A Collateral Heroism
Many narratives can be seen to manipulate the viewer, but what about a narrative that manipulates the other characters in the material? Aren't these, just one and the same? When in a film noir the central character is conned by the femme fatale, when someone goes undercover in a detective story and falls in love (and where the woman who falls in love with him feels betrayed), when in so apparently innocuous a film like Tootsie, Michael befriends another woman as a woman only to reveal to her that he is a man, aren't these all examples of manipulative situations which show that both the film is manipulating us but also manipulating the characters within the story as well? Indeed, central to that manipulation is that we are often (especially in film noir) being played alongside the characters in the film.
But in most instances the scheming belongs to the characters who wish to get something: the femme fatale might want her husband dead and to go off with the inheritance, the undercover cop wants to right wrongs and gain a promotion, while Michael in Tootsie is looking for a decent part and finds it on a soap opera but only if he can impersonate a woman to get the role as a female in the series. In Gillo Pontecorvo's Burn, the director and his scriptwriters, Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio, insist on exploring a manipulation that leads to a potentially manipulative mise en abyme, one that can only be stopped by a value that goes beyond manipulation and into the properly political. The film indicates that through the machinations of its leading character, William Walker (Marlon Brando), and the colonial manipulations of which he is a master, one can entertain a powerplay without end. In this sense, the film is about power as our other examples are not. By wishing for something in particular, for money, promotion or an acting career, the manipulation serves a purpose rather than defines a principle. But Burn asks us to keep a constant watch on what power happens to be, how it is administered, controlled and coerced into existence by people who have it against those who don't. But power is never a fixed entity even if the blacks in the film are always on the backfoot when it comes to its acquisition. In this film set on the Caribbean island of Queimada, initially in the 1840s, the Portuguese rule less with an iron fist than with an axe. Early in the film not long after Walker arrives on the island he witnesses a rebel slave initially garrotted by the Portuguese as other slaves look on awaiting the same fate. Witnessing the scene from behind bars after he pushed a Portuguese man who treated him with disrespect into the sea, Walker is informed by another white prisoner that the blacks aren't like them: the islanders believe in reincarnation but only if the dead body remains intact. Subsequently, we see the Portuguese taking the dead man away from the garrotte and, placing his head on a block, beheading him. It is a gesture necessary otherwise the islanders won't be afraid of death but it is also a detail that can sow hatred into the hearts of the locals, giving Walker the opportunity to sow further seeds of rebellion in the slaves.
The sequence comes not long after Walker arrives on the island by ship and where someone on board has explained to Walker just how useful the island happens to be for colonialism. Financially the island benefits enormously from sugar cane production but above all else what matters is that the main port is sheltered from harsh winds and that ships of whatever depth can harbour there. We are also told about the massacring of the indigenous population and of a very small nearby island which is called Cementerio Blanco de los negros: because the body of slaves that were brought over from Africa who died during the trip were thrown there. They reckon 25% lost their lives, and the island's white colouring is the dust of the bones of the dead.
There is a great deal of exposition in the film's first eight minutes, and plenty more later when Walker persuades a slave Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez) to rob some gold off the Portuguese. But any blanket dismissal of exposition that sees a verbal explanation of an event as antithetical to good cinema, misses a couple of points. One is that it can set up the givens of the story instead of just dramatising its events; the other is that the film might be offering exposition rather than dramatisation because while the latter is categorical, the former is suppositional. If someone shows us the horrible fate of the slaves on the ship over (as Spielberg so vividly and obviously does in Amistad) we have drama but we don't have rumour. Pontecorvo is very keen to suggest an island made up of narratives and beliefs that can be manipulated according to power, so it makes sense that Walker receives all the information in the first few minutes. He is a man who knows what to do with beliefs, superstitions and rumours. In terms of the givens, these expositional details lend themselves well to setting in motion the problematic the film wants to explore: that what matters isn't action and its completion, but power and its continuation. When Gilles Deleuze says (in the context of Kurosawa) that "it is clearly necessary that the character should absorb all the givens," Deleuze sees this referring to a question rather than a situation. When Deleuze proposes in Seven Samurai that the film's question isn't simply "the physical givens of the village but the psychological givens of the inhabitants, it is because there is a higher question which can only be extracted gradually from all the situations. This question is not 'Can the village be defended?' but what is a samurai today, at this particular moment of history?" (Cinema 1: The Movement-Image) Equally, Pontecorvo looks not at how slaves manage to overcome their masters, but what is it to find and lose power, what is it to manipulate others for a lesser gain (obscure personal gratitude) when one could be involved in a higher gain (liberating a people).
