Monday, March 20, 2017

by William Connolly

This listing has an historical, both personal and chronological, perspective because that is often what I most enjoy - when and how I experienced something often times is more important to me than what others may judge as objective criteria. This listing also changes. Films that were favorites in the past may fall out of favor after re-seeing them.
Growing up an Army brat on Okinawa, I had access to the movies which played at the on-base theaters, and those which played at the off-base theaters. I think I was 8 when I saw APACHE GOLD, aka WINNETOU 1. TEIL, and my older brother Patrick told me that it was a German Western. When I was 10 and my family went to see A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, we all knew that it was an Italian Western. My mother embraced the critical opinion that FISTFUL was too violent, so I accepted that it wasn't any good. Around this time, I saw a Spy movie at an off-base theater and witnessed the preview for DJANGO. I thought it was the most ridiculous-looking movie ever with people being machine-gunned right and left. I recounted my memory of that trailer many times, but my curiosity was arroused by seeing the 45rpm single on the jukebox at the Daimaru Bowling Alley. Then came the fateful day I went to see MODESTY BLAISE at a movie theater in Futenma. I arrived early and so caught the last half of THE RETURN OF RINGO.

1) IL RITORNO DI RINGO, aka THE RETURN OF RINGO - This was the movie which changed my attitude toward Italian Westerns and it remained my favorite Giuliano Gemma film. I had never seen a Western which had the romantic impact that this film had. And having the hero go into the final fight with a broken gun hand was bracing. I later found out that director Duccio Tessari and star Gemma made one of my favorite mythological films, ARRIVANO I TITANI, aka SONS OF THUNDER, aka MY SON THE HERO.

2) PERCHE UCCIDI ANCORA, aka WHY GO ON KILLING? - This was the first Italian Western I went to see because it was an Italian Western - though as the director was Jose Antonio de la Loma perhaps I should say it was a Spanish Western. The casual brutality of the opening execution was shocking and the persona of star Anthony Steffen was something I hadn't before seen. This was the first Western in which the ending was suspenseful as I wasn't certain our hero would win.

3) DEGUEYO - Having seen John Wayne's THE ALAMO four times, I understood what the title of this movie meant and it was the second Italian Western that I went to see because it was an Italian Western. Again the casual brutality of the film was shocking, as was the fact that the heroine didn't survive. With both of his hands damaged by rope burns, Giacomo Rossi Stuart went into the final battle with Dan Vadis crippled and I wasn't certain that our hero would win. This was something that I had never experienced in an American Western.

4) DJANGO - After ridiculing it for about a year, this Sergio Corbucci directed flick was re-released at the off-base theaters on a double-bill with PER UN PUGNO DI DOLLARI. This was my first experience seeing an Italian Western in Italian with Japanese subtitles, but it did not harm my enjoyment of the action. Again our hero goes into the final fight with crippled hands and the suspense was intense. I am now grateful that I didn't first experience this movie with the English dialogue track, because that version ruins the ending. The elegance of Major Jackson shooting with "In the name of the Father (bang), and of the Son (bang), and of the Holy (bang) Ghost (bang)" was brilliant and the fact that the English dubbers didn't use that was criminal. Thankfully, the Blue Underground DVD allowed Americans to watch the movie in Italian with English subtitles. I found out later that Corbucci had directed by favorite mythological film, ROMOLO E REMO, aka DUEL OF THE TITANS.

5) PER UN PUGNO DI DOLLARI, aka A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS - Rewatching this movie in Italian with Japanese subtitles helped me to re-evaulate Sergio Leone's first Western. However, I was such a fan of DJANGO, that I convinced myself that DJANGO came first and that Leone had ripped off Corbucci. That made four out of five films in which our hero goes into the finale with a wounded hand, though I suppose we should all thank director Akira Kurosawa with that plot element from YOJIMBO. I found out later that Leone had directed another of my favorite sword and sandal films, IL COLOSSO DI RODI, aka THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES.

6) PER QUALCHE DOLLARI IN PIU, aka FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE - When the second of the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood collaborations came out, I was primed and rushed to the theater. With a bigger budget, Sergio Leone enriched his approach to Westerns, introduced Lee Van Cleef as a lead, and popularized the term "bounty killer".

7) EL PRECIO DE UN HOMBRE, aka THE BOUNTY KILLER, aka THE UGLY ONES - While this was directed by a Spaniard, Eugenio Martin, the film played the Japanese circuit in Italian with Japanese subtitles. Luckily I had already fallen in love with the movie before the American version with the title THE UGLY ONES came to Okinawa because that version had dialogue so out of sync that the audience laughed. Tomas Milian may have played the bad guy, but all of the publicity material showcased him and helped to make him a star.

