The Quiet American


posted to on August 11, 2003


I am sure that most people are familiar with the controversy surrounding "The Quiet American", a 2001 Phillip Noyce film based on the 1955 Graham Greene novel. Originally intended for release in November 2001, Miramax executives delayed the film for months because they worried over audience reaction to its "anti-American message" post-9/11. Noyce would seem to be the ideal director for such a film in light of his pro-Aborigine "Rabbit-Proof Fence" and other left-oriented films. Unfortunately, the film is disappointing on a number of levels. This is partly the failure of Noyce and his screenwriters to bring out the strengths of Greene's novel; it is also a function of some rather unfortunate aspects of the great writer's work itself.


"The Quiet American" is focused on three characters: Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), a cynical, stubbornly apolitical, aging British journalist assigned to cover the Indochina war; his young mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai); and young OSS agent Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) in Vietnam to rescue the natives from communism and French colonialism. While there, he falls in love with Phuong and battles to win her away from Fowler. As a trophy for vying Anglo-Saxon men, she is a symbol for her own troubled nation.


Pyle believes in a "third way" that can redeem the country. For astute members of the movie audience, the parallels with the Iraqi "nation-building" enterprise of today would appear obvious. Indeed, Noyce ends his film on an open anti-imperialist note that can scarcely be discerned in Greene's novel. The final frames depict growing US military involvement through newspaper graphics from the 1950s and 1960s. As we shall see, Greene--much like Fowler--was not that committed to the anti-colonial cause.


It should surprise nobody that "The Quiet American" is a film more about desire than it is about politics. The triangle between the three lead characters is put into the foreground, while the frequent ideological clashes between Fowler and Pyle are kept in the background. These clashes, which are framed as long passages of dialog in Greene's novel, are both modulated and abbreviated in the film. Rather than emphasize the spoken word, the film spends an inordinate amount of time in languorous visual depiction of Saigon and the Vietnamese countryside. In contrast, Greene is much more economical in providing visual cues. When they do occur, it is through the jaded eye of narrator Thomas Fowler who, for example, describes the battle-torn town of Phat Diem this way: "Rubble and broken glass and the small of burnt paint and plaster, the long street empty as far as the sight could reach, it reminded me of a London thoroughfare in the early morning after an all-clear: one expected to see a placard, 'Unexploded Bomb'."


While the novelist can create a deeper reality through such words, the cinematographer is somewhat limited in what he or she can do. Despite various tricks at their disposal, the camera is ultimately a passive mechanism to record the way that things look. In Noyce's "The Quiet American", Phat Diem is a familiar Vietnamese landscape, with riverboats, oxen and thatched huts. What's missing, of course, is Greene's sense of irony and taste for the incongruous. The forty or so words of prose cited above are far more evocative than the corresponding scene in Noyce's film.


Noyce and his writers also elected to soften the two male characters, so as to make them more palatable to mainstream audiences.


Robert Schenkkan, one of the screenwriters, told the Boston Globe in February that he wanted to make Pyle more believable and more sympathetic. Since he is also involved with terror bombings that are blamed on the communists, this requires a certain amount of literary license. Brendan Fraser added, "He couldn't be capable of doing the awful things he does do. We had to show him some respect, to make him credible as someone who could take care of himself and have language skills." Ultimately this doctoring of Greene's prose yields an OSS agent who might be mistaken for a character on "Friends". With his dog and baseball cap, this Pyle seems more like a frat boy than a killer.


In a key scene between the three lead characters that takes place at Fowler's apartment, there is an attempt at comedy involving Pyle's dog who is roaming free at Fowler's displeasure. In the novel, this episode is not only Greene at his best, but something that cannot be translated into a cinematic equivalent.


His black dog sat on the floor taking up too much room, panting; its tongue looked like a burnt pancake. Pyle said vaguely, "Oh, you know, we want to get some of these local industries on their feet, and we have to be careful of the French. They want everything bought in France."


"I don't blame them. A war needs money."


"Do you like dogs?"




"I thought the British were great dog-lovers."


"We think Americans love dollars, but there must be exceptions."


"I don't know how I'd get along without Duke. You know sometimes I feel so darned lonely . . ."


"You've got a great many companions in your branch."


"The first dog I ever had was called Prince. I called him after the Black Prince. You know, the fellow who . . ."


"Massacred all the women and children in Limoges."


"I don't remember that."


"The history books gloss it over."


This is not to say that a novel like "The Quiet American" could not be successfully turned into a film. Carol Reed's version of "The Third Man" is not only a successful adaptation; it is also one of the greatest films of the twentieth century. After watching it last night for the first time in years, it was obvious from the outset why it worked. Instead of spending in an inordinate amount of time in atmospheric visuals, Reed's film concentrates on dialog. The visuals that are elements in the film are also much more critical to the narrative than the travelogue-like scenes in "The Quiet American". The cobbled lamp-post lit streets of late night Vienna are among the most evocative of modern film, especially when you hear the zither leitmotif. Hollywood is of course no longer capable of making such films. Young screenwriters simply lack the familiarity with literature that earlier generations had. When you consider that Greene himself wrote the screenplay for "The Third Man", the bar is raised to insurmountable levels.


If there were few people to question the aesthetic merits of the film, especially Michael Caine's performance (I myself found the spectacle of a 69 year old actor with a 19 year old mistress to be bordering on Woody Allen territory--but more about the Orientalist question momentarily), the accolades from the left were even more unanimous.


For example, in the December 24, 2002 Counterpunch, Saul Landau is positively rapturous:


Watch the texture of the film and the movement of the Vietnamese actors and learn lessons about Vietnam's aesthetics. Listen to Fowler's lines and understand true conservatism. Responding to Pyle's rationalization for war, Fowler says: "Isms and ocracies. Give me the facts." Thus statement should reverberate through the political chambers. Bush and Blair have yet to offer us facts on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or links to Al Qaeda. Like Pyle in The Quiet American. Bush has mastered the unsupported allegations!


While it is true that Pyle is a nasty piece of work, there is little sense in "The Quiet American" that a liberation struggle was taking place. The one thing that is virtually taboo in all leftwing Hollywood films is a sense that the colored peoples, who figure as extras in street scenes, or as in the case of Phuong--a latter-day Madame Butterfly, can be active subjects with their own agenda. Despite the commendable distrust of American motives, this is what "The Quiet American" boils down to ultimately, a Eurocentric narrative that is content to stick to the surfaces of a land seeking to define itself for the first time in history.


One should never forget that Graham Greene had much in common with Fowler. In the early 1950s he was a correspondent for Life Magazine in Malaya, where he honed his sense of being a British interloper in an exotic setting. In the appropriately named "Ways of Escape", he described his first impressions of Vietnam. A spell was cast "by the tall elegant girls in white silk trousers, by the pewter evening light on the flat paddy fields, where the water-buffaloes trudged fetlock-deep with a slow primeval gait, by the French perfumeries in the rue Catinat, the Chinese gambling houses in Cholon, above all by that feeling of exhilaration which a measure of danger brings to the visitor with a return ticket." Ah, the mysterious East!


According to Judith Adamson, the editor of "Reflections", Greene's final collection of essays, he believed that the Catholics in Vietnam should have been supported against the Viet Minh in 1954. Like the character Fowler, a stand-in for Greene, the novelist was a Catholic who held to his faith despite a veneer of cynicism. While one could not possibly expect somebody like Greene to rise above his social and political environment, perhaps the most distressing aspect of the novel, which is unfortunately retained in the film, is the treatment of Vietnamese women. Although Fowler is determined to preserve the authentic Vietnam from American intrusiveness, there is an Orientalist understanding of what that reality is. He tells Pyle, "In five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they'll be growing paddy in these fields, they'll be carrying their produce to the market on the long poles of wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on their buffaloes."


