Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 4, 2015

Marlon Brando and Gillo Pontecorvo

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

(In another chapter in Marlin Brando’s “Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me”, he says that if he hadn’t become an actor, he would have made a good conman because he is such a convincing liar. There are many details in this account that do not ring true but they remain fascinating as tokens of Brando’s psychological/political makeup.)

ASIDE FROM ELIA KAZAN and Bernardo Bertolucci, the best director I worked with was Gillo Pontecorvo, even though we nearly killed each other. He directed me in a 1968 film that practically no one saw. Originally called Queimada!, it was released as Burn! I played an English spy, Sir William Walker, who symbolized all the evils perpetrated by the European powers on their colonies during the nineteenth century. There were a lot of parallels to Vietnam, and the movie portrayed the universal theme of the strong exploiting the weak. I think I did the best acting I’ve ever done in that picture, but few people came to see it.

Gillo had made a film I liked, The Battle of Algiers, and was one of the few great filmmakers I knew. He is an extraordinarily talented, gifted man, but during most of our time together we were at each other’s throats. We spent six months in Colombia, mostly in Cartagena, a humid, tropical city about 11 degrees from the equator and not far, I thought, from the gateway to Hades. Most days the temperature was over 111 degrees, and the humidity made the set a Turkish bath. Gillo’s first shot was from the window of a tiny cubicle, supposedly a prison cell in an old fort, with the camera looking down on a courtyard where a prisoner was being garroted. When I saw that Gillo was wearing a heavy winter overcoat, I couldn’t believe it. With the movie lights blazing, it must have been over 130 degrees in the room. But he filmed take after take and never removed his overcoat.

“Gillo,” I finally asked, “why are you wearing that heavy coat?” He was drenched in sweat. “Gillo, why don’t you take off?” He shrugged, pulled his collar up, looked around and said in French, “I feel a little chilly, I don’t know why. I’m afraid I might get a cold.”

“That coat’s not going to help you. If you’re ill there’s no sense in weakening yourself more by losing all that fluid.”

“I’ll be all right,” he said and turned away.

I walked over to one of the members of the crew and said, “Unless he’s getting the flu, he’s doing something very strange, He’ll exhaust himself and pass out from the loss of so much perspiration.” During the next break, Gillo came outside and I noticed that he was wearing a pair of brief blue trunks underneath the over coat. An odd combination, I thought, swimming trunks and an overcoat in this heat? While I was watching him, he pulled a handful of small objects from one pocket of the coat and shifted them to the other. I went over and asked him, “What are those?”

“Do you believe in luck?” Gillo asked.

“You mean fate?”

“Luck, fortuna.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess so. Some days you feel lucky, some days you don’t.” He dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out a small piece of plastic that looked like a curly red chile pepper. “What is that?” I asked.

“A little something for good luck. Touch it,” he said, adding that it would bring good luck to the picture.

I did, and asked where his good luck charm came from.


“What do charms like that cost?” “Nothing.” He reached into his pocket again, brought out dozens of little chile peppers and gave me one. He seemed happy that I’d accepted it, and said I’d helped assure that the picture would be a success.

I’ve since met other Italians who won’t go anywhere without a charm in their pockets, but Gillo took superstition to cosmic heights. One of his friends told me that he always wore that overcoat whenever he directed the first shot of a new movie, and insisted that the same prop man be in the shot wearing the same pair of tennis shoes. He was the man who was strangled in the first scene, and the tennis shoes had been painted to look like boots. On Thursdays, I was told, you must never ask Gillo for anything because if he refused you it would bring him bad luck. He also never allowed the color purple to appear in his pictures, or for that matter anywhere in sight, because he considered it bad luck. His obsession over the color was limitless; if he could, he would have obliterated it from a summer sunset.

Gillo was a handsome man with dark hair and beautiful blue eyes who came from a family of diverse accomplishments; one brother, he told me, had won the Stalin Peace Prize, another was a Nobel laureate, and his sister was a missionary in Africa.

