A Capitalist’s Destruction of a Communist’s Movie: “Burn!”

Silly Statists

“Burn!” Was produced in the late 1960’s and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.  There are several themes in this film that distinguish it from others related to slavery. Pontecorvo weaves together a struggle for freedom, the last throes of the colonialist era with a highly critical appraisal of Capitalism. The story of this film was both captivating and emotional. Pontecorvo did an excellent job in making the viewer feel the pains of slavery, and the privileges of colonial white men. “Burn!” also provided a damning critique of the contemporary economic system. Unfortunately, Pontecorvo’s gross misunderstanding of Capitalism and his inherent racism is on display throughout the film.


In an attempt to display the racism of the British capitalist agent “William Walker” and other colonialists, Pontecorvo unwittingly and repetitively displayed his own racism. After Walker arrives at the fictional island of “Quiemada” he finds out that the leader of the slave rebellion he had been sent to provide aid has been executed. Lacking a rebellion to incite, Walker intends to return home. While being questioned as to why he must leave, Walker refers to the lack of self –respect that the slaves have. He insists that the slaves are “defeated” and lacking of any self-respect, thus inciting an uprising would be hopeless. In an attempt to demonstrate this to a fellow English man, Walker throws a few bits of money into the street as a group of slaves are passing by. Forget the fact that slaves have no use for currency, the chaos that erupts in the brawl for this small bit of money unmistakably portrays the blacks as a lesser race that were willing to fight each other for next to nothing. After one particularly agile slave manages to get hold of a coin, Walker instantly demands the money be returned to him and the slave complies without question. Walker uses this moment to explain to his colleague that these slaves were not able to challenge a white man on their own, whether intellectually or emotionally. Initially it seems that this scene was to highlight the racism of William Walker, but the conclusion reached is never refuted in the film. The blacks on Quiemada in “Burn!” were never portrayed as fully able humans equal to their European colonizers.  Pontecorvo was attempting to show how the white colonialists were taking advantage of the slaves, but instead he revealed his own personal view of what he must see as “lesser races”.

“… it is now completely clear to me that he, as is proved by his cranial formation and his hair, descends from the Negroes from Egypt, assuming that his mother or grandmother had not interbred with a nigger. Now this union of Judaism and Germanism with a basic Negro substance must produce a peculiar product. The obtrusiveness of the fellow is also nigger like.” – Karl Marx (July 1862)

Pontecorvo’s racism is on display again towards the end of the film. The provisional government of Quiemada felt it politically beneficial to provide bread to a starving mob of former slaves on a nearby beach. When the truckload of bread is wheeled in and uncovered, the benevolent white men asked the slaves to remain orderly and wait in line for their portion. Perhaps Pontecorvo himself did not think it would be realistic for such “savages” to be able to wait in line orderly, and thus a “bread riot” immediately ensues. Is it possible that Pontecorvo did not think it would be realistic for these slaves to behave themselves any better than children?

Yet another demonstration of Pontecorvo’s inherent racism is apparent after the rebel General Jose Dolores gains control in what could be called the “Constitutional Convention” of Quiemada. After months of Dolores being unable to suggest anything, it appears as if he cannot even think for himself. Pontecorvo makes it clear that he does not feel the “lesser races” are able to achieve “White Civilization” on their own. To suggest difficulty in the process would be expected, but Pontecorvo has Dolores fail entirely and simply walk away.


Gillo Pontecorvo is progressive Socialist, and his critique of the contemporary economic system was very astute. Many argue that the film “Burn!” is critical of Capitalism, and Pontecorvo would most likely agree.  This is a mistake, and it is a mistake made very often by critics of the modern economic system. To demonstrate this we must (loosely) define Capitalism. Capitalism understood classically is simply the aggregate of a free market in which individual private property rights are respected by the rule of law. Now we must define Capitalism as Pontecorvo expressed it.  The most glaring inconsistency occurs when William Walker returns to the island of Quiemada ten years after the original revolution.  The creole government had taken control and was attempting to put down another rebellion, led by a former slave Jose Dolores. Their complaints were based on a contract that the creole government signed with a British sugar exporting corporation.  Because of this contract, the wealth of the island was being extracted in spite of the fact that the “freed” slaves were still doing all the productive work. Pontecorvo rightly highlighted the injustice and exploitation represented by this contract, but he wrongly attributes it to Capitalism. In a truly free market in which private property rights are respected and protected by the government, there is no legal means for a nationalization of any industry. In a truly capitalistic economy, the government could not use force to require any laborers to sell their products to any particular company or government.

Pontecorvo is right to indict a system that so unjustly exploits so many people, but he misplaces the blame. In order to more truthfully, and more effectually portray these injustices a much larger focus on government intervention into the economy is necessary. In a conversation between creole officials, they ask whether or not there would be a “Jose Dolores” if it was not for the sugar company. The more relevant question is “If Jose Dolores and the remainder of the islanders had been given the freedom that capitalism demands, would there have been a rebellion at all?”.

–        the Humane Condition

8 thoughts on “A Capitalist’s Destruction of a Communist’s Movie: “Burn!”

  1. The difference is that this isn’t a movie about an idealized vision of free market politics. This is a critique of capitalism as it actually developed in conjunction with colonialism. Whatever the (de-)merits of Burn, it is hardly at fault for failing to address the prospect of a utopian vision that has never had any bearing on actual human history.