8) SE SEI VIVO SPARA, aka IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT!, aka DJANGO KILL - Director Giulio Questi and Tomas Milian got the money to make a Western and the result was a perverse art film. Again I was lucky to have orginally watched this in Italian with Japanese subtitles because the English language version ruins the film. Again, thankfully, the Blue Underground DVD can be seen in Italian with English subtitles.

9) UN DOLLARO TRA I DENTI, aka A STRANGER IN TOWN - Director Luigi Vanzi and star Tony Anthony showed how to do A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS on an even lower budget, and Anthony's connections to Allen Klein got a U.S. distribution deal with MGM which proved so successful that sequels were ordered.

10) LE COLT CONTARONO LA MORTE E FU... TEMPO DI MASSACRO, aka MASSACRE TIME, aka THE BRUTE AND THE BEAST - Director Lucio Fulci emphasized the gothic elements which directors Leone and Corbucci infused their Westerns, solidified Franco Nero's star status and introduced George Hilton.

11) IL BUONO IL BRUTTO IL CATTIVO, aka THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY - Leone took on the epic adventure and changed American culture.

12) FACCIA A FACCIA, aka FACE TO FACE - Director Sergio Sollima brought an intellectual element to the Italian Western with Gian Maria Volonte, Tomas Milian and William Berger. Carole Andre as Cattle Annie made an indelible impression.

13) NAVAJO JOE - Director Sergio Corbucci, star Burt Reynolds and composer Ennio Morricone brought an intense physicallity to this revenge tale which made for exhilarating viewing.

14) QUIEN SABE?, aka A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL - Director Damiano Damiani's film set during the Mexican Revolution introduced the idea of using popular action stories to spread political ideas.

15) 2 ONCE DI PIOMBO, aka MY NAME IS PECOS - I didn't see this until the 1980s, but this tale of a Mexican gunman getting revenge on racist gringos was a welcome change of pace and was probably Robert Woods' best Western.

16) VAMOS A MATAR, COMPANEROS, aka COMPANEROS - Director Sergio Corbucci did two films about a mercenary trying to make a buck during the Mexican Revolution. I prefer this one over IL MERCENARIO, aka A PROFESSIONAL GUN, because of the interplay between Franco Nero and Tomas Milian and the fact that our hero commits to the cause in the end.

17) TEPEPA - Another film dealing with the Mexican Revolution, TEPEPA offered Tomas Milian a opportunity to create a character of depth under the direction of Giulio Petroni and able support by John Steiner.

18) IL GRANDE SILENZIO, aka GREAT SILENCE - With Jean-Louis Trintignant, Vonetta MacGree, Klaus Kinski and Frank Wolff, director Sergio Corbucci made the ultimate statement about an hero going to the final shootut with crippled hands.

19) GIU LA TESTA, aka DUCK YOU SUCKER - Reacting to the "political Westerns", director Sergio Leone did his own take on the Mexican Revolution and the result was the most emotionally engaging film of his career.

20) BLINDMAN - Adding Ringo Starr to the company, Tony Anthony brought in director Ferdinando Baldi to make his most expensive and most outrageous Western.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

by William Connolly

William Ferguson challenged me to list the 20 greatest Italian/Spanish Westerns. I tend to shy away from the term "greatest" because that suggests a more objective criteria than I usually want to deal with. I prefer considering my favorites, but for this exercise I'll attempt "greatest". To be great a film has to be exceptional; to be first - to have a noticeable impact - to have imitators.

1) SAVAGE GUNS - While Spanish filmmakers had already been using Almeria to play the American southwest, this was the first English language production to show what it could do - though Sidney Pink prefers to think that his FINGER ON A TRIGGER did the job.

2) GRINGO, aka GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS - Here's an example of Italian producers and a Spanish director making a Western before Sergio Leone got his chance. And it is the first Western scored by Ennio Morricone. It also introduced Richard Harrison as a Western star.

3) PER UN PUGNO DI DOLLARI, aka A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS - If it isn't for this movie, this list probably wouldn't exist.

4) MINNESOTA CLAY - Here's the production that got director Sergio Corbucci away from Yugoslavia, where he made MASSACRE AT THE GRAND CANYON, to make Westerns in Spain.

5) PISTOLEROS DE ARIZONA, aka $5,000 ON AN ACE - This establishes the Balcazar studios as an alternative to Almeria and introduces Robert Woods to Western stardom.

6) UNA PISTOLA PER RINGO, aka A PISTOL FOR RINGO - Duccio Tessari brings his sense of ironic humor to the Western and helps to establish Giuliano Gemma as the first home grown star of Italian Westerns, behind the name Montgomery Wood.

7) PER QUALCHE DOLLARI IN PIU, aka FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE - With a bigger budget, Sergio Leone enriches his approach to Westerns, introduces Lee Van Cleef as a lead, and popularizes the term "bounty killer".

8) IL RITORNO DI RINGO, aka THE RETURN OF RINGO - Duccio Tessari is able to inject a sense of mythology into his Westerns, and Giuliano Gemma starts to use his real name.
9) DJANGO - Director Sergio Corbucci decides to follow in Sergio Leone's footsteps with a lower budget, more graphic violence and a sense of exuberance that creates a new trend. This film also gave Franco Nero his first starring role.

10) UN DOLLARO TRA I DENTI, aka A STRANGER IN TOWN - Director Luigi Vanzi and star Tony Anthony show how to do A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS on an even lower budget, and Anthony's connections to Allen Klein gets a U.S. distribution deal with MGM which proves so successful that sequels are ordered.

11) LE COLT CONTARONO LA MORTE E FU... TEMPO DI MASSACRO, aka MASSACRE TIME, aka THE BRUTE AND THE BEAST - Director Lucio Fulci emphasizes the gothic elements which directors Leone and Corbucci infuse their Westerns, solidifies Franco Nero's star status and introduces George Hilton.

12) IL BUONO IL BRUTTO IL CATTIVO, aka THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY - Leone takes on the epic adventure and changes American culture.

13) FACCIA A FACCIA, aka FACE TO FACE - Director Sergio Sollima brings an intellectual element to these kinds of movies.

14) VADO... L'AMMAZZO E TORNO, aka ANY GUN CAN PLAY - Ditching the E.G. Rowland name and adopting the Enzo G. Castellari credit, Enzo Girolami makes George Hilton a star and takes these movies down the thorny path from being ironic commentary on American Westerns to satirizing European Westerns.

15) EL PRECIO DE UN HOMBRE, aka THE BOUNTY KILLER, aka THE UGLY ONES - Tomas Milian gives a movie career one last try and takes work in a Western shot in Spain. The result is a classic of its type.

16) SE SEI VIVO SPARA, aka IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT!, aka DJANGO KILL - Director Giulio Questi and Tomas Milian get the money to make a Western and the result is a perverse art film.

17) 7 PISTOLI PER I MACGREGOR, aka SEVEN GUNS FOR THE MACGREGORS - Director Franco Giraldi establishes his career with a film that acknowledges the influence of SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS on Italian filmmakers and continues Robert Woods' Western career.

18) QUIEN SABE?, aka A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL - Director Damiano Damiani says that this isn't a Western; it's about the Mexican Revolution. The Mexican Revolution has been a plot element in alot of Westerns, including GRINGO, so attempting to make this a seperate category doesn't seem worthwhile. In any case, this movie introduces the idea of using popular action stories to spread political ideas.

19) SE INCONTRI SARTANA PREGA PER LA TUA MORTE, aka IF YOU MEET SARTANA, PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH - Director Gianfranco Parolini makes Gianni Garko a star with a Western spoof of the James Bond gadget-filled movies, though with less bedroom action.

20) LO CHIAMAVANO TRINITA, aka THEY CALL ME TRINITY - Though they had already teamed-up for director Giuseppe Colizzi, Terence Hill and Bud Spencer become superstars under the direction of Enzo Barboni with this slapstick comedy that spoofs European Westerns even more strongly than ANY GUN CAN PLAY.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

My 10 favorite movie and TV viewings of 2016.

I can't do a "best of 2016" list as I've seen less than a handful of new movies from that year so far: CAPTAIN AMERICAN CIVIL WAR, SHIN GODZILLA, ZOOTOPIA, and DOCTOR STRANGE.
However, here is a list of the 10 best Movie and TV viewings I had in 2016.

The single best experience I had was attending the 2016 Los Angeles Italia Festival in February where I was introduced to films directed by Mario Martone including -

Director Mario Martone answered questions at screenings of his films at the 2016 Los Angeles Italia Festival.
Also at the Festival I loved -
At home I loved:
Mozart In the Jungle (seasons 1 and 2 on Amazon Prime)
LOVE & MERCY - Bill Pohlad's film about Brian Wilson
TANTALUS: BEHIND THE MASK - 2001 PBS documentary
THE WRECKING CREW - Denny Tedesco's documentary
WAR & PEACE (2016) - The six-part British mini-series which became a three part U.S. mini-series.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Anthony P. Pennino on BURN!