Despite his warehouse of superstitions, Gillo knew how to direct actors. Because I didn’t speak Italian and he spoke little English, we communicated mostly in French, though a lot of it was nonverbal; when I was in a scene, he’d come over and with a small gesture signal “A little less,” or “A little more.” He was always right, though he wasn’t always clever about knowing how to stimulate me to achieve the right pitch. He was a good filmmaker, but he was also a martinet who constantly tried to manipulate me into playing the part exactly as he saw it, and often I wouldn’t go along with what he wanted. He approached everything from a Marxist point of view; most of the people who worked for him thought this dogma was the answer to all the world’s problems, and some of them were sinister. They were helpful to Gillo, but I didn’t much care for them. Some of the lines he wanted me to say were straight out of the Communist Manifesto, and I refused to utter them. He was full of tricks. If we disagreed, he sometimes gave in, then kept the camera running after saying “Cut,” hoping to get me to do something I’d refused to do. In one scene I was supposed to toast Evaristo Marquez, the actor playing a revolutionary leader who was my foil and the hero of the picture, but Gillo didn’t want me to sip from my drink after the toast; I was to spill my wine onto the ground as a snub while Evaristo sipped his. At that moment in the picture this gesture did not seem to me to be consistent with my character, and so I refused to do it; I wanted to really toast him. Gillo let me do it my way, then kept the camera turning after the take was over and got a shot of me throwing my drink on the ground because I thought we had finished the shot. When I saw the picture, this was the shot he used.

In another scene on a very hot day, when I was wearing only shorts and a jacket for a shot above the waist, Gillo wanted me to say something I didn’t want to say and made me repeat the scene over and over, thinking that he would finally exhaust me and I’d do what he wanted. But after about the tenth take I realized what was going on and asked the makeup man to get me a stool. I strapped it to my rear end and continued doing the scene my way, then after each take lowered myself onto the seat and pretended to be reading The Wall Street Journal, which Gillo detested as the symbol of everything evil. After scores of takes, he finally gave up; I’d worn him out.

Most of our fights were over the interpretation of my character and the story, but we fought over other things, too. Gillo had hired a lot of black Colombian extras as slaves and revolutionaries, and I noticed that they were being served different food from the Europeans and Americans. It looked inedible to me and I mentioned this to him.

“That’s what they like,” Gillo said. “That’s what they always eat.”

But the real reason, a member of the crew told me, was that Gillo was trying to save money; the food he was giving the black extras cost less. Then I learned that he wasn’t paying the black extras as much as the white extras, and when I confronted him about it, he said that if he did the white extras would rebel.

“Wait a minute, Gillo; this picture is about how whites exploited the blacks.”

Gillo said that he agreed with me, but he couldn’t back down; in his mind the end justified the means.

“Okay,” I said, “then I’m going home. I won’t be a part of this.” I went to the airport at Barranquilla and was about to get on a plane for Los Angeles when Gillo sent a messenger with a promise to equalize the pay and food.

Making that movie was wild. Everybody smoked a strong variety of marijuana called Colombian Red, and the crew was stoned most of the time. For some reason making a movie in Cartagena attracted a lot of women from Brazil. Dozens of them showed up, mostly upper-class women from good families, and they wanted to sleep with everybody. After they went home, some told me, they intended to see a doctor who would sew up their hymens so that when they got married their husbands would think they were virgins. The doctors in Rio must have made a lot of money from that movie.

My truce with Gillo didn’t last long. Although he raised the pay for the black extras and briefly gave them better food, I discovered after a few days that they were still not being fed the same meals as Europeans working on the picture. We were shooting scenes in a poor black village; the houses had mud floors and stick walls, and the children had distended bellies. It was a good place to shoot because it was what the picture was about, but heartbreaking to be there.

“You can’t feed these people that kind of crap,” I told Gillo. This time he ignored me, so I got everybody on the crew to pile their lunches against the camera in a pyramid and refuse to work.

Gillo came up to me angrily with his team of thugs and said, “I understand you’re dissatisfied with lunch.”


“What would you like to have for lunch?”

