Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This earlier version of Graham Greene's Vietnam-set thriller is excellent viewing in contrast with
the 2002 Michael Caine remake.
That atmospheric show was lauded for telling the story straight but was robbed of its
point; with the Iraq war looming on the horizon, a subtle story about possible U.S. foreign
intrigues somehow seemed rather toothless.
1958 version is fascinating to ponder, a big-budget international production in which a celebrated
American talent, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, put his filmmaking where his politics lay. As many readers
know, the original plotline was drastically altered to invert Greene's message. With the
involvement of American star Audie Murphy, Greene's duplicitous Yankee agent now becomes an innocent
victim, and the blame for Communist gains in Vietnam is placed at the foot of a wishy-washy Englishman
duped by a few cheap tricks.
How this could happen must be a good story; Hollywood liberals like to assume that
sinister government agents secretly demanded changes to protect the interests of the Eisenhower
administration and its Cold War agenda. As attractive as that option seems, nothing's ever that
simple. This original film version of The Quiet American has been a difficult film to see
for many decades.
Slightly demoralized English journalist Thomas Fowler (Michael Redgrave) stays close
to Saigon and his Vietnamese mistress Phuong (Giorgia Moll). His estranged wife back in England
will not grant him a divorce, much to the distress of Phuong's practical-minded sister (Kerima).
Fowler's happiness ends when an American aid representative (Audie Murphy) comes into the picture
and sweeps Phuong off her feet. Appalled by the idea that she was once a "club girl," the idealistic
American has plans to marry Phuong and take her home to America. This puts Fowler in a terrible
spot, and he's soon writing back to his wife and pleading for a divorce. But another possibility
presents itself: Fowler's contact Dominguez (Fred Sadoff) puts him in contact with a Viet businessman
named Heng (Richard Loo) who knows that the American is really a Yankee spy sent to
start a "third force," a nationalist movement to counter the Communists and depose the French in
favor of an American presence. The American's smuggled explosives are behind a series of terrorist
killings ... maybe something should be done about him.
Greene's story, and the 2002 film version made the Thomas Fowler character a confused man who
does the right thing for the wrong reason. He helps to eliminate the American to keep his girl and
uses his moral outrage of the American's underhanded political activities as a feeble excuse.
Mankiewicz' version plays almost identically in every respect until it comes time to decide the
truth of the mystery. The story is shuffled so that that Fowler is the dupe of Communist assassins,
easily maneuvered into thinking that a Yankee could actually be creating violent incidents to
change the political climate in Saigon. How foolish can one get? Fowler indirectly confronts the
American with his charges, and gets no response at all.
Except for this (enormous) disctinction, the two versions of The Quiet American match on a
scene to scene basis, indicating either that the original story was highly cinematic or that the
remake people used the Mankiewicz version as a template. Mankiewicz was one of the most respected
writer/directors in Hollywood and The Quiet American was his first film in years that did
not become a big success. Produced under the Figaro banner, it combined French, English and American
acting talent with a mostly Italian crew and filmed a lot of exteriors in Saigon. The realism and
adult nature of the show are remarkable for 1958 and it was considered a thinking man's film from
Claude Dauphin (Barbarella) and several other Frenchmen are joined by the Parisian
(First Spaceship on Venus);
Michael Redgrave is almost alone as the Englishman, and the interesting-looking Italian actress
(Contempt, Land of
the Pharaohs, two Steve Reeves spectaculars) is Phuong, the love interest. Audie Murphy is
barely adequate as the American but his shallow acting style does contribute to making the character
seem superficial; everything he does, from suddenly showing an interest in Phuong to magically
appearing in a war zone, seems supect. Murphy's casting was possibly a clever attempt by
Mankiewicz to entice American viewers into seeing a political movie. Whatever happened, the plan
backfired; I find it impossible to believe that Joseph Mankiewicz would go to all the trouble of
filming Greene's book, only to turn its political message on its head. Then again, neither can I
see Mankiewicz ever expecting to be allowed to release a movie that showed an American 'aid
representative' actually instigating terrorist bombings and mass murders to further U.S. aims.
Note: I was completely mistaken in this... see footnotes: 1
That's the difference between the 1958 and 2002 versions of The Quiet American: Back when
the news of CIA foreign adventures needed to get out, Greene's message could be suppressed. In 2002,
the public discourse on such subjects is so muddied that nobody pays attention, even when bombs
are going off in our own back yards.
MGM's DVD of The Quiet American is an acceptably good non-enhanced transfer that shows off the
film's impressive production qualities. It's said to be the first American film shot in Vietnam.
There are no
extras or production notes. The nicely designed cover art is reminiscent of the recent MGM release
The Four Feathers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Quiet American rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 29, 2005
Thinker's Damn: Audie Murphy, Vietnam, and the Making of the Quiet American is a 2001 book about
the making of Mankiewicz' movie that reportedly answers a lot of these questions. I haven't read
Greene's book, so I'm basing my comments above on what I read when the 2002 film came out. I have
a copy of the new book on order to find out for myself.
2. Note from Paul Mavis 4/3/05: You wrote: "I find it impossible to believe that Joseph Mankiewicz would go to all the trouble
of filming Greene's book, only to turn its political message on its head."
Believe it, Glenn. This is from my spy book:
Mankiewicz, obviously not revering Greene's work - he called the novel, "a terribly distorted
kind of cheap melodrama in which the American was the most idiotic kind of villain"
(Kenneth L. Geist, Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz,
p. 269, 1978) - decided to change the ending of the novel, thus incurring the wrath of the
high-brow critics who fancied Greene a more serious writer than he was. Greene had told others
that he had written the book in a fit of pique against the American government, an emotion
that Mankiewicz found "childish" (Geist, p. 270). Greene, not one to take a hit unanswered,
responded: "One could almost believe that the film was made deliberately to attack the book and
the author, but the book was based on a closer knowledge of the Indo-China war than the American
director possessed, and I am vain enough to believe that the book will survive a few years
longer than Mr. Mankiewicz' incoherent picture (Geist, 278).
I think, Glenn, you have to take Mank's liberal politics (distrustful of conservative values)
as something other than a willingness to take any side against America (such as Greene's
unabashed, vehement hatred for America). - Paul Mavis
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson