Sun, Oct 16, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Marlon Brando's ghost, if not hand, looms large in Fan-Tan

Even though the star of `The Godfather' had only a minimal role in writing the published story, this swashbuckling tale of piracy is engaging and exciting

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

By Marlon Brando and Donald Cammell Heinemann
Knopf Publishing Group
248 pages

Did Marlon Brando really write a novel? The publishers would clearly like us to believe that he did. What this book contains, however, is something a little different from a tale of piracy on the South China Sea from the star of On the Waterfront, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now.

What appears to have happened is as follows. In the 1970s a project emerged for a film on such a subject. Brando is credited with the original idea, and the editor and completer of the book, David Thomson, points out that all his life the Hollywood legend had had a fascination with Asian women and women of part-Asian ancestry. He had even gone so far as to buy a Pacific atoll called Teti'aroa in the mid-1960s as a private retreat and hideaway.

The man Brando had in mind to make the film was Donald Cammell, the Edinburgh-born son of the heir to the Cammel Laird shipbuilding empire. He became a charismatic London figure during the late 1960s, mixing with such people as the Rolling Stones band-members, and briefly achieved fame in 1971 as director of the British cult movie Performance. Much later he was to conceive the idea for the film that others would eventually make as Pretty Woman.

But the proposed South China adventure movie never got off the ground. So, in the early 1980s, Cammell, who like so many of the 1960s hippie generation was by then wondering where exactly his life was heading, sat down and wrote the bulk of a novel on the story he and Brando had originally mapped out as a film treatment (i.e. proposal and synopsis) in 1979. The book was unfinished, but more or less in completed form as far as it went, that is up to, but not including, the final chapter. There was even a contract with the Pan publishing house, with an advance of US$50,000 paid to Cammell.

Then Brando announced he had no further interest in the idea. As the proposal to Pan had been in both their names, the project collapsed. Cammell stopped work, and in 1996, aged 62, shot himself in the head in front of his wife. It was an event that was viewed by some as emblematic of the era that had seen so much drug consumption, so much extravagant hedonism, but also much great music, plus highly unusual films such as Performance.

There was another aspect of the affair that was to prove significant. Cammell had married China Kong, "the exquisite child of of Anita Kong" (Thomson). And Anita King "had been Marlon's lover, on and off, over a long period".

So it was that in 2004 the widow China Kong Cammell approached the London literary agent Ed Victor with the manuscript of a novel. Thomson was assigned the task of editing it and writing the missing final chapter. This he has now done, and here it is with Brando's and Cammell's names on the front cover as the book's joint authors.

So -- did Marlon Brando have much of a hand in it? The idea certain seems to have been largely his, but the text was certainly written by Cammell alone, then tidied up by Thomson, and an ending supplied along the lines of the original joint 1979 film treatment.

Of course, now as 30 years ago, Brando's name was an essential prerequisite for a publishing contract. But the remarkable fact is that Fan-Tan reads exceptionally well. It's true it is somewhat self-conscious and pseudo-literary in places, a not uncommon fault with first books written over too long a period. But it's vigorous, historically very knowledgeable, ironic and engaging. The publishers call it "a rip-roaring adventure", and this is not an inappropriate claim.

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