“Champagne,” I said, “and caviar. I’d like to have some decent food, and I’d like it served to me properly.”

Somewhere Gillo found a restaurant that sent my meal to the set, along with four waiters in red jackets with dickeys on their chests and napkins over their arms. When they set up a table with linen and silver and candles, I said, “No, the candles shouldn’t go there; they should go here, and the forks should go on the other side of the plates.” Then I touched the bottle of champagne and said it wasn’t chilled enough. “You’d better put it on ice a little longer.”

I fussed with the table setting while the crew and people from the village gathered around to watch with their arms folded. In their eyes I must have been the epitome of the self-indulgent capitalist who wanted everything. Gillo sent a publicity photographer to take a picture of the event, and herded some black people into the background. After everything was arranged perfectly, I searched the crowd for the poorest, sickest, unhappiest-looking children I could find, invited them to sit at the table, and then served them the meal. The people cheered, but as far as my relationship with Gillo was concerned, the episode made the situation worse.

We continued to fight while other problems came up: a key member of the crew had a heart attack and died; the cameraman developed a sty and couldn’t do any filming; the temperature got even hotter, with all of us working long hours and flirting with sunstroke. The few union rules in effect were much more lenient than they were in the United States and every-body’s temper was short. I also found it increasingly amusing that a man so dedicated to Marxism found it so easy to exploit his workers. Meanwhile, Gillo’s superstitions knew no bounds. If somebody spilled salt, Gillo had to run around the table and throw more salt on the ground in a certain pattern dictated by him; if wine was spilled, he made the guilty party dip a finger in the wine and daub it behind each ear of everyone at the table. It was sad but hilarious. I began doing things to irritate Gillo, asking him for favors on Thursdays, wearing purple and walking under ladders; once I opened the door of my caravan, shone a mirror on him and yelled, “Hey, Gillo, buon giorno,” and then smashed the mirror. In Gillo’s eyes breaking a mirror was a direct invitation to the devil to enter your life. Once he raised his glass at lunch in a toast and said, “Salute.” I raised my glass while everybody drank, then spilled my wine with a flourish on the ground, which to Gillo was the supreme insult. He got a gun and stuck it in his belt, and I started carrying a knife. Years before, I’d practiced knife-throwing and was fairly accurate at distances up to about eighteen feet, so sometimes I took out my knife and hurled it at a wall or post a few feet from him. He shuddered slightly, put his hand on his waist, rested it on the butt of his gun and then eyed me sternly, letting me know that he was ready for battle, too.

One day when we were having one of our arguments over how the movie should be played, I screamed at him at the top of my lungs, “You’re eating me like ants . . . you’re eating me like ants.” I didn’t even know it was coming out of me. It made him jump nine feet in the air. Another day, we came close to a fist-fight over a scene showing four half-naked black children pushing and pulling the headless body of their father—the man garroted in the first scene—home to be buried. Gillo shot part of the take in the morning, then adjourned for lunch. When I returned to the set afterward, he wasn’t back yet and the wardrobe lady was holding one of the children in her lap.

“What’s the matter with the boy?” I asked.

“He’s sick.”

“What is it?”

“He vomited a worm at lunch, and he has a very high temperature.”

“What’s he doing here then?” I said. “Where’s the doctor?”

She said Gillo wanted the boy to finish the scene because if he didn’t he would have to find another child to play the part and lose part of a day’s shooting.

“Does he know he’s sick?”


I called a doctor and told him to get to the set as fast as he could. When he arrived I said, “Take my car and get this kid to the hospital right now.”

When Gillo returned from lunch, I was steaming and so was he because I had sent the boy away. We came within inches of mixing it up; only the fact that he was shorter than me kept me from punching him. Several days later I couldn’t take Gillo or the heat anymore. I needed a vacation. People were dropping like flies from illness and exhaustion. I drove to Barranquilla and left for Los Angeles at four A.M. A day or two later, I got a stinging letter from the producers saying that I was in breach of my contract, and that unless I returned to Colombia immediately, they would sue me. I wrote back demanding an immediate apology for their preposterous accusations—all of which were true—and said I couldn’t possibly think of returning after being so excoriated; my professional reputation was at stake. I knew the producers’ threats were empty because I had learned long ago that once filming starts, the actor has the edge; too much money had been spent to abandon the project; and even if they could win a lawsuit it would take years to adjudicate, by which time all the money they’d invested on the project would be gone. If he knows what to do, the actor can get away with almost anything under these circumstances. Most of them are too intimidated to do anything, but I wasn’t.

