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.
"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.
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.
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.