Fire on the Amazon
Well, you certainly can’t say that this film isn’t clear on its message—which is “Rainforest good, loggers bad”, in case you’re among the hard of thinking. It opens with a ponderous caption:
For years, the rainforest has spawned bloody feuds. Ranchers and loggers have sought to clear the land, while rubbertappers and Indians have fought to save the forest. Many have died in the conflict. Rafael Santos, leader of the rubbertappers, was one such man.
From there we see the sort of scenes which should really be in a bad documentary entitled, “Bolivia: country of contrasts”. Some of the prettiest and most delightful creatures (parrots, monkeys, etc) frolic in peaceful and bucolic surroundings. Immediately we cut to the noise and destruction of a full-scale logging operation. You could end the film there, some 30 seconds in, and we’d have got the whole point.
The opening caption seems to indicate that we’re in bio-pic territory here and you’d not be far wrong. On 22 December 1988, the leader of the Brazilian Rubber Tappers National Council (CTN), Chico Mendes, was shot outside the home he shared with his wife and four children. Two wealthy landowners were eventually found guilty of his murder, but the trial unearthed a long history of murder, intimidation and corruption on the part of land owners, loggers and the authorities.
To avoid any potential legal entanglements, we’re dealing with the fictional Rafael Santos in this film, which is set in Bolivia, not Brazil. When Santos is killed, the official story is that it was a petty fight between two peasants and a local Indian man is arrested for the murder. The accused then conveniently dies in jail. American environmental do-gooder, Alyssa Rothman (Bullock) and photojournalist, R.J. O’Brien (Sheffer, sporting a very silly ponytail) believe that there’s a cover-up and head off into the rainforest to investigate.
I’m a fan of Roger Corman. He’s nothing if not prolific (producing 350+ movies at last count) and he’s given a start to more young talents than any other single figure in the movie industry since the very earliest days of cinema. He produces cheap and cheerful product at low cost with the intention of making a decent return. Video and DVD have been his friend. He’s been accused of being in the exploitation business. And? Show me the movie that isn’t exploitative in some way and I’ll show you the dullest student documentary in history.
This, it’s fair to say, is not one of New Horizon’s better films. It manages to be exploitative and still one of the dullest movies you’ll ever see. The story of Chico Mendes is the sort that would, in the right hands, make either a very good documentary along the lines of Orson Welles’ Four Men on a Raft (which can be seen in the documentary It's All True) or, with a half-decent cast, a moving TV movie. Unfortunately, the script isn’t up to it. It can’t decide if it wants to be an environmentalist message movie, a political thriller, a murder/adventure flick or a romance. Actually, what it ends up being is boring and muddled. And the dialogue is beyond trite.
The main interest in seeing Fire on the Amazon probably lies in its somewhat controversial past. In 1992, Sandra Bullock was a relatively unknown actress in search of a decent role. Of course, this wasn’t it, but what’s a struggling young actress gonna do? So, she signed up for this and, despite her misgivings, agreed to do a nude scene. Not entirely nude, though (apparently she’s wearing tape and it’s shot to avoid showing anything), but a nude scene nonetheless. The movie was released in 1993, did a little business, died a death.
Fast forward to 1999. Sandra Bullock is a big star and Roger Corman wants to re-release the movie on DVD and VHS, naturally with a prominent picture of Bullock on the cover art and highlighting the fact that she appears nude in it. Miss Bullock is not best pleased, especially as she has a career built on her girl next door image. In fact, she famously does not do sex scenes. She’s a kissing kind of girl. But Corman won the day and the film was re-released in 2000. I doubt that he’ll ever figure on Sandra Bullock’s Christmas card list. Unless she takes a bizarre late-career twist, this is probably the nearest you’ll get to seeing her naked.