After a five-day vacation and a letter of apology, I told the producers I would finish the picture, but only in North Africa, where the climate was more pleasant and the terrain and set-tings similar. They agreed, if I would just return to Colombia for a few more shots. I didn’t want to see the country again, but I agreed to go. They booked me on a Delta Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New Orleans and a connecting flight from there to Barranquilla. When I walked onto the plane at Los Angeles International Airport, I asked a flight attendant, “Are you sure this is the flight to Havana?” She opened the cockpit door and told the captain, “We’ve got a guy out here who wants to know if we’re going to Havana.”

The captain said, “Get him off the plane, and if he doesn’t leave tell him we’ll have the FBI here in two minutes.”

“Oh, please,” I said, “I’m awfully tired.”

The flight hostess, who didn’t recognize me, said, “Get off the plane, buddy.”

I was delighted because I was in no hurry to go back to Colombia, so I ran down the ramp at full speed to the con-course. As I sprinted past the check-in desk one of the agents said, “Is there anything wrong, Mr. Brando?”

“No,” I said, out of breath, “they just seemed a little nervous, and I don’t want to have any extra trouble and worry on the flight.” Then I ran like a gazelle, expecting the agent to telephone the pilot and say, “You just kicked a movie star off the plane.” Sure enough, an agent was waiting for me as I tried to sprint past the ticket counter.

“Mr. Brando, we’re awfully sorry,” he said. “We didn’t know it was you; please accept our apologies and go back to the plane. They’re holding it for you.”

“No,” I said. “Not now. I’m terribly upset. I’m usually nervous about flying anyway, and if that pilot is so nervous I don’t think I’d feel safe flying with him . . .” The story made the papers and the airline apologized, but did give me a longer vacation because there wouldn’t he another plane out of New Orleans for Barranquilla for three days. Unfortunately, they chartered a special plane to meet me New Orleans and I had to return to Colombia after only two days.

All of the above to the contrary, however, Gillo was one of the most sensitive and meticulous directors I ever worked for, that’s what kept me on that picture because, despite the grief and strife, I had the deepest respect for him. Later, when I anted to make a movie about the Battle of Wounded Knee, he was the first director I thought of to do it.




  1. When we clear away the ciné-gossip, the truth we have is ‘Queimada!’, a very good film. Brando’s, (surely ghosted), ‘Songs My Mother Taught Me’ should have been entitled ‘Watch Me! I’m a Heroic Hollywood Liberal.’ These aggrandizing selfies were part of the period. My favorite is Barbara Leaming’s so-called biography, ‘Orson Welles’. The great man invited her to gargantuan meals in the best restaurants. He poured out his legend with the champagne, inventing new tidbits with each course. She simply organized it into chapters. But Orson was a bigger man–fatter too–than Brando and also a bigger liar. The selfie he concocted rivaled ‘The Arabian Nights.’ His tongue was always in his bloated cheek. He was intelligent enough not the believe his lies himself as Brando seems to have done. Come on! His tete-a-tete with Pope Pius XII when the Holy Father asked for the inside dope on Irene Dunne’s divorce and Ty Power’s coming marriage. Or when Lucky Luciano sought Orson out in Italy, begging him to do a ‘Citizen Luciano’ to establish Lucky’s noble role in world history? Clear this stuff away and we’ve still got ‘Kane’, ‘Ambersons’ and ‘Othello’, not to forget ‘F for Fake’, that liar’s apotheosis.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — May 6, 2015 @ 10:51 am

  2. Wonderful Brando……….👍🍦

    Comment by Rhonda Danylenko — January 19, 2016 @ 10:34 am

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