Graham Greene's The Comedians (1966) opens as the Medea ship makes its way to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti with a rich assortment of passengers aboard, including a former presidential candidate, a military “expert,” and a hotelier named Brown who dubs all of them comedians—his rationale:
Now that I approached the end of life it was only my sense of humour that enabled me sometimes to believe in Him. Life was a comedy, not the tragedy for which I had been prepared, and it seemed to me that we were all, on this boat with a Greek name (why should a Dutch line name it’s boats in Greek?), driven by an authoritative practical joker towards the extreme point of comedy. How often, in the crowd on Shaftesbury Avenue or Broadway, after the theatres closed, have I heard the phrase—“I laughed till the tears came.”
Life-weary Brown had been to the United States in hopes of selling his Hotel Trianon that overlooks the Haitian capital governed by the President for Life Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Brown’s business and future prospects were far sunnier before the dictator’s tightening fist loused things up—his hotel is now mostly vacant. In 1960s Haiti, Duvalier’s notorious Tonton Macoutes henchmen would routinely snatch critics of the dictator’s regime at will, imprison, torture, and often kill them. By the time Duvalier died in 1971, it was reported—conservatively—that 30,000 people had been executed. You can see how that would be bad for tourism.
As Brown strides about his hotel, taking inventory and wondering about a meaningless paper weight that had gone missing in his absence, he finds the body of the government minister Philipot—a likely suicide in the swimming pool. For a man wanting to disconnect from affairs, Brown begins the slow swirl around the Haitian whirlpool.
Journalist and literary critic Christopher Hitchens summed up Greene’s writing by saying, “The essence of Greeneland, if one may dare to try and define it, is the combination of the exotic and the romantic with the sordid and the banal.” With the help of a trusted medical man named Magiot, Brown begins moving the corpse under the cover of night, avoiding Duvalier’s killers, and fulfilling three of Hitch’s four ingredients.
“However great a man’s fear of life,” Doctor Magiot said, “suicide remains the courageous act, the clear-headed act of a mathematician. The suicide has judged by the laws of chance—so many odds against one that to live will be more miserable than to die. His sense of mathematics is greater than his sense of survival. But think how a sense of survival must clamour to be heard at the last moment, what excuses it must present of a totally unscientific nature.”
The fourth, romantic entanglement that Brown finds himself unable to shake is an illicit affair with Martha Pineda, wife of the ambassador. They meet for clandestine romps and are in love. She claims she would leave her husband except she is the mother of a young son, who Brown comes to view as a junior version of the ambassador, basically cock blocking. Meanwhile, Major Jones, who arrived on the Medea, is arrested as an enemy of the state. Brown begins to help Jones, knowing he’s running afoul of murderous thugs.
Soon after its publication, and after filming was already underway, Greene began, almost immediately, working on the screenplay. He was doing rewrites on location in Daomey (renamed Republic of Benin) and France where The Comedians (1967) was filmed by Peter Glenville—due to the chaotic conditions in the Dominican Republic.
There are many stellar performances in The Comedians, led by Richard Burton as Brown, with his best world sucks look. There’s a glimmer of his cynical Alec Lemas role from The Spy Who Came in from The Cold (1965) mixed with a channeling of sorts of Humphrey Bogart’s brooding Rick Blaine, ex-pat from Casablanca (1942).
Other notable performances include: Lillian Gish, stealing every scene as Mrs. Smith, a liberal bleeding heart way out of her depth but too blinded to, at first, understand—a live action Mr. Magoo; and Alec Guinness, who also starred in Greene’s earlier film Our Man in Havanna (1959), in a role that is spot on as Major Jones, a military man whose far-fetched stories face the ultimate test of reality. Jones always reminds me of the guy at the bar who has puffed out his chest one too many times and is taken to the back alley for a reality check.
But then there’s the issue of Elizabeth Taylor, the two-time Academy Award-winning actress who probably shouldn’t have been in this role as it was molded. In the book, the affair between Brown and the ambassador’s wife isn’t center stage, whereas it’s beefed up for the movie because, after all, this was the age of the phenomenon known as Liz and Dick, who rivaled The Beatles in terms of gargantuan attention.
Both married stars met on the set of Cleopatra (1963), began an affair that saw a rebuke from none other than the Vatican, and divorced their significant others in a highly publicized scandal. Still riding high on that infamy, they began appearing in more films together—eventually eleven in all—capitalizing on that initial notoriety.
The problem here is Ms. Taylor seems out of place—a distraction whenever she and Burton begin their heavy petting (which would seem right at home for an episode of Guiding Light). The screenplay should have scaled her scenes back, but as film critic Roger Ebert noted, “… because, baby, when you're paying Liz Taylor's salary you really use her in your movie.”
It should go without saying, but you should slightly lower your expectations for the film. However, there’s still much to enjoy—especially Richard Burton in his commanding presence as the melancholy Brown.
It’s now been half a century since Greene wrote the book and a quarter of a century since the Americans' departure after a forced regime change. So much has happened but so little changed. Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (CIA Factbook) and one of the least developed in the world (UN). That’s certainly a tragedy.
David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.