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Brando Sparks 'Burn!' Mystery

February 25, 1993|GEOFF BOUCHER

Despite the one-word-and-exclamation-point title--usually a sign of high cheese quotient (witness the schlock of "Them!," "Runaway!" and "Fire!")--the 1970 action film "Burn!" offers some surprisingly lucid insights into Third World politics and features Marlon Brando in a little-known yet robust performance.

From the onset, it is clear that director Gillo Pontecorvo's tale of 19th-Century adventure on a small isle in the Lesser Antilles is not a simple one. A British nobleman arrives on the Portuguese-controlled island, but why? Is Sir William Walker (Brando) a missionary, political activist, agent provocateur or a simple bank robber? Is he scoundrel or saint?

As the complex plot unfolds, Walker's intentions become clearer, but his true motivations do not. It is the type of role in which Brando excels--a brute restrained by intellect, a tortured man who seems to have mysterious, elemental struggles going on within him.

Pontecorvo's movie alternates between scenes of back-room diplomatic jockeying, lingering views of the natives' lifestyles and customs, and bursts of violence, including a compelling assassination and rebellion sequence. Throughout, he nicely creates the atmosphere of an 1840s Caribbean island where sugar is king, and the native blacks are enslaved and exploited to maintain that monarchy.

The dynamics of rebellion, the failings of colonialism and the resignation of a proud people all unfold, with Walker the only player who seems to see the monumental gears turning behind it all.

Walker would again have his mercenary exploits brought to screen in the confusing but aptly named "Walker," a 1988 film that should be passed over in favor of this version.

"Burn!" (1970), directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. 113 minutes. Rated PG.

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