Here we have William Walker ostensibly a mercenary for hire who goes into places creating problems that he can then benefit from financially without it seems caring too much for the money. But when he helps engineer the removal of the Portuguese government, and in turn the Creole leader who then comes to power so that the English can come in and take over the island, there is no sense that patriotic pride has motivated his behaviour. It's as if what interest him is finding the weakness in others that he sees as the lucidity of his own realisations. Men are weak, he might believe, and as a weak man who nevertheless recognises in himself that weakness, so he can control the lives of others. His is not at all an ennobling presence but a humbling one, humbling in the sense that he wants to reduce everyone to a recognition of their own wretched state even if in the process he might actually create a collateral heroism. When he goes to see Jose Dolores early in the film it appears that he wants to retrieve the suitcase the slave 'helped' with him when Walker arrives initially at the port. Slapping Dolofes across the face several times accusing him of being a thief, what really interests Walker is seeing whether Jose Dolores has it in him to revolt against his masters. If he can stand up to Walker then he will be able to take on the Portuguese. Initially, Jose Dolores appears subservient and agrees to everything Walker says no matter how insulting, as he gets Jose Dolores to admit his dead mother was a whore. Walker turns away and says "I was mistaken. I thought you were someone else" as Jose Dolores then tries to attack him with a machete. He is indeed the man Walker wants as he involves him in stealing Portuguese gold, which then leads to the Portuguese soldiers attacking the slaves after Walker tips them off, but the slaves nevertheless proving victorious partly thanks to Walker's ingenuity. How engineered the situations happens to be isn't quite clear but we sense in Walker someone who can think through the various implications of a deed and improvise if necessary. If he is only on the island to plan a rebellion nevertheless contingent factors come into play. He cannot know he will be pushed by an official, just after arriving on the island, that he will later avenge by pushing into the sea, nor receive certain information as a consequence of his brief jailing after the incident. But the film suggests that Walker is a master at manipulating chance to his own ends. He is clearly on the island to topple the Portuguese but does so by the means readily available rather than with a categorical and clear intent.
It is as if Brando saw in the role, or added to it, a characteristic common to his work as an actor: rather than the carefully planned display that works from a given script, Brando was always interested in a high degree of improvisation. Charles Higham noted "Pontecorvo admits that he and Brando were badly matched. As a maniacal perfectionist, the director says he was difficult to put up with. This put off the hypersensitive Brando." (Brando) Yet while in his later work with another Italian director, Bernardo Bertolucci, Last Tango in Paris, the improvisational and the autobiographical were pronounced as the film eschewed a plot and allowed Brando to draw upon his own life experiences, Pontecorvo's film is a work preoccupied with the question of plotting. When Walker views Jose Dolores from the balcony early in the film, Pontecorvo cuts from Walker looking on admiringly, to Jose Dolores: the frame is fixed and the camera moves in on it. Jose Dolores has moments before given an enslaved woman and her baby a piece of fruit, and when he is pushed to the ground it looks like he will pick up a stone and use it to hit the men on horseback. Walker's look isn't only one of admiration it is also one of expectation: he sees in Jose Dolores a man potentially brave enough or fool-hardly enough to take on the Portuguese. At another moment early in the film, Walker helps the wife of the garrotted rebel take her husband's body back to the village, and once there asks her if she can put him in contact with anyone who possesses a similar mindset to her husband. Again, early in the film, Walker throws money into the crowd just after quoting Rousseau, saying "what is needed here is someone who has nothing to lose but their chains." Numerous locals scramble around in the dust fighting over the cash. But after a boy manages to get a coin Walker calls him over and asks him to give the money back. When the boy dutifully hands over the coin, Walker reckons that he cannot expect rebellion from these people as he throws the boy back the money. In each of