Italian born, Jewish background, studied chemistry at University of Pisa where he met anti-fascist intellectuals. During 1940s worked as journalist in France (to escape anti-semitic laws) and fought with partisans against Nazis in northern Italy (Milan) 1943-45, commanding 3rd Brigade. After WW2 joins the Italian Communist Party, serving as Youth Secretary. Plays part of partisan in film by Vergano. In the late 1940s works as Paris correspondent for Italian newspapers. 1951 works in film as assistant to Yves Allegret, makes shorts 1953-55. Following Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 leaves Communist Party but remained committed left-wing filmmaker.

Committed Marxist filmmaker, inspired by Rossellini's neo-realist work Paisan. GP focuses on the oppressed (slaves, independence fighters), those who do the oppressing (slave owners, state military) and the relationship between the two.


  • Kapo (1960) about a young Jewish girl's struggle to survive in a Nazi concentration camp
  • La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) (1966) GP's masterpiece about the Algerian War of Independence against the French 1954-62
  • Queimada (Burn!) (1969)
  • Ogro (Operation Ogre) (1979).


Meaning of the Title

"Queimada" - the Spanish name of the Caribbean island where the revolution takes place. "Burn!" - the title given for the English-language release. The latter is a reference to the historical events upon which the film is loosely based - the crushing of a native revolt by the Spanish in the 1520s by setting the island on fire and killing all the inhabitants (then importing African slaves to work the plantations). Perhaps by extension a reference to the "flames" of revolution and the wars of independence sweeping the Third World in the post-war (WW2) period, especially in the 1960s, as ex-colonies sought political and economic independence from the European imperial powers (Britian, France, Belgium, Portugal, Netherlands). Or possibly, a reference to the way in which most of these revolutions and independence movements ultimately created military and/or Marxist dictatorships often worse than the colonial adminstrations they replaced, thus "burning" the fingers of the revolutionaries.


  • Sir William Walker - Marlon Brando
  • Jose Dolores - Evaristo Marquez
  • Teddy Sanchez - Renato Salvatori
  • Shelton - Norman Hill
  • Gen. Prada - Tom Lyons
  • Guarina - Wanani
  • Juanito - Joseph Persuad
  • Henry - Gianpiero Albertini
  • Jack - Carlo Pammucci
  • Lady Bella - Cecily Browne
  • Francesca - Dana Ghia
  • Ramon - Maurice Rodriguez
  • English Major - Alejandro Obregon
  • Score: Ennio Morricone

Brando wanted to work on a strongly political film and chose GP on the reputation he had established with Battle of Algiers (1966). Based on historical events in the 1520s when the Spanish intervened to stop a uprising on the Caribbean sugar island of Queimada by its native population. The entire island was set on fire killing the native inhabitants. They were then replaced with black slaves brought from Africa. After protests from the Spanish government MB and GP switched the colonial power to Portugal (a less influential ex-colonial power?) and the time to the mid-19thC but kept the location much the same (the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean).

Historical note: the British freed their slaves in the West Indies by means of a gradual process of emancipation (with the aim of providing some financial compensation to the slave owners for losing their "property" and of retaining some control over the freedom of movement and property ownership (especially land) by the ex-slaves in order to ensure a continued supply of labour to the plantations) beginning in 1833. It was the model for French proposals to do the same during the 1840s but which came to nothing. The French delay resulted in the French slaves seizing their freedom when the metropole was preoccupied by revolution in 1848. It was also during the 1840s and 1850s that the emancipation of slavery became a serious issue in the USA, which was not achieved until Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 during the Civil War.

In 1845 the aristocratic Englishman Walker is sent as an English secret agent (acting on behalf of the British Admiralty and the sugar industry) to the Caribbean island of Queimada to engineer an uprising of the slaves against the Portuguese plantation owners. Walker befriends the black stevedore (dock worker) Jose Dolores, inspires him with the idea of freedom, assists him in robbing a bank to finance a guerrilla uprising. Walker also befriends an ambitious hotel clerk Teddy Sanchez, assists him in assassinating the governor and seizing power. To save the revolution the new government is forced to sell the island's sugar to English sugar buyers.

