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The Ugly American

The Ugly American
Universal Home Entertainment
1963 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 121 min. / Street Date August 12, 2003 / 14.98
Starring Marlon Brando, Eiji Okada, Sandra Church, Pat Hingle, Arthur Hill, Jocelyn Brando, Kukrit Pramoj, Judson Pratt, Reiko Sato, George Shibata, Philip Ober, Yee Tak Yip, Bill Stout, Stefan Schnabel
Cinematography Clifford Stine
Art Direction Alexander Golitzen, Alfred Sweeney
Film Editor Ted J. Kent
Original Music Frank Skinner
Written by Stewart Stern from the novel by William J. Lederer & Eugene Burdick
Produced and Directed by George Englund

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Universal made this serious drama about foreign policy, and to the credit of everyone involved, it's still a noble stab at reality. The situation it describes, an undisguised Vietnam before the American takeover of the war, is a look at the still-popular Domino Theory. Obviously absorbed by the importance of the role, Marlon Brando does an excellent job, aided by a solid supporting cast and a script that avoids sensationalism.


1960. Ex-journalist Harrison Carter MacWhite (Marlon Brando) becomes the ambassador to the Indo-Chinese nation of Sarkhan, a monarchy supported by American aid and arms against Communist aggression. MacWhite is convinced that his old friend from the war years, Deong (Eiji Okada) hasn't changed, but when he arrives, he's met with a riot at the airport. Deong and MacWhite's positive reunion goes sour when Deong makes it known that he wants Sarkhan free of American influence. MacWhite has a plan to show the existing government's legitimacy by extending a 'Freedom Road' to the country's Northern border; Deong and his opposition party see in road a symbol of American dominance, not a gift of goodwill. Deong falls in with foreign elements eager to see the American-supported regime topple, and havoc breaks loose.

The brainchild of authors Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer, The Ugly American strains to impart its tough-liberal lesson on foreign policy, style. Burdick's other literary claim to fame was as co-author of Fail-Safe, that novel that told us that faulty resistors the biggest threat in a nuclear war. Lederer may have been a prolific novelist, but his other screen credit was as the author of Mchale's Navy Joins the Air Force. On the other hand, screenwriter Stewart Stern has top credits to display, including Rebel Without a Cause.

The story is told at a deliberate pace. It's a very talky film, but the dialogue is intelligent and captivating. Ambassador McWhite undergoes a long grilling by Congress, grills his own staff in Sarkhan, and passes a long night conversing and arguing with his old friend Deong, the revolutionary to-be. Sandra Church is McWhite's understanding Jackie-like wife, and Pat Hingle and Jocelyn Brando are an American couple working on the Freedom Road. Deong, MacWhite's old buddy during WW2, is played by Eiji Okada, the handsome Japanese star of Hiroshima, Mon Amour and the later The Yakuza. On the embassy staff, there's loyal but dejected-looking assistant Arthur Hill, and moronic glad-hander Judson Pratt. Finally, the calculating Prime Minister is played by Kukrit Pramoj, an author who doubled as an advisor on the project.

Sarkhan is unstable. A king and Prime Minister rule with generous support from the U.S., but popular support is with Deong, a hero of the country's fight for independence (from who?) who steadfastly maintains that Sarkhan must be rid of American influence to chart its own destiny. America isn't about to leave; their representatives admit their aid to Sarkhan is really to prevent it from becoming Communist. It's the Cold War template, with the small country caught in the clash between two opposing world powers.

The Ugly American is honest, but limits its view of real world politics even as it criticizes the Americans for being brash, impatient, and reckless. On the plus side, it conveys very strongly the will of 3rd Worlders like Deong to simply be left alone to develop their own nations. His opposition party sees the Freedom Road as an economic boon only for the Prime Minister and his rich cronies in league with the Americans who are building it. He's also labeled, in the long run, as very naive.

Also very credibly, the film shows agitators and other outside political agents infiltrating Deong's party and turning a peaceful demonstration into a riot against his wishes. The film opens with a pair of Communist agents causing a fatal construction accident on the Freedom Road, which can be blamed on the American builders. When Deong's idealistic revolution gets rolling, the 'helpful' representatives of China and Russia are on hand to offer aid and arms, but break their promises and invade Sarkhan with foreign troops.

Marlon Brando's fervent, well-meaning Ambassador inadvertently causes exactly what he's come to Sarkhan to prevent. He forces the road construction to continue against popular opinion, and precipitates the rebellion. Construction foreman Pat Hingle and Sarkhan's own prime minister warn him against the move, but Brando is one of those hard-charging Americans who believes that the only way to approach a problem is with aggressive action.

The precocious message delivered in a very shrewd final scene, states plainly that Americans don't give a damn about foreign policy to begin with.

Some elements of the film are simplistic but benign. Pat Hingle and his wife Jocelyn Brando build country hospitals and help injured children. There are plenty of concerned Americans doing important aid work abroad, and the fact that these two are a little idealized is not too bothersome. Also, Sarkhan is the cleanest-looking Indo-Chinese country on film. Much of the picture was shot right at Universal Studios (note the hill behind the road set) and the little dock area where Deong lives is the same studio tank used for Bend of the River, the one where the Jaws shark Bruce now entertains studio tours.

What the story fibs on is America's overall role. Sarkhan doesn't have to be Vietnam for this criticism to apply. MacWhite is the overall authority in the country, just as important as the Prime Minister. Sarkhan is independent, as opposed to Vietnam, which expelled one foreign power only to be overrun by another. Sarkhan's rulers may be corrupt, but they're not puppets of the U.S.. And finally, where are the CIA agents and covert operatives, the ones who would be courting Deong and countering the actions of the Commies? Deong complains about the government using American arms, but there's no American military presence in the country, just our fleet standing offshore. At the very least, there'd be various installations, training camps and a few airfields with American 'advisors' maintaining the status quo.

Brando's MacWhite is possessed of squeaky-clean motives; when he denies that America has any military, strategic or economic interests in Sarkhan, we're supposed to believe him 100%. Both Deong and MacWhite are betrayed and lose, but The Ugly American wants us to think that the Cold War is no place for honorable, virtuous Americans unwilling to get their hands dirty (i.e.: Invade). Humanitarian aid and fair play don't work when the other side is so unscrupulous.

The Ugly American is a classy production photographed by Universal's effects specialist Clifford Stine. For a picture with little action, there's a whopping stunt up front. Go through it carefully and you'll see a stuntman barely escaping being crushed by a very big truck. It's an excellent talk-piece about the role of America in the world, as the attitudes very clearly expressed here haven't really changed in 40 years. Marlon Brando holds together what might have been a talky bore, with an excellent performance.

Universal's DVD of The Ugly American is good-looking disc that has only a trailer as an extra. The enhanced transfer looks great; this was before Uni's 5-year experiment shooting everything exclusively in the Techniscope, a dumb move for a major studio. The package art and menus are simple but attractive. Unlike the disc of last year's The Quiet American (before he got Ugly, I suppose), the disc has no political agenda of its own.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Ugly American rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 11, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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