    • I understand this as written as a film review, and perhaps that was a mistake on my part. The point I have tried to make is simple though. This film is just one of possibly thousands of movies that put more emphasis on the “evil capitalists” than they do the government that is supposed to be working for the “public good”. In a particular scene in “Burn!”, William Walker actually has to pull the trigger for “benevolent politician” that reluctantly takes power. There is no mention whatsoever whether the government had any right whatsoever to award a monopoly on sugar exports to a foreign nation. It is yet another example of the tragedy of the commons; If the government is going to immorally sell the fruits of their citizen’s labor to somebody, their will always be an “evil Capitalist” to blame. The dismissal of this governmental economic tyranny is a major failure of this film.

      • You write this as though it were not market forces that led to the monopoly in the film to begin with. The government’s actions did not take place in the abstract, but rather in the context of multiple powers contesting for one another in an effort to dominate the trade of the time. Granting the monopoly was the price of protection for a small island government, and that is as much an expression of market forces as they existed at the time as it was any action by the government. You want to focus the critique on the govrernment, throw the word tyranny at it, and pretend that changes the equation. It does not.

        Historical reality simply does not present us with a tidy choice between these two villains, notwithstanding present-day libertarian fantasies on the subject at hand, and the director of Burn would not improve his product by pretending otherwise.

        • Market forces never permit monopolies without government protectionism. The only thing that was protected by the monopoly was the government. As I was saying this only another example in which the colonial government made things worse for the lower classes.

          Furthermore, the granting of a monopoly is actually the antithesis of market forces. The ‘market’ does not function when coercion is a factor. The coercive actions of the “evil Capitalists” would not be feasible without the backing of “The Queen” in the case of this film.

          When I “throw the word tyranny” at the colonial government, you say I am mistaken. How else would you describe a government that claims the right to sell the fruits of every mans labor?

          We can agree here, when you said “Historical reality simply does not present us with a tidy choice between these two villains”. But when you say that Pontecorvo would not have been better off by “pretending” that the capitalists and the government share responsibility for the injustice, you are only partly right. The problem with that assertion is the fact that Pontecorvo seemed to go out of his way to portray the colonial government as well meaning men of honor, in no way responsible for the poverty and oppression.

          I will again argue that Pontecorvo is not highlighting the evils of both “villains”, but instead “pretending” the government played no part in the oppressive conditions.

          • I agree that markets don’t happen without government protection, but that wasn’t my point. My point was that in terms of the story-line, the island is too small and too ripe for picking. They could not chase out one nation without securing the protection of another, and the price of that protection was the monopoly.

            As to granting a monopoly being the antithesis of market forces, your analysis is hopelessly abstract. Market forces are not abstract philosophical systems; they can and they do generating conflicting pressures. Monopolies illustrate that quite nicely in fact. It may well be that the existence of a monopoly impedes market forces, even to the point of cancelling them altogether, but that does not mean markets cannot and do not produce monopolies, or interest groups capable of calling for them. The effect of a monopoly is no argument against its cause.

            My problem with your use of tyranny is it substitutes moral outrage for insight as to the source of the problem. You want us to focus on the improper nature of the government action even as you work hard to isolate that action from the economic interests that give rise to it. So, in the end we are supposed to be outraged at a government misbehaving even as we are left with absolutely no account of the reasons it does so.

            Pontecorvo does not present the neocolonial government as innocent, not by a long shot. they are a colonial elite intent on defending their status, dupes at best, slavers by another name at worst. That is the significance of Brando’s sales speech; his argument that a prostitute is better than a wife. He is telling them that they will get more out of the workers if they free them than they will by keeping them slaves. the argument is hardly about enlightened government or anything else; it is a case for more effective exploitation.

            No, Pontecorvo isn’t arguing against capitalists while letting the government off scott free. He is assuming that the two go hand in hand, as they certainly did in the period the movie portrays. Your effort to insist on the distinction is anachronism at best.

            • My apologies for my original typo. I corrected the first line to say “Market forces never permit monopolies without government protectionism.” So I’ll disregard the first part. Again, sorry about that.

              Again, your absolutely correct when you say the only protection for the islands ‘provisional government’ would be to sell the rights of those in servitude. However, if there were no colonial government attempting to gain the proceeds of the monopoly contract as a self-appointed middle man between the resources/islanders, would it not be in the best interests for the islanders to negotiate the contract and receive the benefits (wealth and resources) directly?

              You say “My problem with your use of tyranny is it substitutes moral outrage for insight as to the source of the problem”. How can you not consider the colonial governments exploitation of the islanders a major source of the problem? As I said above, without the colonial government there would have been a possibility of trade more equal grounds.

              You said Pontecorvo has not represented the neo-colonial movement as innocent, and that is correct. But my insistence on the distinction between market forces, and government forces is much more than you say. Pontecorvo’s films along with thousands of others paint Capitalism as the source of all society’s ills. It is necessary to investigate the institution that enables the immediate exploitation of the true victims of colonization. More often then not, it is the State.

  2. Pingback: A Capitalist’s Destruction of a Communist’s Movie: “Burn!” | iroots.org

Thoughts? Login, or not, but tell me what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s