By Anthony P. Pennino (
On September 8, 1966, Battle of Algiers, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, premiered in Italy. Twelve days later, the film was first shown in the United States. The work was received with great acclaim, but it was also greeted with condemnation. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for a number of Academy Awards including Best Foreign Film. Nonetheless, it was banned in France for its all too sympathetic portrayal of the FLN. Today, the film is listed as #120 on Empire Magazine’s list of 500 greatest films of all time.Its importance in the history of film is without question. The film excites the popular imagination more perhaps for the legends that have grown up around it -- such as having been screened by the Black Panthers and the Provisional IRA as well as by military and civilian officials of the Pentagon (following a declaration of “mission accomplished” in Iraq) -- than for its actual content. Let us make no mistake: the film is brutal, incendiary, brilliant. Employing a cinema vérité style and a cast consisting almost entirely of non-professional actors, Battle of  Algiers depicts the French colonizers and the FLN as equally vicious combatants in the struggle for control over Algeria. And that may be the work’s most troubling feature: the balance inwhich it presents the two sides.
This stunning work of agitprop would stand as Pontecorvo’s final word on the subject of colonialism, except that it isn’t. Three years later, Pontecorvo completed another film on the same subject: Burn! (also known as Queimada); to eliminate some confusion, I will refer to the film by its English title to distinguish it from the island setting: Queimada. Though this film stars Marlon Brando, Burn! has not enjoyed the same reputation as Battle of Algiers.However, Pontecorvo’s examination, depiction, and, ultimately, condemnation of colonialism in the later work is more pronounced and more profound than in Battle of Algiers because he so carefully delineates the different strains of European expansionist behavior. I submit to you, therefore, that Burn! – despite, or even perhaps because of its flaw – is equally deserving of our admiration as a vital piece of emergent political cinema.
Briefly, Burn! is set on the fictional island of Queimada. It has been colonized by the Portuguese, who originally used the indigenous population as slaves. When those slavesrevolted, the colonizers implemented a scorched-earth policy and burned the island’s vegetation killing that indigenous population. Slaves were then brought from Africa to work the sugar fields. The film begins in the 1830’s when Sir William Walker, an agent of the British Navy, arrives to serve as an advisor to instigate a revolution against the Portuguese. He finds the mulatto population, led by Terry Sanchez (Italian actor Renato Salvatori in blackface), ill equipped for the task. Instead, he elicits the aid of poor illiterate slave Jose Dolores (as is Pontecorvo’s habit, non-actor Evaristo Marquez was hired for the role). Between Dolores’ military pressure out in the countryside and Sanchez’s conspiracy in the capital, the Portuguese are overthrown. Walker convinces Dolores that Sanchez is the more capable administrator and leaves the island with the latter in charge of the government. Ten years pass. It is 1848, a date with obvious political significance. Walker, now a representative of the Royal Sugar Company, returns to Queimada to suppress a revolt led by Dolores against Sanchez. Walker has Sanchez killed by his own military and hunts down Dolores, who is also executed. Walker is assassinated as he prepares to return home. Queimada may now be firmly under British control, but the revolution lives on.
It should come as no surprise that Burn! was not initially well-received by the critical press. An illustrative review from the time of the film’s release (1970 in the United States) belongs to Stanley Kaufmann writing for The New Republic: “No such importance (however your view it) is likely to attach to Pontecorvo’s new film Burn!, although it was clearly bucking to be another revolutionary hymn. It was carelessly made and has evidently been shoved and jostled in its final editing. The result is that its spine is broken in several places, and it can only wobble lamely to a revolutionary stance.” i Kaufmann is correct that there were production problems during and after filming – the specifics of which I will focus upon shortly -- but theknowledge that there were production and post-production factors beyond Pontecorvo’s control do not prevent the critic from concluding: “I had some reservations about The Battle of Algiers in terms of its fundamental purpose, but it was so brilliantly made. Such questions can’t arise about Burn! because it is so badly made.” ii
Pauline Kael, long-time critic for The New Yorker, was in the minority back in 1970. She deemed the film “luxuriant” and an “ecstatic epic”. iii Kael also correctly pointed to some of the production’s trouble: “[Burn!] might have reached a much wider audience if the Spanish government, sensitive about Spaniards being cast as heavies, hadn’t applied economic pressure against the production, United Artists. So parts of this picture were deleted and others reshot, and the Spaniards, who had traditionally dominated the Antilles, were replaced by the Portuguese, who hadn’t but aren’t a big movie market. After these delays the picture was given a nervous, half-hearted release.” iv Part of that nervousness was a result of releasing a film with clear anti-colonial sentiments to a public weary of the Vietnam War; Hollywood in general had difficulties addressing issues concerning the Vietnam War during the time of the war and, in fact, while Burn! was in production Warner Brothers released the pro-war John Wayne vehicle The Green Berets. Added to that, the temperamental star and temperamental director had a very public feud which Brando himself described as “Homeric”. v The production troubles and the made-for-tabloid fights provided critics with cover. Kaufmann takes on the role of Gertrude in Act IV of Hamlet; there is no need to listen to the truth of the message because somehow the messenger is flawed.
