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COMEDIANS, THE (director: Peter Glenville; screenwriter: from a Graham Greene novel/Graham Greene; cinematographer: Henri Decae; editor: Francoise Javet; music: Laurence Rosenthal; cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Martha Pineda), Richard Burton (Brown), Alec Guinness (Major Jones), Peter Ustinov (Ambassador Pineda), Paul Ford (Smith), Lillian Gish (Mrs. Smith), Zaeks Mokae (Michel), George Stanford Brown (Henri Philipot, painter); Runtime: 150; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Peter Glenville; MGM; 1967)

Uninspired political drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Uninspired political drama adapted from a novel by Graham Greene, with the author also writing the script. Under the lumbering direction of Peter Glenville (“Hotel Paradiso”/”Becket”/”Summer and Smoke“)the pic flounders, as the well-known cast acts if their hands were tied behind their backs when trying for transcending drama. Only supporting actors Alec Guinness and Paul Ford come out of this plodding pic in fine shape. It was filmed in the African nation of Dahomey (now Benin).

The topical story has cynical world-weary Britisher Brown (Richard Burton) returning from New York after three months to poverty-stricken Haiti and his once posh hotel, inherited from deceased mom, now deserted without tourists, after failing to sell it. Brown discovers the country has been taken over by blood-thirsty despot ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and that his braggart Brit fellow passenger Major Jones (Alec Guinness), who Brown befriended on the boat, has been arrested while trying to enter Port-au-Prince. Brown’s other fellow passengers are an eccentric American couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Paul Ford and silent star Lillian Gish), in Haiti to open up a ‘vegetarian restaurant’ but are taken aback when the Haitian minister they had prior contact with in the States is killed.

The pic goes off track to focus too much attention on Brown’s trivial adulterous affair with Martha Pineda (Elizabeth Taylor), the vulnerable German-born wife of Manual Pineda (Peter Ustinov), the Latin American ambassador to Haiti, instead of following the more interesting story of Papa Doc’s ruthless regime that held power through force, intimidation and voodoo.

Characters with significant roles include James Earl Jones as a doctor leading the rebellion, Raymond St. Jacques as the head of the Tontons Macoutes (secret police), Roscoe Lee Browne as the head of Haiti’s public relations department, Cicely Tyson has a few lines as a bar prostitute and Alec Guinness as the suave charlatan who claims to be a retired war hero military officer but only to hide that he’s a shadowy weapons dealer. In the end, the apolitical Brown sees the light and joins the small number of inexperienced rebels fighting a hopeless battle in the hills for freedom.

Despite getting it right about what Greene’s novel was haunted about, it faltered because it was so clumsily translated onto the screen and bombed at the box office. Also not helping matters was the misleading title, which was the same as the novel. But the film is not a comedy as one would think from the title–The Comedians are meant to be the European and American characters in Haiti who are frauds, putting on a phony happy face while living in a dreadful police state.

It’s too bad this film shot itself in the foot and failed to be influential at the time, because it was one of Hollywood’s rare attempts at examining in a serious way the harsh realities of third-world politics and was filmed at a time when the despot was at the height of his power carrying out his human rights atrocities. Such a film could have done the despot much damage world-wide if taken more seriously.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”