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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Moonlight Triumphs



One of the great mys­ter­ies of the show biz world is how it is that the most gift­ed, tal­ent­ed and ambi­tious stars in Hol­ly­wood con­trive to pro­duce the most tedious tele­vi­sion pro­gramme of the entire year. The Oscars are so drea­ri­ly pre­dictable and every ges­ture has plain­ly been chore­o­graphed with­in an inch of its life.

Iron­i­cal­ly, quite how redun­dant the Oscars are as a tv show was fur­ther high­light­ed by this year’s extra­or­di­nary GUBU – that’s Grotesque Unbe­liev­able Bizarre and Unprece­dent­ed for the unini­ti­at­ed. Because the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple who sub­se­quent­ly watched that, there’s no oth­er word for it, unbe­liev­able cock-up will have seen it as a clip on Youtube, there­by avoid­ing hav­ing to sit through the hours and hours of tedi­um that it was pre­ced­ed and fol­lowed by. On the off chance that you missed it, here it is.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which lost to ?

Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Drag­on, which lost to Glad­i­a­tor.

Unusu­al­ly, they actu­al­ly got is right this year. Moon­light real­ly is the best film of the year. But under nor­mal cir­cum­stances, few mem­bers of the Acad­e­my would have both­ered tak­ing their dvd copy out of its box – they gave the Best Pic­ture award to Bird­man over Boy­hood (reviewed ear­li­er here) in 2014, to The King’s Speech over Toy Sto­ry 3 and The Social Net­work in 2010, and to Glad­i­a­tor over Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Drag­on and Traf­fic in 2000.

Based on the unpub­lished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moon­light is divid­ed into three acts as we fol­low the grow­ing pains of a young black kid as a child, a teenag­er and as a young man. The dam­aged only child of a drug-addled moth­er who pays for her habit the only way she can, he is ren­dered all the more shy and awk­ward by virtue of being secret­ly gay. All of which screams hope­less­ly dull but drea­ri­ly worthy.

12 Years A Slave, another surprise winner in 2012, and also supported by Brad Pitt.

12 Years A Slave, anoth­er sur­prise win­ner in 2013, and, like Moon­light, also sup­port­ed by Brad Pitt.

Hap­pi­ly, indeed impres­sive­ly, the film soars above and beyond its the­atri­cal ori­gins and rather than being sub­ject­ed to the sort of preachy lec­ture that the mate­r­i­al sug­gests, what we get instead is a vision that some­how man­ages to be both impres­sion­is­tic and cool­ly detached at the same time. Direc­tor Bar­ry Jenk­ins, whose sec­ond film this is, worked on the script with McCraney, and both do a remark­able job of free­ing the mate­r­i­al from its source and inject­ing gen­uine cin­e­mat­ic life into it. But they man­age to do so with­out ever los­ing sight of quite how hor­ren­dous­ly dif­fi­cult grow­ing up is for a gay black kid in the sub­urbs, when the only hope any of them ever have of escape is of tai­lor­ing to, and feed­ing off, peo­ple like his mother.

Boyhood, which lost to Birdman.

Boy­hood, which lost to Bird­man.

Mag­nif­i­cent yes, but not quite the mas­ter­piece some would have you believe. In parts one and two, every time he tries to just get on with his life the out­side world comes crash­ing down on him and it’s heart wrench­ing to wit­ness. But by the time we get to the third and final part, the world leaves him momen­tar­i­ly in peace, and he is final­ly giv­en space to breathe. So you leave the cin­e­ma on a much lighter note than you might have expect­ed, but you are left feel­ing ever so slight­ly short changed.

The brilliant if dark Toy Story 3.

That’s how you make sequels.

But that is a minor quib­ble. This is a major film and Jenk­ins is a seri­ous tal­ent. Let’s just hope he man­ages to walk away from the obscene amounts of mon­ey that as we speak will be appear­ing on tables in front of him across the whole of Hol­ly­wood. Just say no.