But when all is said and done Burn! is a work of subversive art. There should be no surprise in saying this. But it is subversive in three distinct respects. First, it is politically subversive. Pontecorvo and his screenwriting collaborator Franco Solinas – who also worked on Battle of Algiers – held Frantz Fanon, and in particular The Wretched of the Earth, in high esteem; they deployed Fanonian ideals in creating both Battle of Algiers and Burn! And as such,it initially appears that Kaufmann might indeed be right. If Burn! merely walks in the shadow of  Battle of Algiers, what need do we have for it at all? But there is need for it because its ambitions are that much greater than Battle of Algiers. Burn! not only challenges traditional colonial hegemony but neo-imperialist strategies as well.
Secondly, it is subversive historically. Battle of Algiers is placed in a very clear historical context. That film holds up a mirror to the nation of the Enlightenment, of the French Revolution, of the bourgeois revolution and finds it wanting, hypocritical; the inheritors of that bourgeois revolution are shown denying self-determination to those fighting an anti-colonialrevolution. And while the film is clearly a warning to all colonial regimes, those not directly associated with the Union francaise can feel a measure of safety and distance from its proceedings. Burn!, however, has a muddied historical context. And, as such, it casts a much wider net. It is much more difficult for an audience of the metropolitan center watching Burn! to build a wall between itself and this work even if its nation is not explicitly named in the film.There is no safety in distance here.
Finally, Burn! is stylistically subversive as it utilizes certain Hollywood tropes and formulas to misdirect its audience as to the true nature of Brando’s character Sir William Walker, his fate, and the inevitable conclusion of the piece. An American audience, in particular, must then consider a reexamination of the cultural contexts in which it receives films of the action-adventure genre. Stylistically, historically, and politically subversive – I will peel back each layer of the onion one at at time. As a film’s form is the most readily accessible, I will begin with an examination of its stylistic subversion.
In her review, Kael writes, “It is an attempt to plant an insurrectionary fuse within a swashbuckler – to use a popular costume-adventure form to arouse black revolutionary passions.” vi Kael is exactly right. On the surface, there are many elements that suggest that Burn! is a swashbuckler, a version of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood with the island Queimada substituting for Sherwood Forest, or, in others words, another people’s revolt against oppression played for heroics, adventure, and the occasional laugh. Shot in lush color with a sense of the epic – including a large cast to portray three armies: Portuguese, British, and Jose Dolores’ rebels – Burn! has the visual quality of the action-adventure picture of the time. Add in the casting of Marlon Brando in the lead. Brando was not yet well-known for his political positions. His refusal to accept an Oscar is still a couple of years in the future. Indeed, he had recently starred in the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, a piece of imperial fluff with British characters in conflict over a watered-down version of the rights of man while another set of native islanders basically serves as background scenery. And, initially, his character appears heroic in the Errol Flynn mode. He is on the island to ferment revolution. He is working with/for Teddy Sanchez, a seemingly idealistic character. It is only when Brando’s Walker addresses Sanchez and his colleagues after Dolores’ revolt has spread does the audience first fully realize Walker’s intentions.
Another possible point of confusion for the audience is one of the film’s producers: Alberto Grimaldi. At first glance, this does not seem to be a logical collaboration. Grimaldi was best known at the time for his role in producing the so-called spaghetti westerns, particularly the ones directed by Sergio Leone. These films were by the standards of the day exceedingly violent but also hugely popular (making a star out of then conservative actor Clint Eastwood in the process). And though of course belonging to the Western genre, the spaghetti westerns were also extraordinarily critical of the traditional American Western. Leone deconstructs the thematic values of the genre through a Marxist lens and concludes that the West was built by men solely seeking profit as opposed to possessing a desire in building a continuation of Western civilization and furthering the Enlightenment Experiment. Indeed, one only need recall the final scene of For a Few Dollars More when Eastwood’s bounty hunter character Monco is piling the corpses of the bandits he has just help kill onto a wagon and cataloguing them not by name but by the value of their bounty. Grimaldi and his colleagues – including composer Ennio Morricone who had long-standing working relationships with both Pontecorvo and Leone – were practiced in taking the forms of American popular entertainment and re-conceiving them with a subversive or revolutionary agenda. Burn! fits that model accordingly.
Pontecorvo goes a step further by denying the audience the catharsis of violence. When Walker and Dolores are on the run from the Portuguese military after robbing the bank, they find themselves on a small village on the coast. They could flee, but Dolores instead decides to arm the villagers and meet the oncoming soldiers with force. The audience is prepared for a climatic showdown where our heroes defeat the forces of oppression. But Pontecorvo cuts to a point after the victory when the villagers are celebrating and holding the soldiers’ weapons aloft. The audience here is cast adrift, deprived of the traditional story structures of the action-adventure. It must now consider the repercussions of revolution rather than the more entertaining aspects of violent conflict between two opposing forces. We are asked to side with the Dolores’ nascent insurrection not because of emotional investment in the individual but purely because of ideological considerations.
The politically subversive elements of Burn! is our next layer of the onion. So much of the script is concerned with revolutionary and counter-revolutionary dialectic that the piece more often resembles a seminar on anti-colonial insurgency than a work of dramatic realism. I have already discussed the importance of Fanon to the works of Pontecorvo and Solinas, and Fanon’s theoretical concerns have provided the thematic foundation of Battle of Algiers. Carlo Celli in his study of Pontecorvo also provides ample discourse on the importance of Fanon in the development of this film.
