Dany Laferrière has suggested - with a hint of provocation, no doubt - that the greatest novel of the Duvalier dicatatorship was written by an Englishman: Graham Greene's The Comedians.1 In the same spirit, perhaps, we might add that the best film of the Haitian Revolution was made by an Italian: Queimada (1969) by Gillo Pontecorvo.
Pontecorvo, best known for The Battle of Algiers (1966), named Queimada after the fictional Portuguese colony in the Caribbean he chose for its setting. Filmed in Colombia, it is a defiantly unglamorous period drama that tells of the struggle against slavery and colonial rule in the mid-nineteenth century.
William Walker (Marlon Brando) arrives on the island and helps to rekindle a slave rebellion, which he then recommends the white mulatto elite support in order to win independence from the Portuguese. Walker is an British agent whose objective is to get the Portuguese out of the way so that the Antilles Royal Sugar Company can profit from its plantations. Once independence is won (and slavery abolished), Walker persuades his protege, the black leader Jose Delores (Evaristo Márquez) to convince his men to return to the cane fields. The reluctant mulatto figurehead Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori) becomes president and Walker leaves.
Ten years pass. The sugar company effectively rules Queimada instead of the Portuguese, but precariously. For the last six years, Delores has been leading a guerrilla campaign and has proved unwilling to negotiate. At the government's request, Walker returns. He advises the army to ruthlessly destroy key villages, but the campaign continues. The army stage a coup against Sanchez (who is prepared to capitulate) and General Alfonso Prada calls in the British Army. With their superior fire-power, the scale of devastation multiplies, and the sugar company is concerned that its plantations are being destroyed in the process. With Dolores still at large, it wonders whether the price is worth paying. But Walker reminds the company's representative Mr Shelton (Norman Hill) that even if Queimada is burnt to the ground, it would be worth it, because it would at least stop the revolution spreading to other islands where the company also has sugar interests.
Finally, Dolores is captured, but he maintains an enigmatic silence, and refuses to talk to Walker. The government discusses the preferred form of execution. Walker reminds them that Dolores would be much more dangerous dead than alive. They try to offer him freedom if he leaves the Caribbean but Dolores laughs. He knows the value of martyrdom. And, as he explains to a black soldier guarding him: 'If a man gives you freedom, it is not freedom. Freedom is something you, you alone, must take. Do you understand?' On the day of his execution, Walker offers to allow him to escape, asking for nothing in return, but Dolores again refuses. He is led to the gallows.
Walker leaves before the execution takes place. On the quayside he is approached by a young man offering to carry his bags (as Dolores did in the two scenes that bookend the first half of the film depicting Walker's arrival and departure). Momentarily caught unawares, Walker turns round and the stranger stabs him fatally in the chest.
Two versions of Queimada were released. The original version (132 minutes) is dubbed in Italian. To hear Brando's own voice (and his plum accent), you will have to make do the English-language version that is 20 minutes shorter. Lawrence Russell claims that it was Brando's favourite film, despite the tribulations of the shoot itself, in which the star and the director disagreed over just about everything. It is certainly possible that he was attracted to a script that 'fitted well with his social activism on behalf of the American Indian and the black civil rights movement'. Or admired it as a 'furious Vietnam allegory', as Stephen Hunter has described it.
But its allegorical possibilities do not stop there. The Somali teenager Sagal in Nuruddin Farah's novel Sardines (1981) has production stills of Brando from Queimada on her bedroom wall, along with posters of Che, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but she cannot explain to her mother the story of the film or which revolt was being depicted. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as its parallels are legion. One reason, no doubt, that, as her mother goes on to inform her, it was only shown once in Mogadishu and then only in a highly censored version.2
And indeed, the parallels may continue to proliferate. For instance, during the second half of the film, it is not hard to think of the current war in Afghanistan and the ten-year search for Osama bin Laden. The title is even a close anagram of Al-Qaida.
But the historical events they most closely resemble are those of the Caribbean itself, notably the struggles that led to the abolition of slavery in the French islands in the 1790s and the brutal attempt to restore it - successfully in the case of Guadeloupe, but not Saint-Domingue, which became the independent republic of Haiti in 1804.
What is striking is the way Pontecorvo captures the complex, shifting political allegiances of metropolitan governments, private companies, white settlers, prosperous free people of colour, and the black slaves. We might have got a sense of this in the film Sergei Eisenstein planned in 1934 to make about Toussaint Louverture, starring Paul Robeson.3 And may still yet in Danny Glover's rumoured-to-be-forthcoming biopic, based - it is alleged - on a screenplay by Med Hondo.
But it is a book - C L R James' The Black Jacobins (1938), his classic study of the Haitian revolution - that Queimada most resembles. In particular, the emphasis on the importance of the decisions that Toussaint made to accept or reject offers of help from those whose commitment to black freedom were suspect. The British and the Spanish for instance. Or even the representatives of the French Revolution, which had promised to abolish slavery, like commissioner Sonthonax. In each case, James spells out the political and military calculations Toussaint had to make when choosing his allies.
In Queimada, these dilemmas are dramatised clearly in a series of three scenes early in the film which show Walker and Dolores preparing to join forces.
The story of Queimada is told from Walker’s point of view, an outsider - like the audience - unfamiliar with the island which he first sees through an eye-glass from the deck of his approaching ship. And yet Walker is ultimately out-manouevred by Dolores. They both die at the end but it is clear that it is Dolores who will be remembered, not Walker.
In this clip, the two characters are at first glance, presented as equals who can help each other, who share a common goal. But in fact the formal equality suggested by the presentation (the scrupulous attention to both partners in the dialogue, filmed chiastically in shot reverse shot), in the end draws attention to their differences.
In the church, Walker proposes they join forces to rob the bank and split the proceeds. But of the 100 million gold reales, fifty go to Walker while the the other half is shared between Dolores and his men.
On the hillside where he outlines his plan, it becomes clear that they won't be escaping together. While Walker intends to flee to England, Dolores and his men dream of Africa.
Once the preparations are complete, Dolores and Walker drink to the success of their mission. They drink each other's habitual tipple (Walker tries rum and Dolores whisky) and toast (separately) 'England' and 'Africa' before finding something they can both pronounce: 'the world'. But it is the thinnest cosmopolitan veneer. Pulling faces, neither manages to down his cup, and, relieved, they switch back. Each to their own. May the best man win.
1. Dany Laferrière, Tout bouge autour de moi (Montréal: Mémoire d'encrier, 2010), p127.