Fan-Tan by Marlon Brando & Donald Cammell

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The Independent Culture

For it was Cammell who wrote this book with "editorial" advice from Brando. And Cammell could certainly write: among his scripts was the enduring classic of Sixties cinema, Performance (also directed by Cammell). So Fan-Tan boasts a potent combination - America's greatest screen actor in alliance with one of Britain's most adventurous directors.

Despite this, Fan-Tan's plot is a staple of Harlequin romance. An ex-jailbird, expatriate American in his mid-fifties falls in love with a woman pirate and casts his fate into the Eastern wind as he joins her on her sampan and goes in search of a silver hoard on the China Seas. And, unfortunately, the writing is equally threadbare. What is supposed to be a "rip-roaring adventure" is cluttered with clichés, stereotypes, and clunky transitions, boasts innuendos that would make a Carry On actor wince, breaks any tension with asides to the reader and then stutters to a timely end. Apart from these handicaps, the key to the book's failure lies with the increasingly obvious fact that its central character, Captain Anatole "Annie" Doughty, is based upon Marlon Brando.

Like a film whose fascination lies in what was done behind, rather than in front of, the camera, the genesis of Fan-Tan holds a lot more interest than anything written on the page. For that we have to thank the Independent on Sunday's film writer, David Thomson, for his afterword-essay which recounts the relationship between Cammell and Brando. This could have provided cinema, if not literature, with an astounding partnership, yet the lowly Fan-Tan is the only surviving remnant of a 12-year-long collaboration.

Cammell met Brando in the Sixties over a hospital bed (Brando was recuperating from an accident in which he had spilt scalding coffee over his testicles, causing second-degree burns). Thomson tells us that Cammell wanted Brando for the role of the gangster in Performance but Brando refused the part. A decade later, though, after Cammell's career had reached a hiatus in Hollywood, Brando approached Cammell with his idea about a rugged sea captain and a lady pirate. Would he write a treatment that could then be turned into a film?

At the time Brando was in his mid-fifties and, due to an ice-cream addiction, his weight had climbed to over 300lbs. His fictional self-portrait betrays that swollen excess. For "Annie" often "looks at himself in the mirror" - because he's a hunk, an "artist" with a "Hellenic silhouette," full of "wisdom," a "deep thinker" with an inevitably "vast" appendage (indeed, a "Scottish caber," as the authors needlessly inform us). Yet none of the cock-a-doodle-do would matter if Brando's ego didn't constantly get in the way of Cammell's narration. Usually, at the outset of an adventure story, one is rapidly immersed in action and incident yet by the sixth page of Fan-Tan we are still stuck in front of Annie/Brando's "cyprite tinge" of hair which "imperial metal workers" call "water patina". Even the book's erotic climax replicates Brando's most notorious movie moment when Annie inserts black pearls where butter was once smeared during the climatic scene in Last Tango in Paris.

Why did Cammell become involved in such a farrago? Probably because it offered him an opportunity finally to direct Brando on screen and, somewhat surprisingly, Cammell's original treatment - from which the novel is taken - did interest more than one Hollywood studio. But Brando baulked, fearing a loss of control if a big studio became involved. He did agree, however, to Cammell's suggestion for a novelisation. Yet, once the book did find an American publisher in 1984, Brando prevaricated once again and, because the star owned the rights, Fan-Tan subsided into limbo.

Throughout his career Marlon Brando walked away from commissioned scripts, screen treatments, and even from the sets of half-completed films. Cammell said that "Marlon likes torturing people" and that the actor "played him like a fish". Sadly he was proved right. Fan-Tan was a waste of a talented film-maker's precious time but Fan-Tan's hero also lacks any sense of loyalty and the book ends with a betrayal. The real betrayal, though, was Brando's. Until Cammell's death in 1996, the director believed that, in all likelihood, Brando probably never bothered to read this book. "He couldn't read it if he hadn't written it himself," was his judgement. Ours should be that we return the favour.