Celli demonstrates penetrating insight when he discusses the relevance of the character of Teddy Sanchez, the mulatto puppet president after the first revolution on Quiemada. Celli writes, “Throughout the film Sanchez is portrayed as a weak and ineffectual figure who has the trust of neither the white commercial overlords nor the island’s black, ex-slave population. The sense of an unbreachable barrier between the races and of the impossibility of dialogue is evident in the narrative devaluation of Sanchez…. The gentrified, multiracial Sanchez is, of course, compromised by his association with the moneyed interests of the island. But Sanchez is also presented as a figure who provokes the open disdain and disrespect of both protagonists, Walker and Dolores.”vii The clear polarity of The Battle of Algiers eludes us here. Pontecorvo dangles the possibility of what Graham Greene’s The Quiet American character Pyle would call “the third-way” – a bourgeois revolution – but then removes that hope quickly. That revolution is too obviously manipulated by Walker. The effect here is to eliminate a political option well within an American audience’s comfort zone and increase its sense of unease and perhaps even dread. Edward Said argues, “Thus official bourgeois nationalists simply drop into the narrative pattern of the Europeans, hoping to become mimic men, in Naipaul’s phrase, mere native correspondences of their imperial masters.” viii Here, the third way (the bourgeois revolution) is no way at all, rather a nationalist movement co-opted by a competing imperial power.
Celli also provides cogent analysis of Sanchez’s assassination of the Portuguese governor (wherein Walker has to hold his arm so that he can fire the pistol). Celli notes that the assassination occurs during Carnival, a period where historical hierarchies are temporarily and ritualistically upended. Sanchez heads a new government, a move that has all the trappings of a Carnival atmosphere recast in shades of the grotesque; he clearly does not have a mandate to rule. ix
Nonetheless, Celli misses a key element of the assassination. Fanon states in The Wretched of the Earth: “The appearance of the settler has meant in the terms of syncretism the death of the aboriginal society, cultural lethargy, and the petrification of individuals. For the native, life can only spring up again out of the rotting corpse of the settler.”x The governor’s corpse and the settler’s corpse are one and the same. And with his death, the life of the slave population seems to emerge anew, however temporarily.
In one of the most famous monologues from the film, Brando’s Walker addresses Sanchez and his colleagues as they plan their revolution: “Gentlemen, let me ask you a question. Now, my metaphor may seem a trifle impertinent, but I think it's very much to the point. Which do you prefer - or should I say, which do you find more convenient - a wife, or one of these mulatto girls? No, no, please don't misunderstand: I am talking strictly in terms of economics. What is the cost of the product? What is the product yield? The product, in this case, being love -uh, purely physical love, since sentiments obviously play no part in economics.” xi Walker goes on at length to specify the difference in prices between a wife and a prostitute. He then concludes, “Which, gentlemen, is more important - and more convenient: a slave or a paid worker?” xii The plantation of Queimada has been the location of the battle between colonizer and colonized. Michael T. Martin interprets this speech as representative of the shifting balance in economic forces from mercantile colonialism to open market capitalism “while invoking Enlightenment principles against a competing, although declining, hegemonic state (Portugal) on behalf of an ascending one (England).” xiii In Martin’s formulation, Burn! while an examination of the struggles of the colonized (Dolores) against the colonizer (Walker) is also an examination of the struggles of labor (Dolores) against capital (Walker). The struggle of the wage slave is joined with the struggle of the chattel slave.
And it is with this focus on economic concerns that Burn! leaves the shadow of Battle of  Algiers and stands on its own with an unique ideological agenda. And that is manifested in the second half of the film when Walker serves as an agent of the Royal Sugar Company and not Her Majesty’s Government. Pontecorvo and his collaborators are responding to a global shift from a colonial to a post-colonial paradigm. For example, at the time of the film’s initial release, the world has witnessed the rise of Mobuto in Zaire following the Congo Crisis. Though ostensibly a figure of national liberation, Mobuto maintained cozy relationships with Belgium and France --the very colonial powers that had just been expelled -- as well as the United States. Corporate interests in Zaire’s natural resources would also greatly enhance Mobuto’s wallet; indeed, Mobuto would come under severe criticism from Naipaul in the form of the character Big Man in the novelist’s post-colonial masterpiece A Bend in the River. The military coup leaders who depose and execute Teddy Sanchez and then enter into their own cozy and profitable relationship with the Royal Sugar Company share some aspects with Mobuto including that of corruption.The presence of the Royal Sugar Company in the film demonstrates the new, subtler, and indirect methodologies of control exercised by the European powers over formerly controlled territories. The revolution has been hijacked, and the essential hegemonic structure is maintained. Insightful American audiences further cannot but help to find resonance in the Walker’s shifting job description. As mentioned above, his first employer is the Admiralty. His second employer is the Royal Sugar Company. In some respects, he is the embodiment of the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned of early in 1961.