these three instances (looking at Jose Dolores, enquiring about others like the dead husband, tossing away a coin) there is always more to the scene than meets the eye as there is always more on Walker's mind than is immediately apparent. It is the case that Walker's purpose on the island is to foment rebellion but it seems that a straightforward island takeover would interest Walker far less than a revolution that passes through various contingencies along the way. If Pontecorvo was the control freak, Brando was always closer to a contingency freak: someone who wanted to find in the material circumstances he found himself in the variables he could work from. Pontecorvo, speaking of his previous film Battle of Algiers, said: I took the five, ten or fifteen people nearest the camera and worked with them. I didn't even look at the others. I looked to see if the expression on their faces was right. A crowd scene can be spoiled if the expression of only one person is not exactly what you want....If you don't have this kind of control, you always have two or three people looking the wrong way and the scene is spoiled." (Film Quarterly) Pontecorvo's perfectionism became even more pronounced in Burn, and Brando one of the victims of it. Charles Higham notes, "the conflict reached a tremendous climax when Pontecorvo required Marlon to do forty-one takes of a scene near burning fields. Driven beyond exasperation, Marlon 'exploded in raging cries. It looked as if the film would be stopped for good.'" (Brando) As Brando said in David Shipman's biography: "if he wants a purple smile from me and I give him a mauve smile, he continues ordering me to smile until he gets exactly what he wants, even if I get a dislocated jaw in the meantime." (Marlon Brando) In contrast, Bertolucci wanted to work with Brando because he believed "it is not the actors who have to conform and fit the script, but it is the characters who must conform to the actors." (Brando) Brando manages to give Pontecorvo's film if not the freedom he would find on Bertolucci's, then a quality of contingency that suggests Walker is a man who sees his work can give him the ability to improvise with what he has got.
Yet out of this freedom, Walker possesses a value system that seems cosmetic, as though Walker acknowledges in his ability to persuade people to do what he wants that he doesn't really know what he wants. Shipman in his book on Brando describes the complex plot in swift and assured detail but also arrives at a critical contradiction. "As a tract the piece is, if not original, at least ambitious...they [the filmmakers] may feel deeply about the indecencies and abuses of the colonial system, and their indignation is just except that this film always seems like an exercise in indignation." (Marlon Brando) Shortly afterwards, though, Shipman says, "Sir William is woefully misconceived: first he's on this side, then on that, a spokesman for both the British government and the natives, a man caught between his job, his own guile, and a lingering idealism." Shipman seems to need the film to fit into his synopsis and critical assumption and then insists the film is misconceived when it proves to possess the very complexity he has denied it. Part of this complexity rests on the difference between the manipulative and the valuable, and here we can return to our initial comments about the manipulation evident in films as varied as film noirs and Tootsie. In a film noir, the femme fatale might be deemed a woman without morals, but that doesn't mean she isn't without values if we accept that values incorporate the valuable. The femme fatale usually knows why she is manipulating the fall guy: it might be that Mrs Dietrichson wants the husband dead to pick up the insurance in Double Indemnity; in The Lady from Shanghai, Elsa tries to use Michael in a convoluted plot that will see Michael framed for murder as she will walk off with her dead husband's money. The women may seem without morals but they certainly possess a value system that insists money is what matters. Michael in Tootsie has a value system too. He is a serious and impressive actor who can't find work but manages to convince everyone that he is Dorothy, auditioning for a role in a soap opera as an actress rather than as an actor. In each instance, in the femmes fatale and with Michael, their duplicity resides in a value higher than the dishonesty they practice. The women want to become independently wealthy; Michael wants to show just how good an actor he can be. However, William Walker lacks this need for the valuable and many apparent contradictions of his character can be better understood by comprehending this absence.