In 1855 the revolution has gone sour, Sanchez's government has become corrupt, Dolores has returned to revolution this time to overthrow the "revolutionary" government. In 1847 a 99 year monopoly was granted to the British dominated Antilles Royal Sugar Company, sugar cane cutters rise up in rebellion in the year of revolutions 1848, thus beginning several years of rebellion. Because of his contacts with both men, a drunk and disillusioned Walker is found in London and asked to return to act as military advisor to the new government and to crush Dolores and the revolutionaries and thus ensure the steady supply of sugar.


The first version of this handout was prepared by Katharine Thornton in 1995.

Joan Mellon, "An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo," Film Quarterly (Fall 1972), vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 2-10.


  • The critique of imperialism: conquest of territory such as the Caribbean islands, the enslavement or extermination of local inhabitants, establishment of plantations worked by slave labour brought from Africa, the system of "colonial preference" in the metropole which guaranteed a market for colonial sugar at the expense of sugar produced by other nation's colonies, the tax-payer funded cost of defending the slave plantations (from internal revolt and external threats); the brutal treatment of slaves.
  • The parallel Marxists drew between British imperialism (Spanish, Portuguese, and French) in the 19thC and American and French "imperialism" in the 20thC - especially in Vietnam in the 1960s; American intervention in many Third World nations to "destabilise" governments, overthrow them, support one side in revolutions and wars of independence (Iran, Cuba, Chile), install "puppet" leaders to do America's bidding. Exactly the same was done by the Soviet Union as part of its Cold War against the USA but this was ignored by most Marxists at the time.
  • The close attention GP makes to the tactics used by both the slave revolutionaries (insurgents, guerrillas, non-professional soldiers, capture weapons, hide in the hills, need support of local population, hit and run, war of attrition, to survive is to win) and their opponents with regular soldiers and weapons (counter-insurgency). The latter's tactic is to isolate the revolutionaries from their basis of support among the local people, destroying them if necessary. Motivation of government soldiers (pay or coercion) vs guerrillas (idealism or economic necessity). Compare with British tactics in Malaya in 1950s, American tactics in Vietnam in 1960s and French tactics in Algeria in late 1950s early 1960s - Battle of Algiers.
  • The idea that a revolutionary movement can throw up both heroic leaders and opportunists, that revolutions and revolutionaries can betray the interests they are supposed to protect. Walker becomes disillusioned with his role in the "revolution" and turns to drink. Compare with disillusionment of communist revolutionaries following WW2 - hope of freedom destroyed when regimes came under Soviet control (1953 East Germany, 1956 Hungary, 1968 Czechoslovakia) and evolved into repressive Stalinist regimes with brutal secret police. In an interview with Joan Mellon GP noted:

Walker changed because he discovered there was nothing behind the side he helped. The same thing happened to many intellectuals after the last war (WW2), the deception growing inside them and the emptiness at the same time.

  • The untrained actor Evaristo Marquez (Dolores): Colombian cane cutter who had never seen a film before working on "Burn!", compared to singer Paul Robeson because of his presence and charisma, excellent foil to equally charismatic Brando.
  • The contrast between this film (lush, tropical colour) and Battle of Algiers (1966) in B&W.
  • GP's use of crowd scenes to suggest popular nature of the revolution (the local religious festival used as a cloak for the revolutionaries). His use of untrained actors.
  • WW's discussion with the island's plantation owners about the economics of slave labour vs free labour - compared to cost of keeping a wife vs cost of a mistress. The problem the post-revolutionary leaders face in having to sell their plantation products on the world (free) market without guaranteed and privileged access to the ex-colonial market.
  • The reference to the bloody revolt on Santo Domingo in 1791 and its subsequent independence from France.
  • WW's next assignment is to Indochina - location of another French colony and war of independence in the 1950s.
  • The many references to the counter-insurgency techniques used by European and American military fighting revolutions in the Third World in the 1950s-60s: the relocation of villagers to isolate them from the guerrilla movement; burning crops to deny them to the guerrillas; the creation of "concentration camps" (Britain in Boer War) or "strategic hamlets" (US in Vietnam) to better control the local inhabitants and "protect" them from the guerrillas; the idea of destroying a village in order to "save" it.
  • Compare the "black Spartacus" Jose Dolores with the original slave-uprising under Spartacus. Becomes more powerful after his death as a result of being turned into "myth" in popular songs, stories, legends.