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Short Cuts - Forgotten Gems: The Comedians (1967)

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Wednesday, Aug 8, 2007

Elizabeth Taylor in Dahomey, West Africa, 1967


The Comedians (1967)
Dir: Peter Glenville


The Burtons, after a string of colossal flops, (Cleopatra, The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper), were basking in the success of their bold collaboration with Mike Nichols—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—and were looking for another piece of daring, unconventional source material for their next project. The left-wing political maelstrom of Vietnam America may have motivated them to cast their eye onto a story of the horrors of Third World dictatorship. Graham Greene’s stories of flawed, convictionless British anti-heroes discovering their humanity in turbulent countries (The Third Man, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana) seemed to be a recipe for art-house success; in any case, they provided actors with memorable character roles and crackling, ironic dialogue. Torrid love amidst political unrest in the tropics was a formula that had been popular in Hollywood since Casablanca, only in Greene’s love affairs no one ever came out a hero. 


“The Comedians:”: Smith (Paul Ford), Jones (Alec Guinness), and Brown (Richard Burton)


Greene’s The Comedians tells of self-indulgent British and American expatriates emotionally going to pieces during the nightmarish regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1960s Haiti. It blended the aching bitterness of The End of the Affair with the postcolonial anxiety and malaise of The Heart of the Matter. Greene noticed that in times of utter hopelessness, people coped through humor and self-delusion. The comedians of the title are two Brits, Brown (Richard Burton) and Jones (Alec Guinness), and an American, Smith (Paul Ford).  The deliberate banality of their names echoes some bad men’s room joke (“Three men, Jones, Brown, and Smith, walk into a bar…”).  Their neurotic personalities, amidst the tragic scale of death and murder in Haiti, are meaningless, and their identities, are essentially interchangeable.


Brown has just returned from New York in a failed effort to sell the depilated hotel he inherited from his late mother. His real reason for coming back to Port-au-Prince is to resume his affair with the Brazilian Ambassador’s German wife, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor).  Smith is a do-gooding American politician, an ex-presidential candidate of ’48, who has come to Haiti to set up a school and health center devoted to vegetarianism in the slums. He and his wife, played by the extraordinary silent-film actress Lilian Gish, were Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement, whose ordeal in Mississippi, they believe, has prepared them for anything.  Jones is an amateur arms dealer who has come to supply American weapons to the Tontons Macoutes (Papa Doc’s sunglassed secret police). Unfortunately, his business partner in Miami has absconded the cash advance and fled, leaving Jones at the mercy of cold blooded criminals.  Jones is the catalyst of the story, and his attempted escape from the Tontons, is the farce that unseemingly unleashes a domino effect of mistaken murders and thwarted relationships.


Peter Glenville directing the voodoo ceremony scene


The director of the film was a talented veteran of British theatre, Peter Glenville. His 1965 film, Beckett, also starting Burton, and Peter O’Toole, made him a popular, “classy” filmmaker at the time.  But The Comedians would wind up finishing his career.  The movie was such a critical and financial failure, that Glenville would never work in Hollywood again. This is one of those unfortunate incidents where history is against an ambitious project. The Comedians opened in the wake of the Black Panther Movement of the late ‘60s, and the memory of the Civil Rights riots was still fresh.  Scenes of menacing black men in sunglasses assaulting white women, murdering people in broad daylight, were unsettling for American audiences—a reminder of latent dangers at home. 


The film’s lukewarm reception and the audience’s disappointment (most moviegoers were misled by the title, expecting to see the Burtons in romantic comedy of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson mold) caused it to be largely forgotten until the a recent box set of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s films for Warner Brothers. In hindsight, The Comedians was a daring picture for its time. The crew was, naturally banned from Haiti, and had to film in Dahomey, West Africa, where the blistering white heat and humidity can be sensed in nearly ever scene.  Greene’s screenplay is the taut, slyly ironic suspense-thriller he mastered writing, as with The Third Man.  The movie boasts an early, graceful performance from the young James Earl Jones, as a surgeon moonlighting as a rebel leader.  Actor-raconteur, Peter Ustinov, brings disarming pathos and tenderness to the relatively one-dimensional role of Taylor’s cuckolded husband.


The real star turn of the movie, however, does not come from the Burtons. They both give rather mediocre performances here (Burton is relentlessly gloomy, while Taylor is inauthentic and passive). No, it arrives in the form of Alec Guinness in the role of the hapless arms-dealer.  Jones was based on Greene’s former accountant, who embezzled thousands of pounds worth of Greene’s royalties and fled to South America.  A charismatic inveterate fraud, he was intended to come off as a sort of memento mori, a reminder to us of our own selfishness, of how we are willing to value liars and cheats so long as they entertain us.  Guinness adds a fey, music-hall insouciance to the role of Jones, a man who fabricates stories about being an exalted officer in WWII in order to win sympathy and trust from his clients; he’s the antithesis of his dutiful, hard-headed Col. Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai.  Jones is the weasel to Nicholson’s wounded lion.  Mendacious in part for survival, and in part, for pleasure, he’s only truly alive when he’s acting. It’s the kind of subtle comic performance that’s influenced a generation of British character actors, from John Hurt to Geoffrey Rush to Bill Nighy.  Some of the film’s most affecting moments involve Jones’ undoing; the scene where Brown and the rebel leader/surgeon trap Jones into leading a guerrilla revolt over a game of gin rummy at the ambassador’s mansion is priceless in its mordant black humor.



It’s a shame that The Comedians is not more widely seen and appreciated.  It’s not an outstanding film, but it’s a brave one in it’s own way.  Today’s audience may easily find it patronizing and colonial: a hot jungle hell of black magic and political corruption that serves as the backdrop for a group of prominent whites. But certain scenes stay with you: the unsettling young men in dark sunglasses who vandalize the funeral hearse of a dissident, small schoolchildren in starched white uniforms being led to watch a public execution, a crowded, smoke-filled voodoo ceremony where a live chicken is decapitated and the priest brandishes the blade in the air to point it to a sacrificial inductee.



If anyone has the balls to taunt a Third World tyrant, it would be a best-selling author and a celebrity power couple. Imagine Christopher Hitchens and ‘Brangelina’ collaborating on a movie about Kim Jong-ill. The Burtons-Greene partnership opened the world’s eyes to Haiti, made them take notice of the abuse of power and trust that was going on in this small island country.  Together they gave it color through a host of colorful characters, and their depiction of the nation—its poverty, its fetid jungles, its colonial French legacy, intoxicating voodoo rituals, the terrifying blackouts and nighttime raids of the Tontons Macoutes, gave an urgency to the country’s turmoil; The Comedians brought the horrors of Third World dictatorship to life for a complacent late 60s audience. At the time, sadly, few cared. 

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