In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci says, "all is politics, philosophy as well as the philosophies, and the only 'philosophy' is history in action, life itself. It is in this sense that one can interpret the theory of the German proletariat, heir to German classical philosophy, and that it can be affirmed that the theory and elaboration of hegemony by Lenin was also a great 'metaphysical' event." ('What is Man?') Elsewhere, Gramsci says, "a philosophy of proxies cannot but present itself at the outset in a polemical and critical guise, as superseding the existing mode of thinking and existing concrete thought (the existing cultural world). First of all, therefore, it must be a criticism of 'common sense', basing itself initially on common sense in order to demonstrate that 'everyone' is a philosopher and that it is not a question of introducing from scratch a scientific form of thought into everyone's individual life, but of renovating and making 'critical' an already existing activity." ('The Study of Philosophy') But common sense is only as good as the values that support it, the environment out of which such thought springs. The film explores a value system that incorporates the personal and the social and through the critical aspires to the philosophical. Much of Walker's behaviour can be best understood through this failure in Walker because he lacks a cause big enough to overcome the hegemonic. Jose Dolores may not be 'philosophical' at all but history makes him critical, and by the end of the film he can see beyond Walker's manipulations while all Walker can see is the emptiness of his plotting. Thus Shipman is wrong to talk of the film as an exercise in indignation: it is instead an exercise in the philosophical imagination in Gramscian terms how does Jose Dolores move from the uncritical to the critical: from seeing himself as utterly subservient to the superior white man to seeing the emptiness of that superiority as his own values are far more embedded than the man to whom he initially felt so inferior. If Walker is the master manipulator without purpose, how does one find the means by which to go beyond that manipulation by calling on a higher belief than power itself?
We can think here of comments Pontecorvo makes in an interview with Film Quarterly, and also of Cesare Casarino's superb essay on the film, 'Let it Burn'. In the interview, Joan Mellen reckons that Walker's character seems inconsistent; that it seems odd that this hugely wealthy sugar company would employ a dissolute and a drunk to sort out their problems. Walker changed because he discovered there was nothing behind the side he helped...when they asked him to return to Quiemada he wants to go because he liked his youth, he liked Jose Dolores and he needed money. He does the same things he did before but like a mercenary, without a belief in anything." Yet what did he believe in before we may wonder, and think of a scene that Casarino pays much attention to in his article on the film. Here Casarino sees that when Walker offers a metaphor as he speaks, a quarter of the way through the film, to the puppet regime that replaces the vanquished Portuguese, he is actually offering instead a homology. Walker wants to draw analogies between wives and prostitutes and slaves and workers, talking in an environment where there are prostitutes close to hand and that no doubt many of the men use. "Now, a wife must be provided with a home, with food, with dresses, with medical attention, etc., etc. You're obliged to keep her your whole lifetime, even until she's grown old and perhaps a trifle unproductive. Then, of course, if you have the bad luck to survive her, you have to pay for the funeral." The guests laugh and Walker continues "No, no, it's true! Gentlemen, I know it seems amusing, but actually those are the facts, aren't they? Now, with a prostitute, on the other hand, it's quite a different matter, isn't it? You see, there is no need to lodge her or to feed her, certainly not to dress her and bury her, thank God. She's yours only when you need her." Casarino sees in Walker's argument a homologous one that isn't drawing radical differences but narrow and structural similarities. "Walker's "metaphor" twists patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, and slavery into a Gordian knot. Although the intent of Walker's speech is clear enoughto persuade colonial settlers and slave owners of the advantages of free wage labor over slave labor, introducing them to the cost-effective and enlightened ways of industrial-capitalist management and of capital-labor relationsthe rhetorical modalities through which this intent is pursued beg more questions than they answer." ('Let it Burn') Casarino sees here a limitation the film seems to share with Walker; that it too cannot quite see beyond a master/slave dialectic that emphasises profit and loss. The worker may be free but only if it he or she conforms to the economic interests of capitalism and any revolt can only be based on assuming power within that system and trying to get the best deal available for the local people. "The desire of the slave qua slaveis to be master. This assumption, much like Walker's assumption, precludes a priori the possibility of any alternative to patriarchy, slavery, capitalism, as well as colonialism: such an alternative is similarly unthinkable from the different standpoints of both Prada [a general] and Walker." ('Let it Burn') Casarino sees in Marx a position that goes beyond these standpoints to a 'slothful' desire for cooperation and minimal labour based on maximum leisure. "Wealth itself has value only as gratification," Marx says, "not as wealth itself, and which can therefore never create general industriousness." ('Let it Burn')
