Cast & Crew
Under the dictatorship of "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his secret police (the Tontons Macoute), Haiti has become a land of violence and terror, with only a handful of rebels daring to oppose the reign of tyranny. Because of this situation, a ship arriving at Port-au-Prince brings with it only four passengers. One of them, Brown, is a politically uncommitted cynic who has returned to the island to reopen his deserted hotel and to resume his love affair with Martha Pineda, the bored wife of a Latin American ambassador. The other three new arrivals are Mr. and Mrs. Smith, an American couple who have made the trip in the hope of establishing a vegetarian center, and the somewhat mysterious Jones, a British "major" who delights in boasting of his military experiences in Burma. Upon stepping ashore, Jones is immediately arrested and thrown into jail; and, a short time later, Brown finds the murdered body of a former government minister lying at the bottom of his empty swimming pool. The Smiths attend the dead minister's funeral and witness the brutal abuse of his widow at the hands of the Tontons. Indignant, they persuade Brown to assist in arranging for Jones's release. Although their efforts are successful, they are unaware that Jones has made a bargain with the Tontons to provide them with arms and ammunition from Miami. After the Smiths have accepted the futility of their mission and returned to the United States, Jones discovers that he is unable to put through his armaments deal, and he seeks sanctuary at the Pinedas' embassy home. As a warm relationship develops between Martha and Jones, the jealous Brown tricks Jones into volunteering to organize the rebels being banded together by Henri Philipot, the artist nephew of the murdered minister. At a meeting at the Pineda home, Dr. Magiot, a distinguished Haitian patriot, arranges for Jones to be smuggled into the hills and also makes an attempt to appeal to Brown for assistance. Although Dr. Magiot has his throat slashed by the Tontons, Jones, disguised as a native woman and accompanied by Brown, makes his way to the rebel rendezvous in a cemetery. During their all-night vigil, Jones confesses to Brown that his whole military background is a fraud but that he is resolved to go through with his mission in an attempt to do one worthwhile thing with his life. At dawn the two men are discovered by the Tontons, and Jones is shot and killed. But the rebels arrive in time to rescue Brown and gun down Jones's killers. Brown, no longer able to remain indifferent to the Haitian cause, allows Henri to persuade him to take Jones's place in the desperate chance it will bolster the rebels' morale in their almost hopeless fight for freedom. As the Pinedas also leave the island, Martha looks down from the plane that is taking her away from Haiti and speculates on the destiny of her lost lover fighting in the hills below.
Raymond St. Jacques
Roscoe Lee Browne
Georg Stanford Brown
James Earl Jones
Alexandre Of Paris
François De Lamothe
Tiziani Of Rome
The novel was inspired by Greene's visit to see a friend in the Caribbean nation of Haiti in 1963. A recent coup had installed a new dictator, "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and Greene wanted to see what changes were afoot in this poverty-stricken country. What he saw was the stuff of nightmares. Duvalier ruled Haiti through fear and terror using his feared secret police the Tontons Macoutes. They were supposed to be powered by Duvalier's knowledge of voodoo, but their techniques were the same ones used in other 20th-Century oppressive states. Enemies and sometimes supposed friends would disappear into Papa Doc's prisons, never to emerge, and everyone else was constantly terrorized, looking out for the sudden visit that could lead to unexplained torture and death. "I was haunted by Haiti for years after my last visit," Greene said.
The novel was highly acclaimed but when it came time to create a movie from it, a location shoot was out of the question. Wisely, Haiti was recreated a hemisphere away in the African nation of Dahomey (now Benin). Even here threats were made against the members of the cast. However, despite the heat, humidity and intimidation, a remarkable cast was collected. Alec Guinness plays the gunrunner Major Jones, Peter Ustinov is Ambassador Pineda and Paul Ford and Lillian Gish are two idealistic American visitors. Some of America's greatest Black actors took the roles of the chief Haitians; James Earl Jones as a doctor leading the rebellion, Raymond St. Jacques as the head of the Tontons Macoutes, Roscoe Lee Browne as the head of Haiti's public relations department and Cicely Tyson as a "hostess" in a bar. Heading the cast was the most famous movie star couple of that era, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, both of whom had just received Oscar® nominations for their performances in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Graham Greene was present during much of the shooting, insuring that The Comedians was as accurate a version of his novel as possible.
For all the effort and the big names, The Comedians failed at the box office. Most of the problem was the title. The "comedians" of the novel are the Europeans and Americans, putting a phony smiling face on a loathsome regime. The Comedians was a fine title for a Graham Greene novel, but quite misleading as the title of a movie, especially when paired with an advertising campaign that relied wholly on the big names associated with the movie and gave audiences no idea what to expect. Ticket buyers looking for an all-star humor fest were greeted by a political thriller with horrific overtones.
The movie's failure was quite a shame as this is a surprisingly powerful and unique film for its time. The Comedians represents one of Hollywood's few examinations of third-world politics, especially one that bypassed political preachiness for a subtler portrait of post-colonial failure. The subtlety extends to the acting as well with both Burton and Taylor giving quiet, nuanced performances unlike their other co-starring productions of this period. Time has been kind to The Comedians for the same reason that history has been unkind to us. As similar nightmare governments have erupted in Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda and The Sudan, Haiti under Papa Doc looks like a forerunner to them all, and The Comedians an unsettling portrait of a terrorist regime that has become far too common.
Director/Producer: Peter Glenville
Writer: Graham Greene, based on his novel
Music: Laurence Rosenthal
Cinematography: Henri Decae
Editor: Francoise Javet
Art Director: Francois de Lamothe
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Martha Pineda), Richard Burton (Brown), Alec Guinness (Major Jones), Peter Ustinov (Ambassador Pineda), Paul Ford (Smith), Lillian Gish (Mrs. Smith).
C-152m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady
To get 'Elizabeth Taylor' to do the film at a "bargain" salary, Producer/Director Peter Glenville told her that he had offered it to Sophia Loren. She promptly cut her customary $1 million salary in half and signed on.
Location scenes filmed in Dahomey and in the south of France. The film was cut heavily for second-run theaters. Many of Guinness's scenes were excised, and the narrative ends earlier than in the original version. Opened in Paris in February 1968 as Les comédiens.
Voted Best Supporting Actor (Ford) and one of the Year's Ten Best English Language Films by the 1967 National Board of Review.
Released in United States Fall October 31, 1967
Released in United States November 2, 1967
Film was cut for second run theaters, eliminating many of Guinness's scenes and concluding story earlier.
Released in United States Fall October 31, 1967
Released in United States November 2, 1967 (New York City)