It is somewhat disconcerting: A foppish Marlon Brando, his blond fake locks flying in the tropical breezes, his silk scarf flouncing in the same zephyrs, opens his mouth and John Wayne's voice comes out -- in Italian!
But deal with it. That is the price that must be paid to enjoy Gillo Pontecorvo's incandescently furious Vietnam allegory, "Queimada," in its fully restored version.
Filmgoers with long memories may remember the original release from 1969 where Brando's shaky English accent -- he'd first tried it in "Mutiny on the Bounty" in 1962 -- stood in comic counterpoint to Pontecorvo's devastating critique on the futile ambition of First World nations on the battlefields of the Third.
This new version is the domestic Italian release, some 20 minutes longer (mostly Marxist musings on the direction of history, which, unsurprisingly, is toward revolution), and Brando has been dubbed by some Italian actor who clearly learned his craft doing voice-overs for westerns. Where once in English Brando was ironic, amused, utterly confident and seriously cool, now a basso profundo cascades out of the speakers whenever the actor's lips move, and it sounds like the words have to be, "Baby sister, I was born game and I intend to go out that way," as Rooster told Mattie in "True Grit."
So just grind your teeth, accept the mismatch between actor and the dubbing, try to ignore the flat tonalities, and just read the subtitles. The benefits are amazing: You can marvel in the imagery of hell in a very small spot, as a colonial island goes up in the flames of war and revolution twice inside of two hours.
Pontecorvo was an expert on the subject of revolution, possibly even the poet laureate of violent change. An Italian communist, he wore his biases plainly on his sleeve and didn't let them prevent him from reaching greatness, as he did in 1965 in "The Battle of Algiers," a movie so pungent in its realities that the Pentagon showed it to Special Forces people just last year.
"Queimada" (which means "burned" in Portuguese; it was released here as "Burn!" or occasionally as "The Mercenary," which is a complete misnomer) was his follow-up for a world audience awaiting the new work from the master, with a flamboyant and simpatico American star headlining. But the movie didn't hit big, and Pontecorvo never worked on so big a scale with so much freedom again. Sic transit gloria mundi.
It's the 1840s in the Lesser Antilles, lush, sugar-producing islands where the Portuguese rule and rake in the profits. As Pontecorvo has it, the Brits are at war -- a trade war, at least -- with them and their corrupt and inefficient empire. The sugar-producing island of Queimada is in their sights. Thus the admiralty dispatches an agent, the clever, assured experienced Sir William Walker (his excellency Brando) to stir revolution so that the rich little chunk of loam may be wrested from the Portuguese. Walker, foppish and dandy -- he wears billowing scarves, pale, chic linens, riding boots, and sips tea out of a thermos, or maybe it's cognac -- is of a type the British seemed to produce in dazzling numbers: an imperialist comfortable in mufti, clever with languages, self-sufficient, a committed servant to empire, who's ruthless, cunning, charming and handsome. These boys roamed the world in the Victorian age, plotting and conniving and inspiring Kipling, Mason, Buchanan, Maugham and Ambler, to say nothing of Fleming.
Walker makes his reconnaissance and writes the place off: The black natives are too whipped and beaten, their Portuguese masters too entrenched. But he meets a man named Jose Delores (amateur actor Evaristo Marquez, who appeared in three more movies, then never worked again), in whom he sees the possibility of leadership. Thus, acting through Jose, he quickly and cleverly conjures a revolutionary movement and then an army and soon the battle is fully joined and bloody. Ultimately, playing the sides against each other but coming to love the brave Jose Delores, Walker pries the Portuguese grip free of Queimada. A provisional government takes over, signs favorable trade agreements with the British, and everybody is happy, except possibly Jose Delores.
Ten years pass. The provisional government turns corrupt, the British sugar merchants become greedy, conditions collapse on the island, and Jose Delores begins another revolution, this time against the British. And of course, who is called in to hunt him down but his old friend, Sir William Walker (Brando doesn't wear the blond wig in the second half of the film, signifying the passage of time). Walker, though he's British, pretty much encapsulates the trajectory of American history, at least through 1969; he begins as a revolutionary and he ends as a counter-revolutionary.
The parallels to Vietnam are obvious: At one point, he has to engineer a coup to get a reluctant government out of office and install a more aggressive one, just as we did to rid ourselves of the Diems. He ultimately must call in combat troops from the homeland. His version of Agent Orange is indeed orange, orange as in flame, as he burns the jungle clear to capture or kill the guerrillas.
Pontecorvo, to his credit, plays fair. He's not a sentimentalist who makes the bad capitalists and colonial administrators pompous fools. As he had in "Battle of Algiers," he admires courage and professionalism no matter which side of the spectrum they occur on, and far from making Sir William an evil clown, he makes him an excitingly compelling character, just as he had done with Jean Martin's Col. Mathieu, the cool French paratroop officer in "Battle of Algiers." And he has a terrific eye for squalor of violence: His various fights and assassinations and coups and burnings are never rendered gloriously, as triumphs of the spirit, but always, no matter the circumstances or the author, dispiriting and sickening.
But the movie is most powerful as argument: It believes in the permanence of revolution, and it closes on a shot of the surly, bitter, seething people of Queimada, and in their anger it sees a forever of violence. This is the way it will go, he seems to be saying, and it doesn't seem that he got that one wrong, unless peace broke out in the past five minutes. It's brilliantly constructed to argue what might be called the classic imperial paradox: To win this war you must make inevitable the next. The corollary is that as long as there are empires, there will be wars.
You may or may not agree; that isn't the point. The point is that Pontecorvo marshals his narrative brilliantly to make it. I don't think "Queimada" is as great a movie as "Battle of Algiers," but it retains its vitality, its outrage, its savagery and its spirit. (Incidentally, AFI is going to show a new 35mm print of "Battle of Algiers" next week at its Kennedy Center theater.)
Queimada (132 minutes, at the AFI Silver) is not rated but would certainly qualify for an R with bloody violence and nudity.