You can see the trail­er for Moon­light here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!

5 Worst Films To Win The Oscar For Best Film.

5. Mil­lion Dol­lar Baby (2004). For its first 90 min­utes or so (most films’ actu­al length), Clint East­wood’s box­er chick flick shuf­fles along as a poor man’s Rocky. But then, with what’s laugh­ably described as a plot “twist”, it sud­den­ly veers off into the final scene of Bet­ty Blue, which it man­ages to drag out for a fur­ther ¾ of an hour.

Nei­ther one thing nor the oth­er, it man­ages to be dull and tedious twice over. Incred­i­bly, it tri­umphed at the expense of the right­ly laud­ed Side­ways, the charm­ing Find­ing Nev­er­land, and Scors­ese’s under­rat­ed The Avi­a­tor.

Hav­ing to write Mil­lion Dol­lar Baby was obvi­ous­ly the price that Paul Hag­gis had to pay for being allowed to direct Crash, which quite cor­rect­ly won the fol­low­ing year.

4. The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003). The final install­ment of Peter Jack­son’s mag­num opus affords a third oppor­tu­ni­ty to spend yet anoth­er three hours (3 hours and 20 min­utes actu­al­ly…) watch­ing one set of com­put­er gen­er­at­ed char­ac­ters in a series of increas­ing­ly noi­some bat­tles with A N Oth­er set. Which, inex­plic­a­bly, they occa­sion­al­ly do with subtitles.

Watch­ing a video game with­out being able to par­tic­i­pate is the cin­e­mat­ic equiv­a­lent of being treat­ed to a lap dance with­out being allowed to touch. For hours and hours. Oh and it beat Lost In Trans­la­tion and Clint East­wood’s superb Mys­tic Riv­er.

3. How Green Was My Val­ley (1941). Is John Ford the worst film mak­er of all time? Or is that Kuro­sawa? They are, as they say, well met.

Either way, just in case you thought that get­ting it mon­u­men­tal­ly wrong on Oscar night was a mod­ern phe­nom­e­non, Ford’s oh so dull and typ­i­cal­ly lead­en tale of, yawn, a Welsh min­ing town was duly award­ed the gong in 1941. And at whose expense?

Well, for one there was a cer­tain Cit­i­zen Kane. Then there was John Hus­ton’s enig­mat­ic and gen­uine­ly quirky noir clas­sic, The Mal­tese Fal­con. And William Wyler’s ice-cold but razor-sharp Bette Davis vehi­cle, The Lit­tle Fox­es (which, like Kane, was shot by Gregg Toland). As well as Hitch­cock­’s Sus­pi­cion, star­ring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine.

2. Titan­ic (1997). Our very own Ford and Kuro­sawa rolled into one (see above), the first thing you want to do with James Cameron’s mes­mer­i­cal­ly tedious  3 hours and 17 minute film is to take each and every one of its shots and chop off their open­ing and clos­ing 25%. That would bring it down to just over an hour and a half.

You’d lose noth­ing. You would how­ev­er see even more clear­ly that it’s lit­tle more than a shot by shot remake of the 1958 film A Night To Remem­ber, but with­out any of the lat­ter’s charm, social graces or under­stand­ing of eti­quette. And as for those spe­cial effects. Well, they’re cer­tain­ly spe­cial all right.

1. The Artist (2012). Any­one who’s ever done any of those Hol­ly­wood screen­writ­ing cours­es will know that there are a cer­tain num­ber of arche­typ­al plots. One of which is the Iron­ic Plot, a clas­sic exam­ple of which goes as fol­lows; he does some­thing to avoid being caught, and hide his true iden­ti­ty, only to dis­cov­er that what he does is pre­cise­ly the thing that leads to him being unmasked.

The one thing that Hol­ly­wood is obsessed with, is prov­ing to the rest of the world that, con­trary to pop­u­lar opin­ion, it is not in fact peo­pled by philistines. So they fell over them­selves in their haste to lav­ish The Artist (reviewed by me here ear­li­er) with ill-con­sid­ered praise on the grounds that a) it’s French, b) it’s in black and white, and c) it’s silent.