And with the mention of the military-industrial complex, we now turn to the third and final layer of my onion: Burn! is a work of historical subversion. The choice to alter the colonial rulers of Queimada from the Spanish to the Portuguese may have been one made from business necessity, but it was also a liberating choice. The film is by no means the standard traditional historical costume epic that were flooding cinemas at the time: Man for All Seasons, Beckett, or Anne of a Thousand Days to name a few. Nor does it attempt to relay an “objective” rendering of a particular historical moment or figure. Rather, the history being deployed here is that of geschichte, or, as described by Raymond Williams, an on going dialectic between past and present. Both influence each other. And as much as Burn! is about the depredations of the European colonial powers, it is as much about the United States and its neo-colonial war in Vietnam. A few illustrations are needed. First, let us take the name of Brando’s character: William Walker. The historical William Walker was an American adventurer and filibuster who was intent on increasing the power of Southern slave-owning states by establishing English-speaking colonies in Central and South American states. He was briefly President of Nicaragua before a coalition of Central American armies executed him. The historical Walker and his doppelganger the fictional Walker stand as symbols of American military adventurism for the pursuit of profit. Such a figure has a clear connotation for a nation engaged in a long-term conflict in Southeast Asia.When Walker returns to Queimada, he provides a number of lessons to the Queimadan rulers and British officers on the nature of the revolutionaries they are hunting. (Indeed, Walker often serves as Pontecorvo’s mouthpiece for the concepts of historical materialism). The rebels only have a life to lose, Walker informs these elites, while the soldiers hunting them have family, property, and livelihood at risk. Sir William concludes that this makes the rebel that much more intractable. Celli states, “These considerations echo the strategy of guerilla leaders like China’s Mao Tse-tung or the Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh. Brando would have a chance to repeat similarlines in his performance as Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s nineteenth-century English adventure novel, Heart of Darkness.”
In fact,Pontecorvo would deploy a number of different images that would be familiar to American audiences witnessing the Vietnam War through television news programs. I will name just two. First, the Quiemadan Government forcibly removes the island’s population from its villages to “secure” controlled locations in order to deprive the revolutionaries of a support structure; the parallels with the Defense Secretary McNamara’s Strategic Hamlet Program are clear. Second, the British Army – as the Portuguese did before them – burn down the island’s vegetation to deprive the revolutionaries of places to hide. As Pontecorvo presents these scenes, though, they resemble images of the US Air Force dropping napalm on the Vietnamese jungle. The use of fire as a weapon has a similar intent as well. By utilizing geschichte as the means by which history is communicated, Burn! is a much more dangerous film for American audiences than Battle of Algiers. Whereas for the latter, the audience could comfort itself in the mythologies of the United States as world liberator (and asliberated  colony) – that what was depicted on screen was a product of a purely European-style of domination – they have a much more difficult time finding safety in those mythologies. For with geschichte, Pontecorvo is able to link explicitly European and American strains of expansionist methodologies and is thus indicting American intervention in South Vietnam as part and parcel of the colonial enterprise. I quote Pauline Kael early on United Artists’ nervousness at releasing this film. Perhaps they were right to be nervous.The reputation of The Battle of Algiers continues to soar.
Burn! has not disappeared down a memory-hole the way that Kaufmann might have hoped, but its image still needs to be rehabilitated. A process, by which I might add, has begun. Martin, whom I mentioned earlier, has contributed intriguing and original research on the film. Nonetheless, I fear that Gary Crowdus in advocating for Sidney Poiter to have played the role of Dolores rather than the unknown Evaristo Marquez does not fully comprehend Pontecorvo’s artistic decision-making process in hiring non-actors to play the roles of his revolutionaries; Marquez was an illiterate Colombian sugarcane worker, and Pontecorvo believed that he could bring an authenticity to the role of Dolores that would elude a professional actor. What would help immeasurably would be the release of the 132-minute version of the film in the United States. The 112 minute truncated version is the only one currently available in this country, and, unfortunately, it is the one with which I had to work.
Burn! was and remains an important film and should be as much of our conversation as Battle of Algiers. As the United States is currently mired in two wars in Asia (that have, for many of the peoples involved, imperial overtones) and may be joining a third in North Africa, Burn! has much to offer audiences today as it did during the Vietnam Era. Indeed, perhaps the military and civilian Pentagon officials I mentioned earlier should screen this work as well. It might provide them some additional context that Battle of Algiers does not provide.
i Stanley Kaufmann. “This Man Must Die/Burn”, The New Republic. 11/14/60, Vol. 163 Issue 20, p20-32.
ii Kafumann, Ibid.
iii Pauline Kael. 5001 Nights at the Movies. (New York: Holt, Rineheart, and Winston, 1985), pp. 109-110.
iv Kael, Ibid.
v Stefan Kanfer. Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando. (New York: Vintage, 2008),p. 264.
vi Kael, Ibid.
vii Carlo Celli, Gillo Pontecorvo: From Resistance to Terrorism. (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2005), p. 78.
viii Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism. (New York: Vintage, 1993), p. 272.
ix Celli, Ibid., pp. 79-80.
x Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. (New York: Grove, 1968), p. 93.
xi Burn! dir: GIllo Pontecorvo. United Artists. 1969.
xii Ibid.
xiii Michael T. Martin. “Podium for Truth? Reading Slavery and the Neocolonial Project in Film”. Third Text.November 2009. Vol. 23, Issue 6. Pp. 717-731.
xiv Celli, Ibid., p. 83.
xv Gary Crowdus. “Burn!”, Cineaste. 00097004, Jul93, Vol. 20, Issue 1.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Co-Screenwriter of BURN!

