Three years before appearing in The Godfather, Marlon Brando put in a better performance in Gillo Pontecorvo’s undervalued, brilliant account of a man – William Walker – paid to create war.
Borrowing the spirit of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, screenwriters Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio weave a tale about an insignifcant, Portuguese Caribbean island that has a significant amount of sugar cane. When the British decide they want access, they send in Walker with simple but diffcult instructions: foment rebellion among the black slaves who work the cane, overthrow Portuguese rule, then re-enslave the blacks and get sugar production running again.
With a cold heart, the insanely methodical and rational Walker sets to work. He picks out a rebel leader, befriends him, molds him, then sets him loose. The rebels soon take the island, create a new country, and then surrender. After his work is done, Walker disappears.
Ten years pass (in a weird, clunky montage and voice-over) and Walker is recruited by the company that owns the sugar cane production on the same Caribbean island — and therefore owns the island. It turns out that the company has been oppressing its workers and the same slave rebel leader as ten years past has risen up and is leading an armed rebellion. Finding himself on the other side of the conflict, Walker must now capture the same hero he created.
Oh, drama set to an Ennio Morricone score!
In one of the film’s standout scenes, Pontecorvo lets loose Morricone over images of a triumphant rebel army marching along a beach, some dressed in the tattered clothes of the defeated Portuguese and others in nearly nothing. At first glance they look foolish, but as they get closer and we see them for longer, an aura appears and we realize just what the victory has given them: dignity. The dark skin that has up to now been a signifier of inferiority has, with dignity, become the uniform of a victorious army.
As the scene ends and the rebel leader embraces Walker, I thought, “No longer will these guys let themselves get slapped around by the white man like they did in the beginning.” And I was right. As the rebel leader says near the end of the film, the freedom that is given you by a man is not freedom; true freedom is taken, not given. Pontecorvo intentionally brings together all his weapons to highlight the beach-marching scene because it is then that these slaves have taken their freedom — and it will not be easily taken away again.
In this season of political films and G. Clooney, Queimada is an example of a real political film. It chops the head off black-and-white Edward R. Murrow and blows up Stephen Gaghan’s nicely photographed sandscapes.
Relevant during the Vietnam War and relevant now, Queimada ends with something along the lines of these ominous words uttered by an about-to-hang black rebel to William Walker:
“You say that it is a white man’s world. This is true. But what kind of world is it? And for how long?”