Casarino believes Pontecorvo's film fails to see beyond the homologous form Walker offers, but what interests us is Walker's valueless common sense and Jose Dolores's valuable common sense. Though Pontecorvo seems to indicate that Walker is seeking again when he returns to the island an idealism that he has lost, there is little to indicate in the early stages that Walker has beliefs that could be prey to disillusionment. He wishes no doubt for successful outcomes yet this appears to be a job well done without much concern for the nature of the job and instead chiefly an interest in the nature of manipulation that the job allows. In the discussion over a lengthy meal concerning wives and whores Walker has no underlying value to offer: certainly not one that concerns the atrocity of slavery, or even the slavery of marriage. These are used to persuade an audience rather than to insist on a given value. Though Casarino may see in Walker's claims an underlying assumption about the importance of capital, there is little to suggest that Walker regards money with any great import. What he wants to gain is the upper hand in an argument even if there appears to be little to be gained from this superior position. After offering his remarks about wives and slaves, the wealthy revolutionary leader Teddy Sanchez talks about the idealistic aspect of what they want to do. It's not only for the freedom of trade. For many of us there are idealist motives that are even more important. We are now a nation. A small nation. Born here and forged with toil, with difficulties over three centuries." Walker leans agains the wall and looks on, a look on his face that could suggest contempt for this man who is capable of idealism or a disdain towards its absence in himself. The film cuts back to Sanchez as he talks, and then back again to Walker in a tight close-up worthy of Sergio Leone. What is Walker thinking we may wonder, which might suggest a crisis, or is he not really thinking at all but scheming: wondering what his next move will be in the argument. A fellow revolutionary offers another angle that helps to further Walker's own position. Seor Alonso Prada wonders what will happen if the slave isn't happy being a worker but wants to become the boss, that the initial freedom offered then leads to the slave demanding more. Walker strides around the room explaining that Jose Dolores is building up an impressive collection of troops and that if the wealthy don't act quickly and engage themselves in the revolution, they needn't worry that the slaves will become their bosses they will become their executioners. On this point Walker sits down and raises his glass, but moments afterwards he is on his feet again, arguing that Spanish and Portuguese control must end and that this is good for our civilization. The always acute Prada asks, "and you, do you believe in it Seor William?" Walker replies, "yes, Mr Prada, I do." As he answers the question his eyebrows knot and his eyes narrow: we might assume he offers the line as a reassurance to the others rather than evidence of faith in their cause.
Walker's common sense is impeccable and his ability to utilise contingencies in the argument clearly brilliant. He might not know that Prada will offer the reservations he does but Walker would seem to have countenanced such arguments within the development of his own and can use other people's apparently contrary positions as making still clearer what ought to be done. Even his body language happens to be part of this as he suggests a man of immense stamina and theatricality. The discussion at the dinner table looks like it lasts from lunchtime till after dusk, and throughout Walker is the one occupying the full space rather than just sitting on his chair. The others move hardly at all; it is Walker who performs. Someone may insist that Walker is sincere and that Brando took the role because throughout the sixties he was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, becoming friends and actively helping those involved in the struggle, moderates and radicals. Patrica Bosworth notes that Black Panther "Bobby Seale phoned and asked for help in getting to King's funeral in Atlanta. Brando sent him plane tickets and hotel reservations, not just for himself but also for two other Panthers." (Marlon Brando) But while Brando's own political position may have been clear, Walker is interesting because his isn't. What interest us is the Brando of charismatic force rather than socio-political conviction: the way he channels Walker into a commanding relationship with space and improvisation. In another anecdote mentioned in Bosworth's book, Arthur Penn noted working with Brando on The Chase, "he'd slowly make it [the space] his own move this around here, move that around there, and pretty soon it would be his place, his environment. And he'd improvise constantly, change the rhythm and inflection of his lines. Marlon is a consummate improvisor." (Marlon Brando) Rather than seeing Walker as an idealist who loses his faith, better to see him as a man constantly getting into and taking advantage of situations for his own energetic ends. What he admires at least initially in Jose Dolores isn't his belief in his people and his country but instead his healthy opportunism. In the exchange between them when Walker insults Jose Dolores' dead mother, after Walker turns his back Dolores goes after him with the machete lying on the ground. It is then that he involves him in the plot to rob the Portuguese of their gold. Clearly, Walker has a general plan to topple the Portuguese on the island and to soften things up for English trade deals, but along the way what interests him more is the energy that can come out of a situation the way he manages to make the revolution his own rather than an inevitable outcome of English interests. Jose Dolores can do improvisation too evident in the moment with the machete. Whether he has conviction is another question, and perhaps for Walker an irrelevant one.