From: "Franco Solinas and the Commie Cowboys" by William Connolly in Spaghetti Cinema #3, December 1984
"It is in the character of Tepepa that I find an answer to the question of whether Franco Solinas is an artist or a propagandist. For the earlier films, the main characters had been written inorder to flesh out the central thematic conflicts. El Chuncho of QUIEN SABE? must be an undecided man inorder to be the focal point of the conflict between Santo's philosphy and Tate's. Cuchillo has to be a vivacious little thief inorder to contrast with Brokston's corrupt Railroad giant. Inorder for the theme of post-revolution disillusionment to work, Tepepa has to be shown as a sincere 'man of the people', but the character written here goes way beyond mere thematic dictates. Tepepa can be playfully child-like one moment, scarily vindictive the next, and soberly mature when needs demand. Tomas Milian has always been one of the best actors to appear in Italian Westerns, and his performance here is thrilling. The marriage between the written character and the actor's performance creates an enlightening portrait of a human being trying to create a better future, while battling disillusionment and trying to live with past mistakes. Creating a moving, multidimensional portrait of a human being is what I call the act of an artist.
"Solinas, co-writer Giorgio Arlorio (who also worked on THE MERCENARY), and director Gillo Pontecorvo create another equally rich characterization in BURN! (originally titled QUIEMADA, 1970), this time with actor Marlon Brando. In what is easily my favorite performance by this celebrated American actor, Brando plays Sir William Walker, an adventurer working as a secret agent for the British government in the early 19th century. Walker arrives on the Portugese controlled Caribbean island of Quiemada (which means Burn) inorder to wreck the sugar monopoly. He brutalizes a young Black named Jose Delores (Evaristo Marquiez), and when the slave pulls a knife to fight back, Walker knows he has his pawn. After getting Delores and his friends to rob a bank, Walker informs the soldiers where to find them. Facing execution if captured, Delores and his men willingly learn the use of firearms, and in fighting, Walker turns the Black man into a revolutionary liberator. Since the slaves far outnumber the Whites on the island, Walker has little trouble in negotiating a peace with the island's plantation owners, ensuring a lucrative trade for England. Having seized control of the government, Jose Delores is unwilling at first to relinquish control to Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori), a mulatto clerk whom Walker has chosen to run the island. But, after Walker illustrates how ill-equipped the Black is for handling the details (and paperwork) of government, Delores gives over his sword to Sanchez. Walker goes back to England.
"After ten years of inactivity, Walker has become a lout, taken to drunken brawls in taverns. Then one day, representatives from the British government seek him out. Jose Delores has called the slaves, now low paid employees, to revolt again, and because he had created this revolutionary, Walker is the man to put down this uprising.
"Pauline Kael, I think rightly, has identified the character of Sir William Walker as an elaboration of the French Colonel in THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. Walker understands the whys and hows of revolution, but is too much of a cynic to believe in it. Having been the one to teach Jose Delores how to be a fighter, Walker is unable to understand why the Black hates him now that they are playing on opposite sides of the game. Of course, to Delores, it is not a game; it is a struggle for dignity.
"During the production of BURN!, there were many stories in the press of conflict between director Pontecorvo and star Brando. The director had pushed the star until he got what he wanted. (One report told of 50 takes of a simple action.) In light of the non-performance by the non-actor Evaristo Marquez as Jose Delores, this might seem unreasonable, but from seeing the results, it was possibly justified. Walker is the central figure of the film, and his personal conflict is its story. Brando's performance is taut and powerful, showing none of the flabby self-indulgence that has plagued his work for years before, and since. This may be his last great performance.
"Aside from the marvlous action scenes and clearly thought-out plotting, the scripts Solinas collaborated on for TEPEPA and BURN!  remain his best work due to their well developed lead characters."