But by fail­ing to spot its com­plete absence of dra­ma, or to notice that it’s made up of one-dimen­sion­al card­board cut-outs, albethey beau­ti­ful­ly drawn ones, whose nar­ra­tive arc could be com­fort­ably pre­dict­ed by most below-aver­age­ly intel­li­gent 9 year olds, they have, need­less to say, con­firmed all our worst sus­pi­cions. So there you are then, QED.

Appro­pri­ate­ly enough I  sup­pose, Hol­ly­wood itself has become a clas­sic exam­ple of one of its own genres.

The Artist”- Michel Hazanavicius

This year’s smash hit at Cannes… Silent and in black and white… Clas­si­cal­ly French…  Charm­ing per­for­mances… And the dog…! Hmmn, what? Oh I’m sor­ry, I think I might have dozed off there.

There have of course been some gen­uine­ly won­der­ful films about Hol­ly­wood. Bil­ly Wilder’s Sun­set Boule­vard (’50), Vin­cente Min­nel­li’s The Bad And The Beau­ti­ful (’52), Robert Alt­man’s The Play­er (’92) and David Lynch’s Mul­hol­land Dri­ve (’01) being the four most memorable.

All depict a pitch black world bereft of a moral com­pass, where blind­ly dri­ven char­ac­ters devote their lives to sac­ri­fic­ing their tal­ent on the altar to per­son­al ambi­tion. The result is a land­scape where any­thing can hap­pen, and every­one’s care­ful cal­cu­la­tions are for­ev­er under­mined by the whims of the non-exis­tent but mis­chie­vous Gods. They are all in oth­er words Euro­pean films, that just hap­pen to use Hol­ly­wood as their backdrop.

They reek of the Old World, with its iron­ic insou­ciance and casu­al cyn­i­cism, and are free entire­ly of that unshak­able cer­tain­ty and bound­less opti­mism that make the New World so appeal­ing and give it its veneer of invincibility.

Mul­hol­land Dri­ve might look like Hol­ly­wood, but its cor­rect title, as David Thomp­son so per­cep­tive­ly point­ed out is Mul­hol­land Dr., and the that Dr stands for “dream”, as in night­mare. The pow­ers that be that gov­ern this world are neb­u­lous, nefar­i­ous and hope­less­ly inscrutable. This might be the dream fac­to­ry, but these are the wrong kinds of dreams.

The Artist is the exact oppo­site. It’s an all too con­ven­tion­al Hol­ly­wood film clum­si­ly dressed in Euro­pean art-house chic. Sure, if you’ve nev­er seen, say, a Madon­na video (it’s in black and white!!) or a for­eign film (what, sub­ti­tles!!! (well, titles actu­al­ly)), then you might but briefly mis­take it for some­thing mild­ly un-con­ven­tion­al. But you’ll very quick­ly tire of the film’s un-rip­pled progress, as all the char­ac­ters duti­ful­ly make their way down all too well worn paths.

The fact of the mat­ter is, The Artist isn’t a pas­tiche of those ear­ly Hol­ly­wood films, it’s one of them. And it’s every bit as dull, drea­ry and pre­dictable as those kinds of films have always been. That’s why, both then and now, we grav­i­tate towards the likes of Méliès and Eisen­stein, Lang, Mur­nau and Chap­lin. Their con­stant inven­tion and daz­zling bril­liance are a glo­ri­ous cor­rec­tive to the bar­rage of end­less tedi­um we’re for­ev­er forced to put up with from main­stream Hollywood.

Still. There is of course one part of the world where they’ll see The Artist as a fan­tas­ti­cal­ly coura­geous attempt to buck the pre­vail­ing trend of drown­ing every­thing in a cacoph­o­ny of wide screen, sur­round sound 3D Tech­ni­col­or noise. Roll on the Acad­e­my Awards.