It appears then that manipulation and control gives Walker pleasure, and seeing ingenuity in others is something he admires, but the throughline that we suggested is still quite strong in a femme fatale, who wants her husband dead and to live a luxurious life with a hefty inheritance and no obligation to share a bed with an older and usually uglier spouse, keeps the story on the straight and narrow, however crooked the characters might be and serpentine the tale told. But Burn is a marvellous example of the politically baroque partly because the main mover of the narrative isn't someone who knows exactly what he wants. Though some may read the scene in the bar where Walker is brawling as an example of a man going to seed years after liberating the people, we might just as readily see it as Walker involving himself in yet another energetic situation elsewhere. When searching for Walker in their determination to get him back to Quiemada, a couple of investigators for the sugar company find him in a Plymouth bar. Is he a changed man we might wonder, since that is exactly what somebody calls him when the two men are looking for him? But is this pub fighting man so different from the one who pushed the Portuguese soldier into the sea and ended up in prison for it at the beginning of the film?
Walker is brilliant at doing his job not because he is a wonderful strategist, though he appears to be, but because he is a mischief-maker, a man never happier than when causing trouble. A fight in a bar is mischief on a minor scale; softening up Queimada for British interests in the Caribbean a major one. Whether he is knocking a man down in Plymouth or knocking together a persuasive argument over a lengthy dinner in the West Indies, Walker shows a consistent interest in making his presence felt. When the two men looking for him at an upmarket residence are informed by a secretary that Sir William got himself banned from the gentleman's club in England in 1841, sometime after his initial visit to the island, this doesn't seem much of a surprise to us even if the two men look astounded. They may know of Walker's official reputation as a knighted figure, but we are aware of his capacity for pushing (the Portuguese solder) and slapping (Jose Dolores) people around. The secretary gives the two men Walker's address is an un-salubrious part of the city, where the landlady says she found "him a real gentlemen, generous" but that he left his trunk there three years ago and hasn't returned.
The two men visit his wife and in a couple of shot/counter shots we see behind her a beautiful and expansive garden, and in the corner of the frame behind the two men a house that is clearly enormous. We might even wonder if the statue behind her in the distance isn't one of Sir William. When they eventually find him at the pub in the middle of a drunken fight, we have a man not so much of contradictions as one possessed of a more complex throughline than most. If we see him as a rich man now on the skids, then we have to ignore the wealth that is still his. If we see him as a changed man we have to wonder why he was so impudently aggressive on the island too. However, if we view Walker as a man determined to energise himself in situations that provide no financial gain (the fight), cause trouble that helps ruin his reputation (whatever rules he failed to obey at the club) and willing to live in the slums of London, then his contradictions are superficial expectations of character that Walker defies. Returning to Queimada after ten years and helping once again the sugar barons directly, rather than working through the British admirality, needn't be seen as a man trying to get his life together again, but wondering if he can still cause mischief on a grand scale.
It is here, out of the complicated personality that Walker possesses, that much of the film's originality can be found, and its political significance manifest. When he returns to the island to put down a revolt led by Jose Dolores he meets with some of the same officials now running the country (Sanchez, Prada and others) but seems bored and uninterested in the details of the situation. When Sanchez asks if he has read the treaty between Quiemada and the British he says no they are all alike anyway. As the film crosscuts between events in recent years on the island and Walker discussing them, so Walker announces how the Royal Sugar Company has wangled an astonishing deal that entitles them to exploit the sugar cane for the next 99 years. Sanchez wonders why Walker doesn't mention the hospital the company has built and the fifty miles of road but Walker reckons such things are irrelevant since if the company has done so much for the people why would they be revolting? Initially, Walker stands as he talks but doesn't move around the room at all, and when he sits down he doesn't get up again, as if he can muster up enough energy to speak but not to get out of his chair. The difference between ten years earlier and now isn't necessarily that Walker has lost his idealism, as Pontecorvo proposes, but that he has lost his energy. We feel he never had that much idealism to lose, which isn't quite the something as saying he was and is a cynic. His need to manipulate others rests on trying to find in them and others not a material gain but instead a basic energising purpose.
