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Film / The Comedians (1967)

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The Comedians is a 1967 film directed by Peter Glenville.

It is set in Haiti, which is ruled with an iron fist by the despot, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. The story opens with assorted white people arriving in Haiti by boat. They include:

  • Brown (Richard Burton), a resident of Haiti who operates a hotel. Brown is a cynic with no illusions about the savagery of the Duvalier regime. He is having an affair with Martha Pineda (Elizabeth Taylor), wife of the American ambassador Manuel Pineda (Peter Ustinov).
  • Major Jones (Alec Guinness), who plainly has some sort of hidden agenda. Jones has come to Haiti on the invitation of a government minister who as it turns out has been deposed and arrested. Jones is arrested upon his arrival and is chucked into a prison cell.
  • Mr. Smith and his wife Mrs. Smith (Lillian Gish). Mr. Smith is something of a crackpot, albeit a well-intentioned one, who ran for President on the Vegetarian Party in 1948. The Smiths have come to Haiti to establish a "vegetarian center".

Brown returns to his hotel only to discover that a government official, M. Philipot, has been murdered and tossed into his empty pool. The political situation deteriorates and eventually the white people get sucked into an anti-Duvalier revolt.

Graham Greene adapted the screenplay from his own novel. Several of the Haitians are played by African-American actors who became bigger stars, like Georg Stanford Brown (M. Philipot's nephew Henri), Cicely Tyson (a prostitute), and James Earl Jones (Dr. Magiot).


  • Arms Dealer: Why Jones is in Haiti, to sell arms to the Duvalier regime. The Haitians have already paid him $300K, so he is in a lot of trouble when it turns out that his partner in Miami has absconded with the money, the arms, and the Haitian consul. Given all of the lies Jones tells, it's equally possible that there never was a business partner in Miami and that he just planned to take the money and run all along.
  • Brownface: In-Universe. Jones has to put on brown bodypaint (and dress as a woman) in order to get past State Sec and into Pineda's residence.
  • The Casanova: Jones tries to present himself as this, but it turns out to be just as much of a lie as his tall tales about combat experience in Burma. He later says that the only women he's ever been with are prostitutes.
  • Cool Old Lady: Mrs. Smith, who through sheer force of will, and a citation of her crackpot husband as "the presidential candidate of the United States of America", gets a Tonton Macoute death squad to leave the hotel when they were just about to murder Brown.
  • Disguised in Drag: Jones dresses up as Brown's female cook in order to get past a Tonton Macoute checkpoint and into the American ambassador's residence.
  • Gaussian Girl: Particularly noticeable with Liz Taylor in the scene where Brown wakes up and finds that Martha is in the bed next to him.
  • Invisible President: Duvalier is shown just once, from a distance and from behind, as he's ascending the steps to an upper floor of the presidential palace.
  • Just Following Orders: Captain Concasseur of the Tonton Macoute, justifying himself after he and his goons interrupt M. Philipot's funeral and steal the corpse, and assault Mrs. Smith in the process.
    Captain Concasseur: I had my orders.
    Brown: They hang men in Europe for following orders. At a place called Nuremberg.
  • La Résistance: Henri Philipot, nephew to the murdered minister, is eventually revealed to be the leader of the Haitian guerrilla resistance. He wants Brown's help.
  • Match Cut:
    • An audio match cut between Major Jones screaming as the guards forcibly strip him, and Petit Pierre saying "Ah, welcome to Haiti" as he greets Brown at the dock.
    • A cut between a government minister closing a drawer as he accepts the bribe that Brown gave him, and a guard opening the window in Jones's cell.
    • From Jones dealing cards at the embassy, to a man's hand passing a note to Dr. Magiot.
  • Miles Gloriosus: "Major" Jones's tales of the war in Burma are all made up. He was never in the army at all but was a civilian worker who entertained the troops. ("We had Noël Coward once!").
  • "Pan Up to the Sky" Ending: A view of the mountains as Martha looks out the window of her plane, panning up to the clouds.
  • Phony Veteran: Major Jones only role in the Second World War was playing in a military band and organizing other entertainment for soldiers, despite all of his stories of combat experience and heroism.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Brown, as he looks on the ragged band indeed, about a dozen men, that is La Résistance, which he will now command.
    Brown: [smiling] You stupid bastards! The rabble of the cockpit and the slums! [with pride] My ragged regiment.
  • Riddle for the Ages: At the end we learn two of the rebel band were killed in the raid the previous night: the hotel bartender, and...someone else. When Martha asks Petit Pierre says "No one we know." Whether or not he's telling the truth, and whether or not it was Brown, is unanswered.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Mr. and Mrs. Smith follow some children into a ceremony, only to discover that the "ceremony" is three people being shot by firing squad. They take the first plane out of Haiti the next day.
  • Shameful Strip: Major Jones is thrown into a cell, and his Tonton Macoute captors demand that he strips. He refuses, whereupon they force him (the film cuts away).
  • Shot at Dawn: The Smiths blunder into an execution where three people are publicly shot. It's even more disturbing in that, on Duvalier's order, all the children in the area were ordered to attend.
  • State Sec: The Tonton Macoute, the entirely real secret police that operated under Duvalier. They throw Jones into a cell, because they can. In real life, they weren't even paid a salary; their income came entirely from what they could extract by force from the terrorized people of Haiti.
  • Straw Vegetarian: Mr. Smith is a nincompoop who comes to Haiti—a country that is desperately poor, politically unstable, and run by a murderous despot—with the idea of establishing a "vegetarian center". His center will supposedly offer vegetarian food, classes on the wonders of vegetarianism, and eventually a theater that presents "vegetarian drama". Brown rolls his eyes at Mr. Smith's ignorance (Smith has come to Haiti without the slightest idea of the conditions there) and notes that 95% of the people of Haiti are vegetarians already because they are too poor to buy meat.
  • Theme Naming: The white people visiting Haiti all have extremely generic names: Smith, Jones, Brown. The reason isn't immediately clear but it may be to suggest that it's very common for Americans to wander around Haiti and get in over their heads.
  • This Is What the Building Will Look Like: A government minister shows Brown and Smith the plans for "Duvalierville", a projected modern city that will be the new capital of Haiti and can be the location for the vegetarian center. When Brown and Smith later visit the site they find it completely empty, inhabited by one pathetic beggar, with the new buildings already decaying.note 
  • Title Drop: A dinner discussion about how everyone presents a false face to the world in Duvalier's Haiti leads Ambassador Pineda to say "We shouldn't all be ashamed to be comedians. It's an honorable profession."