pul­sive Hol­ly­wood his­to­ry pod­cast You Must Remem­ber This, here, Bran­do was a unique phenomenon.

On the one hand, he was the first ever Hol­ly­wood, and there­fore glob­al, celebri­ty. There had been Hol­ly­wood stars before, but their cre­ation had always been the result of a care­ful­ly cal­i­brat­ed plan con­coct­ed by the stu­dios in cahoots with the press. Brando’s fame was of a dif­fer­ent sort and at anoth­er lev­el entire­ly. He gen­er­at­ed an air of hys­te­ria and of fren­zied mania that was shock­ing­ly new. 

And on the oth­er, and even more remark­ably, indeed unique­ly, his fame was the result of his tal­ent. Before he became the glob­al celebri­ty of the 1950s, Bran­do had tak­en the craft and art of act­ing to pieces and re-con­struct­ed it as if from scratch.

A Street­car Named Desire

His per­for­mance, on stage in 1947, and then on screen in 1951, in Ten­nessee WilliamsA Street­car Named Desire floored every­one who wit­nessed it. The New York­er’s Pauline Kael was famous­ly embar­rassed, hav­ing wit­nessed what she took to be an actu­al break down. Only lat­er real­is­ing that he’d been behav­ing like that delib­er­ate­ly.

He got his first Oscar nom­i­na­tion in 1951, for Street­car, a sec­ond in ’52, for Viva Zap­a­ta!, a third in ’53, for Mark Antony in Julia Cesar, and a fourth, which he final­ly won with, for On the Water­front, in ’54. That’s a work­ing-class thug, a Mex­i­can rev­o­lu­tion­ary, a Shake­speare­an hero and a wannabe box­er from the Bronx, each of whom he seems to effort­less­ly inhab­it and actu­al­ly become.

But after his direc­to­r­i­al debut, One-Eyed Jacks, was unfair­ly over­looked in ’61, and, even more cru­cial­ly, after then being blamed, again unfair­ly, for what was seen as the fias­co of Mutiny on the Boun­ty a year lat­er, Bran­do became thor­ough­ly dis­il­lu­sioned with the whole busi­ness of movies and of act­ing. And what fol­lowed, between ‘62-‘72, were what he lat­er came to call my ‘fuck you years’. 

He now start­ed to devote more and more of his time to the social cause clos­est to his heart and the issue Hol­ly­wood seemed most deter­mined to ignore; racism. He marched with Mar­tin Luther King and attend­ed vig­ils and protests with native Amer­i­cans at Wound­ed Knee. While the films he chose to appear in seemed to have been select­ed with the express pur­pose of wil­ful­ly derail­ing his career. 

Last Tan­go in Paris

But amongst the suc­ces­sion of impres­sive­ly awful films he made dur­ing these years, he qui­et­ly snuck in a cou­ple of gems. He starred along­side Eliz­a­beth Tai­lor as a gay army offi­cer in John Hus­ton’s Reflec­tions in a Gold­en Eye, in 1967. And two years lat­er he made Burn!, Gillo Pon­tecor­vo’s fol­low up to his sem­i­nal The Bat­tle of Algiers, from ’66.

Like that ear­li­er film, Burn! is vis­cer­al­ly anti-impe­ri­al­ist. But where the Bat­tle of Algiers had been neo-real­ist in style, with non-pro­fes­sion­al actors in what at times could be mis­tak­en for a doc­u­men­tary, Burn! is in glo­ri­ous tech­ni­colour, and has an epic sweep that’s framed by an Ennio Mor­ri­cone score. And it stars Mar­lon Brando.

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, it’s Brando’s favourite film of his and one that, shock hor­ror, he seems to have been actu­al­ly proud of. And this despite the mas­sive falling out that he and the direc­tor had dur­ing its making. 

Bran­do had stormed off in protest at the treat­ment of the Columbian natives who had been play­ing the extras. And when the film bombed sub­se­quent­ly at the box office, its pro­duc­er, Alber­to Grimal­di, took Bran­do to court. 

A year lat­er, the producer’s cousin, one Bernar­do Bertoluc­ci, sug­gest­ed a solu­tion. Why don’t they offer to drop the case if Bran­do would agree to star in Bertolucci’s next film for the bar­gain base­ment fee of $250,000? They’d even throw in ten per­cent­age points of the gross, to sweet­en the deal? After all, 10% of noth­ing won’t cost them any­thing, and in those days for­eign lan­guage films were com­plete­ly irrel­e­vant, box office wise. 

Reflec­tions in a Gold­en Eye.

Last Tan­go in Paris went on to become the 7th high­est gross­ing film in north Amer­i­ca in 1973 and Bran­do became so wealthy, he was able to sink into what was effec­tive­ly ear­ly retire­ment in the 1980s. 

In Burn!, Bran­do plays an unscrupu­lous impe­r­i­al adven­tur­er, who arrives on a Caribbean island with a plot to oust the Por­tuguese and replace them with the British crown. So he manip­u­lates one of the natives to lead a rebel­lion, only to betray him to the all-pow­er­ful sug­ar beet com­pa­ny which con­trols the region’s economy. 

Just as he would in the God­fa­ther and Last Tan­go sub­se­quent­ly, Bran­do deliv­ers a glo­ri­ous­ly ambigu­ous per­for­mance. He’s so casu­al­ly cal­cu­lat­ed and his nefar­i­ous­ness is cloaked so charm­ing­ly that it’s very hard to know whether to cheer for him or for his Marx­ist adver­sary, who we are clear­ly sup­posed to be root­ing for. 

Like the Bat­tle of Algiers before it, Burn! is mer­ci­less­ly anti-impe­ri­al­ist and unashamed­ly cham­pi­ons the black cause and the native cul­ture that will soon be just­ly lib­er­at­ed. Thrilling­ly, it’s one of the most open­ly anti-white and pro-black films you’re ever like­ly to see. 

And it’s a mea­sure of Brando’s intel­lec­tu­al rigour that it is his per­for­mance as so repel­lent a char­ac­ter, albeit a com­plex one, that remained the per­for­mance he was most proud of. And, of course, of his gar­gan­tu­an self-esteem issues. 

You can see the trail­er to Burn! here

And the trail­er to the Bat­tle of Algiers here.

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