Sunday, March 13, 2011


Of late, rebellions and uprisings have been on my mind a lot; on everybody’s minds I daresay, what with the ongoing flower revolutions in the Middle-East. These sort of things tend to make one look very closely at one’s own state of affairs.

The Took in me wants to grab the nearest pitchfork(?)/ Molotov cocktail, march on the streets and sing stirring songs about freedom and death to the oppressors. The Baggins half of me is quite comfortable in my armchair, thank you very much.

But burning tyres, retaliatory action by cruel dictator and iconic photo moment aside, there is at least one perk to being a revolutionary. They’re absolutely irresistible to the opposite sex.

Let’s face it: there’s something inherently spine-strengthening about revolutions.

In keeping with that spirit, over the coming week(s) I will do a series of posts on great movies about rebellions, till I get bored with the subject. They aren’t in any particular order of greatness and some which are only set against the backdrop of a revolutionary movement make it to the list because they are that good. But, be warned: this list won’t have movies about specific revolutionaries (like Che) or documentaries (like Star Wars).


In 1969, Marlon Brando rejected the role of the eponymous Sundance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in order to star a low-budget film that became a commercial flop. He laterclaimed that this was one of his best roles. While his firebrand Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront is far more iconic, and Vito Corleone in The Godfather more mature, Burn! is a must-see for Brando fans.

He plays William Walker, a British agent, who is sent to the fictional island of Queimada to topple the existing Portuguese regime and install a puppet government loyal to Britain, because Queimada is a major producer of sugarcane. The moment is ripe for conquest: the island is like a powder keg, with a brutal political establishment and a growing discontent black slave population. All it needs is a spark and Walker finds the right candidate for the job: a slave, José Dolores and influences him subtly to become the leader of the rebellion.

The rich merchants on the island realize that the rebel army bandwagon is the place to be, and in a move not unlike that of Philippe Égalité during the French Revolution, they step up and take control of the rebellion. The Portuguese government is overthrown and a puppet government set up. Except, now that Dolores and his rebel army have done their job, it would be nice if they would put down their rifles and went back to being exploited. But there’s the rub: Dolores learnt his lessons too well and now has the temerity to want to be president. If only these charismatic leaders of rebellions knew their limits and didn’t get too ambitious!

Ten years later, Walker comes back to the island to get rid of the very man he inspired to take on an oppressive government, and put him down for doing exactly that. Very obviously based on the history of Guadeloupe in the 18th century, the movie is somewhat prophetic of more recent events in Afghanistan. I guess this sort of thing regularly happens in the revolt business?

What you really want to watch out for in the movie, is José Dolores played by Evaristo Márquez (who was a Colombian herdsman before being discovered by the director, Gillo Pontecorvo). He is so pivotal to the story that the very mood and pace of the film change with every twinkle of his eye or furrowing of brow. And it contrasts beautifully with Brando’s character, who remains detached while ordering villages burnt or governments overthrown. All in a day’s work for him. And that’s exactly what makes his dialogues bite. What drives this man? It’s not money, it’s not principles, and it’s definitely not patriotism. It’s simply a desire to do a job and do it well. There is no bigger picture for him.

A couple of things about the movie did not sit very well, I thought: Marlon Brando’s “British” accent slipped on some occasions and there was some really lazy plot exposition by an Animal Planet-esque narrator.

The first time I watched this movie, I thought it was a terribly cynical movie—are all revolutions engineered because somebody thought it was an easier way to rule a country than standing for presidential elections? Does it make those freedoms and liberties a farce? Are our sweet Che Guevara t-shirts not as sexy as we think they are? But on re-watching it, I find that it is, in fact, the exact opposite. The right idea may often be born for all the wrong reasons, but when a man like José Dolores adopts it as his own, it becomes something truly worthy. It took a José Dolores to make an amoral man like William Walker take a good, hard look at his own life choices; even crave his approval. Which is a very encouraging thought.

(As featured on Critical Twenties)

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