Phuong is the ultimate fantasy of the Western male. She is an ex-taxi dancer; she is quiet and passive; she is beautiful. When she finds herself a kind of prize to be awarded to the more competitive male, she accepts this fate with inexplicable equanimity. Surely this was Greene's fantasy rather than an embodiment of real Vietnamese women who were not likely to move in his social milieu on equal terms.


Literary critics Zakia Pathak, Saswati Sengupta and Sharmila Purkayastha have co-written an article titled "The Prison House of Orientalism" that deals with "The Quiet American" using the approach evolved by Edward Said. They write:


In the consciousness of Fowler represented through the first-person narration, Phuong is without a history; there is a noticeable absence of cultural markers of class, religion, education which suggests that these are invisible for Fowler and that his desire is only for her body. If Phuong has any identity at all it is as an Annamite and a "bird." The "libertine and less guilt ridden sex" which is offered is clearly outside a social and moral formation; that Said valorizes this sexuality is evidence of the displacement of race by gender. Fowler himself ends up as deracinated. His use of pronouns stresses his resistance to being incorporated with the white imperialist ideology. "We've brought them up in our ideas. We've taught them dangerous games and that's why we are waiting here, hoping we don't get our throats cut". This attempt to disengage his identity from theirs only foregrounds the older British imperialism. "I've been to India and I know the harm that liberals do". His political "involvement" in the final instance is presented as his humanization. But it is tragic that the figure he presents at the end is one of exile, confined to his room, smoking endless pipes of opium.


While Greene was far too much a creature of his environment to transcend certain Orientalist conceptions, he did finally become more sympathetic to the Vietnamese cause. Adamson views this as a result of a meeting with Ho Chi Minh that left him struck by the Vietnamese leader's "simplicity and candor". All through the 1960s Greene shifted ever more increasingly to the left, so much so that by 1979 he would state that "I would go to almost any length to put my feeble twig in American foreign policy."


The US was certainly not inclined to view his efforts as feeble since ocuments obtained by the Guardian newspaper under the US Freedom of Information Act "disclose how officials in Washington went to extraordinary lengths to compile secret reports on the distinguished novelist over 40 years as he travelled the world in support of anti-US causes." They add:


He was monitored when he stayed up talking to Fidel Castro until five in the morning, as well as when he and Yoko Ono heard actor Kris Kristofferson "eschewing women and whisky to discuss God, war and peace".


It might be useful to conclude this review with Ernest Mandel's description of Graham Greene's remarkable political voyage in his "Delightful Murder: a Social History of the Crime Story":


The biography of Graham Greene offers a striking illustration of this evolution, as seen through his novels. Greene started out as a conservative agent of the British intelligence services, upholding such reactionary causes as the struggle of the Catholic Church against the Mexican revolution (The Power and the Glory, 1940), and arguing the necessary merciful function of religion in a context Of human misery (Brighton Rock, 1938; The Heart of the Matter, 1948).


However, the better he came to know the socio-political realities of the third world where he was operating, and the more directly he came to be confronted by the rising tide of revolution in those countries, the more his doubts regarding the imperialist cause grew, and the more his novels shifted away from any identification with the latter. In Our Man in Havana (1958), he was still only poking fun at the imperialist spy establishment. But whereas Greene had been extremely hostile to the Malayan and Kenyan guerrilla fighters, his attitude began to change in Vietnam (The Quiet American, 1955) and, as he described in his autobiography (Ways of Escape, 1980), hardened still further in an anti-imperialist direction in Zaire {A Burnt-Out Case, 1961), Haiti (The Comedians, 1964), Paraguay (The Honorary Consul, 1973), and South Africa (The Human Factor, 1978). This evolution culminated in his eloquent denunciation of the real-life interpenetration between gangsterism and the public authorities (including the judiciary) in the Nice region of southern France, in his latest book J'Accuse  banned in France by the 'socialist' government of Mitterrand and Mauroy.