Shot in actual Vietnam locations, The Quiet American counters an earlier Joseph Mankiewicz
version with Audie Murphy (which Savant hasn't seen) that reportedly flipflops the Greene original
to make Alden Pyle a misunderstood hero, much like Brando's turn in The
Ugly American. The writers here return to the Greene interpretation of events, and the result is
an accurate yet curiously toothless indictment of political intrigues in Vietnam during the French
Greene's book was hot news in the middle 50s, as he'd been to Vietnam and knew what he was talking
about. Intellectuals debated his ideas, even as they accepted official versions of what was happening
overseas. The tragedy of making The Quiet American now is that it's too easily ignored. The
kinds of political adventurism that the story shows in seed form, appear to have been the norm for
the last 50 years, but the film's non-confrontational attitude makes it all seem like ancient
history. The filmmakers are faithful to Greene's spirit, and leave out the overt revisionist
That's how everyone likes it, however, because The Quiet American can easily be slanted as a
dusky tropical romance. Greene's novel is really about the interior life of a jaded English journalist,
who begins by comparing his serene but pliable Viet mistress to the country as a whole. Phuong is only
slightly more advanced than a China doll stereotype - she's an undemanding concubine who allows herself
to be shopped by her plain, practical sister. When Fowler lies to Phuong, hoping to buy time to
keep her for himself a little longer,
the intimate event becomes a bitter negotiation between four parties. It's like Europe (Thomas)
reluctantly giving up Vietnam (Phuong) to America (Pyle) under aggravated duress.
The romance is atmospheric but has little chance of an uplifting ending, so we're left with a heroine
we don't admire, and a hero who's rather pitiful. It's fair and credible but emotionally dim, unless
the sad older man's attempts to hold onto his pet-like cortesan strike a strong note. Phuong is as
graceful as a female can be, but her attractions are as based in security as they are affection.
The political setup, with a shady attempt to shoehorn an American-controlled puppet leader between
the Communists and the French, is all too convincing, as the OSS/CIA was having great success at
the time overthrowing whole countries
in Latin America with just a couple of agents and a few guns. If anything, the death of
Pyle (not a spoiler as it's revealed in the very first scene) is the only odd event. It's really a
matter of personal jealousy, even though Fowler first gets Pyle to admit his complicity in the
CIA shenanigans, before lowering the boom.
The film is masterful on all production levels. It looks terrific, and the few supporting players
are very fine, especially Pham Thi Mai Hoa as Phuong's manipulative sister, and Tzi Ma as Fowler's
interestingly - connected assistant, the sidekick assistant who turns out to be a major player. The
combat and action scenes stress realism over sensation, but it's Caine and Fraser who hold all of
our attention. The decent Fowler is mildly tainted by his scam-like relationship with his employers,
but Fraser's Alden Pyle is the most dangerous kind of idealist, one who believes his country's
good intentions give him rights over another land and another culture, willing to spend lives to
try out cockamamie think-tank theories. The aggressively racist English in 1800 India were far
more honest and honorable.
What most viewers won't pick up on, is that the personal 'romance' is a direct mirror of the
political theme. In the end, Phuong is a negotiable chattel, and her relationship with either Anglo
foreigner is an arrangement for security first and sentiment second. It's a subtle observation,
that colonists who dominate little countries and cruelly control their futures, at the same time
expect be loved for it.
Miramax's DVD of The Quiet American is very handsomely presented. The menus use pleasing
artwork, and the animations are really very elegant, especially in the Vietnam timeline feature
that spells out the country's tragically unnecessary history, post-WW2.
There's an 'Anatomy of a Scene' show from the Sundance Channel, and an original publicity
featurette. I listened to the beginning of the commentary, only hearing director Phillip Noyce,
who starts things off with a sincere personal take on the Vietnam experience (full list of commentators
below). A nice text extra has three original reviews of Graham Greene's original novel, and a DVD-ROM
extra is said to have a 'study guide'.
It's not very encouraging to think that a perceptive and serious film about foreign policy, that
gives an excellent portrait of the possible cause of many of our problems today, can have so little of an
impact. This example is quiet and serious, as 2001's
The Tailor of Panama was sly and
satirical. Don't let the surplus of liberal films fool ya - as a culture, we're still looking to
Rambo and Missing in Action for the truth of this part of history.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Quiet American rates:
Supplements: Commentary by director Phillip Noyce, actors Michael Caine, Brendan
Fraser, Tzi Ma, producers Sydney Pollack, Staffan Ahrenberg, William Hoberg, co-writer
Christopher Hampton, and interpretor/advisor to the director, Tran An Hua. "Anatomy of a Scene"
Sundance Channel show, Original featurette, Vietnam timeline, DVD-ROM study guide, Original book
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July, 2003
1. So many political movies lately,
or movies that cause Savant to write about from a political POV. But don't you think I'm restraining my
usual urge to jump on the soapbox?