In one scene where various rebels have been slaughtered in battle by Walker's troops, one of the black soldiers fighting for Walker and the sugar company is beside a dead rebel but Walker notes they haven't killed Jose Dolores and asks the soldier how he feels about that. The soldier says he wouldn't like to find him like this", adds, "as long as Jose Dolores lives I have work and good pay, and asks "is it not the same for you, Englishman?" Walker says not really, "on the contrary, because I work for a lump sum." Ostensibly Walker wins the point and might wonder whether the soldier who is very keen to hunt for Jose Dolores and keep getting paid, might not be so interested in actually finding him. Walker has a clear mission; the black soldier an ambivalent one. It is the difference between the hunter who is determined to killanimals and the hunter's assistant who loves animals but needs an income. For Walker there is the thrill of the chase but for the black soldier there is a terrible contradiction. Yet it seems to us the film's final irony is that while Walker can constantly find adventures that will excite him and pay him handsomely, what he cannot find is a value greater than his own adrenalised needs no matter how much money happens to be forthcoming.
It is partly why throughout the film he points up the questionable motives of others as if seeing in their apparent idealism less his own cynicism than their false belief. As we've noted, Walker isn't especially cynical; it is more that he sees life energetically rather than morally and can see that for all the white man's determination to conquer lands there is at the heart of it no heart; at least Walker can see this and enjoy the endeavour itself. When not long before the scene with the black soldier, he is talking to the very man just killed, Josinho, who says, quoting Jose Dolores, "if what we have in our country is a civilisation of white men then we should be glad of being uncivilized. Because it is better to know where to go and not knowhow than it is to know how to go and not know where." After Josinho leaves we see a smile on Walker's face, which we might interpret various ways but perhaps more usefully as admiration for the idealism Josinho has expressed. Just because Walker isn't capable of that idealism, just because throughout the film he has seen questionable examples of it from people who are clearly looking after their own interests, doesn't mean he fails to believe in it even if he isn't capable of such an ideal. Halfway through the film, during Walker's first visit on the island, Jose Dolores says "go and convince the white men. Tell your friends..." Walker interrupts and says "they are not my friends." If Walker can't believe in anything then he can at least acknowledge his own pleasure in a job well done, and not pretend there is anything more to it than cash that can allow him to continue his adventures. But Josinho here says there is something one can believe in, as though what matters isn't the job done but the purpose behind it, however well or badly executed. If the black soldier falls into despondent wage slavery as he is involved in a search which he clearly doesn't believe in but which can guarantee him a temporary income, Josinho looks like he has found a purpose and his death will serve a cause greater than himself. A cynic would see a stupid person dying for no reason, but Walker looks like he understands that reason even if he can't quite share it.
By the end of the film Walker will die too, at the hands of someone who stops him and asks if he can take his bag, just as numerous others offered to take his bag at the beginning of the film. But instead of giving him his bag, the man puts a knife into his stomach and Walker dies not long after Jose Dolores has died too, insisting that he would prefer to hang, even though Walker could have freed him. If Walker in life had everything a man could need (an exciting and very well paid job, a wife and a beautiful house, a knighthood and social prestige) Jose Dolores had nothing. But Walker will die without much purpose and Jose Dolores as a martyr for a cause much greater than his own life. Yet we might wonder if Walker would wish for it any other way, as if his greatest achievement wouldn't be the enormous house and the knighthood, but in contributing to a revolutionary cause that he couldn't remotely be part of even if he might, in his own lack of belief in the colonial project, find hard to dismiss. Walker has clearly throughout been a masterful manipulator, so much more capable of mind games, convoluted yet contingent planning and even charm than many of the figures we find in film noirs, undercover cop stories and of course Tootsie. But if one were to ask Walker what he wanted he would struggle to provide an answer; Jose Dolores wouldn't find it difficult at all. It is in such a conundrum that a notion of universal progress can take place. If Jose Dolores has nothing to lose but his chains, Walker has everything to lose and apparently nothing to gain. In losing his life Walker will not become a martyr for a cause but he will have helped create one, which may well have been his dying wish: he has created out of all his machinations not so much the collateral damage so prevalent in colonial adventures in their various manifestations, all part of a problematic process bringing progress to a dark part of the world, but a collateral hero in Jose Dolores. Power struggles will continue but they will also have a point behind them, a martyr to whom the locals can see died for a belief greater than his own life, while Walker died too, as if incapable of finding one. Walker is the colonial mindset at both its most brilliant but also at its most empty - as if that brilliance wished indeed somehow to illustrate that emptiness. Jose Dolores is the colonial subject lacking that brilliance but with an underpinning determination that can make history instead of merely subverting it, however provocatively.
© Tony McKibbin