Not to be mistaken for the Taylor Hackford-directed, Robert De Niro-starring disaster from a few years back, The Comedians is a film from 1967 that follows several different people as they attempt to survive day-to-day life in Haiti, back when Haiti was ruled by the dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier.
Richard Burton stars Mr. Brown (Richard Burton), a deeply cynical and world-weary Englishman who owns what passes for a luxury hotel in Haiti. Though Mr. Brown hopes to be able to sell the hotel and get out of Haiti, he is also having an affair with Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the German wife of Pineda (Peter Ustinov), the ambassador from Uruguay. Mr. Brown tries to avoid politics, which it turns out is not easy to do when you’re living under a murderous regime.
Complicating Mr. Brown’s life is Major Jones (Alec Guinness), a retired British army officer who has come to Haiti to do business but who is promptly imprisoned when it’s discovered that he was invited to come to the island by a minister who was subsequently declared to be an enemy of the state. The fascist Captain Concasseur (Raymond St. Jacques) arrests Major Jones and Mr. Brown takes it upon himself to try to get Jones released. Unfortunately, Major Jones doesn’t quite understand how serious his situation is and he’s convinced the Haitians that he’s not only a brilliant military leader but that he can also arrange for them to receive a cache of weapons, which he claims he has hidden in a Miami warehouse.
Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Paul Ford and Lillian Gish) have also arrived on the island, hoping to set up a vegetarian center in Haiti. (Mr. Smith even once ran for President of the U.S. as the candidate of the Vegetarian Party.) In many ways, Mr. and Mrs. Smith serve as a stand-in for clueless American activists, obsessing over minor issues while ignoring the larger problems that are right in front of their faces.
From the start, The Comedians establishes Haiti as being a dangerous place, a country where the people live in fear of the brutal police and where the poor struggle to survive day-to-day while their rulers live a life of luxury. It’s a place where political dissidents regularly disappear, though the police aren’t above murdering people in public as well. It’s a country where the State rules supreme, controlling the citizens through both fear and a fierce cult of personality. Rebels like Dr. Magiot (James Earl Jones) only want the country to be free but they know that, as long superpowers like America are supporting the regime, there’s little that the rebels can realistically hope to accomplish.
A major theme running through The Comedians is that the real suffering of the Haitian people is often overshadowed by the strategic concerns of the United States. Unfortunately, pretty much the same thing happens within the film itself. While there’s several black actors in supporting roles, the story focuses on the white characters and, as a result, it sometimes feels like the film’s message is less about the people being oppressed and more about how unfortunate it is that people like Brown, Jones, and the Smiths are being inconvenienced by it all. Like many similarly well-intentioned political films from the late 60s, The Comedians get so bogged down in all of the personal dramas that it loses sight of what’s actually the important part of the story. The film is often seems more interested in Brown and Martha’s affair than in the conditions that would lead to people like Dr. Magiot risking their lives to bring about change.
For the most part, it’s a well-acted film. Richard Burton’s natural self-loathing is put to good use and Alec Guinness has a few poignant scenes as a pathological liar who doesn’t realize how much trouble he’s actually in until it’s too late. (Guinness also has a scene where he wears blackface and pretends to be Burton’s maid. He does this in order to escape from the secret police and the film doesn’t treat it as being a joke but it’s still rather cringey to watch.) Elizabeth Taylor is miscast as Martha and her German accent comes and goes but Paul Ford and Lillian Gish do a good job playing clueless Americans. Perhaps the film’s strongest performance comes from Zakes Mokae, who doesn’t say much as a member of the secret police but who exudes menace every time that he’s on screen. Still, as well acted at it may be, the film is slowly paced and always seem hesitant about taking any position beyond a general sense that dictatorships are bad.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with reminding people that dictatorships are bad. That’s especially an important message today. The past few years have left me convinced that a lot of people secretly yearn for a dictatorship and would be willing to trade their freedoms for a false sense of security. Though the film may struggle dramatically, it’s still works as a warning about what true authoritarianism actually is.