April 16, 2008 -- This film about political betrayal, slavery and revolution on a Caribbean island was released in 1969 and bears the marks of that turbulent decade. The story, set in the 1800s was meant as a metaphor for the Vietnam War. That should date the movie, but it seems timeless in its shrewd political and economic observations. It is as relevant today as it was then.
Directed by renowned Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, the film seems bluntly simple in some respects, with untrained actors and simple speeches. The cinematography is stunning (filmed on location in Columbia, South America). The mountainous landscapes are as harsh and unforgiving as the foreign military forces and the sugar plantation owners. On the island of Queimada, a fictional Portugese colony (originally scripted as Spanish, but changed to placate the Spanish government). An English agent, William Walker (played by Marlon Brando in another of his powerful performances) arrives to foment revolution against the Portugese in hopes of allowing the island to slip into the English sphere of influence.
Walker cleverly sparks an uprising by the local slave population. He picks a leader, Jose Dolores (Evaristo Márquez) who seems to have enough grit and intelligence to lead the revolution. He then plots with the plantation owners to overthrow the government. In a clever speech, comparing wives to prostitutes, he convinces them they would be better off paying low wages to freed slaves than having to house and care for the slaves for their entire lives. He tricks Jose Dolores and the slaves into a revolution by arming them and then letting the Portugese know where they are so the slaves will be forced to fight to protect themselves. Walker's devious plans work. The slaves are free, but working hard and getting little reward for their work. The plantation owners are getting richer and England is profiting.
Ten years later, Walker, now Sir William Walker, has left military service. He is approached by the Royal Sugar Company to return to the island to put down a rebellion led by his old pupil, Jose Dolores. The difference is that this time, Walker is promised a lot of money to put down the rebellion, which has been going on for years. Walker sees that mountain villagers are the base of support for the rebels so he evacuates and burns the villages. He also burns the mountain forests and the sugar crops. The same tactics had been used by the Portugese to stop an earlier slave uprising. When the plantation owners complain, Walker explains that there is more at stake than just their crops. A successful revolution could spread to the other islands in the Caribbean. When the island's governor tries to interfere in the military operation, Walker, who put the governor in power 10 years earlier, has him executed.
Walker and Jose Dolores, once good friends, are now bitter enemies. Despite his ruthlessness, Walker doesn't want to kill the rebel leader. Walker has come to admire Jose Dolores because he is everything Walker is not. Walker is a mercenary and believes in nothing. He rules by force. Jose Dolores believes in his cause with all his being. His followers fight for him out of respect and loyalty. Jose Dolores becomes a Christ-like figure at the end, full of fire and passion, inspiring others to follow his lead. Walker, despite his success, is a hollow, bitter, lonely man.
The film is hampered by crude dialogue and uneven acting performances (Brando being the exception). I saw this on DVD and the dialog was out of sync with the movie, making it look dubbed, but it wasn't. While the dialogue isn't subtle, the politics is. The film doesn't spell out its message. It assumes the audience is smart enough to figure out what's going on. The film is ahead of its time in some ways. It explores a world which is controlled by companies rather than countries, much like the world, including the United States, is today. In the end, everyone but the rebels are working for the company. The countries involved, England and Portugal, have become irrelevant. The film also advances the idea that the desire for freedom from company rule will always be a flame which burns in the human heart.
The story is loosely based on the history of Haiti, which became the first country to banish slavery after a successful slave revolt. Walker's character is loosely based on the American mercenary, William Walker, who was president of Nicaragua from 1856 to 1857. This film rates a B.
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