Review of the 1967 film of Graham Greene’s ‘The Comedians’…
In 1967 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released the film version of Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians. Featuring a stellar cast of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Alec Guiness, Peter Ustinov and a young James Earl Jones it proved less of a hit than one would have predicted given the talent and funding it received.
Set in Haiti but filmed in Dahomey (now Benin) it struck me more for its depiction of life under the Papa Doc Duvalier dictatorship than for the film as a whole. Knowing that Greene himself wrote the screenplay makes the broadside against Duvalier all the more understandable. Greene was eager to tell the world about the regime in Haiti and in doing so felt very real danger of reprisal from the dictator who was known for exacting revenge on his critics regardless of location. Such was the picture which Greene painted of Papa Doc and his methods that the Haitian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published an elaborate brochure (Graham Greene-Finally Exposed) criticising the author which Greene mentions with some amusement in Ways of Escape.
He had begun writing the script in good spirits, fuelled no doubt, by Burton’s “nice letter” to him accepting the role but by the end he was dismissive of the film and glad to be out of it, telling a friend that compensation for his efforts paid for his apartment in Antibes. As for Elizabeth Taylor, Greene certainly gave her a bigger part in the film script than he had given her character in the book yet despite that it is a relatively subdued performance by her standards. The star, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Alec Guiness. In what is typical Greene territory, Guiness best captured the hapless ex-pat. A dreamer, a con-man and a fool, Guiness played his character with consummate ease and his ‘confessional’ with Burton towards the end of the film is particularly good.
The Comedians is a better film than it was given credit for. It is too long and the two stars fail to shine but it was a brave film with a story which needed to be told. Unlike the adaptation of Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, the black characters are depicted the way they truly were. Duvalier’s secret police, the Tonton Macoutes were sharply dressed state sponsored murderers and this fact is not lost on the producers despite a time of great racial tension in the United States. Greene touches on the Macoutes use of voodoo and torture and captures that sense of fear which permeated every part of the island, he drew on his own experiences of Haiti, including the brothel scene and its workers to recreate a chilling account of such a brutal dictatorship.
It is a film best viewed as a whole, for fans of 1960s cinema as well as Greene aficionados I would say it is a must. There are moments of comedy, befitting of Greene’s world view on such matters but make no mistake, this was a politically motivated movie featuring two of Hollywood’s biggest stars. MGM were brave to do it, a fact somewhat and rather sadly lost on the audience at that time.
A review of Graham Greene’s book The Comedians can be found here
More information and a bibliography of Graham Greene can be found here