Note: Minor plot spoilers below.
“They say, whatever you are looking for, you can find here.” At once elegiac and self-involved, British journalist Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) recalls his Saigon. In 1952, the city, and by extension, the country, seemed full of promise and mystery, particularly to foreign eyes. As Fowler speaks these words, the first scene in The Quiet American shows a body being fished out of the water. Is this the end of his reverie? Or this what Fowler was looking for?
This is, Fowler says, “an American, about 30, works for the economic aid office. I like him.” The Quiet American is this dead man’s story, but it is also Fowler’s story, as he remembers how his “friend” came to be dead in Vietnam, long before the American War was visible nightly on U.S. television. That this war was never officially “declared” speaks to the multiple mysteries at work in Vietnam, the city, the memory, and the site of longing. The story Fowler tells is full of nostalgia and regret, imperialism and aggression. Perhaps most alarmingly, Phillip Noyce’s film, based on Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, is utterly timely, right now.
Fowler’s first encounter with the American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), occurs as both are ostensibly observing the French colonialist fight against the Viet Minh. They compete for the attentions of Fowler’s girlfriend, the lovely Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). Fowler’s wife, offscreen in England, refuses to give him a divorce. Still, he imagines that he will be able to take care of Phuong as he feels she deserves. An earnest romantic, he’s unable — or unwilling — to see the effects of his passion on its object.
Pyle also projects his fantasies onto Phuong, deciding that he’s “better” for her than her much older, married lover. While the men both see themselves as saviors, Phuong’s older sister, Miss Hei (Pham Thi Mai Hoa), is more practical. She believes that Fowler has ruined Phuong’s chances for respectable marriage, that her sister is doomed, once Fowler leaves Vietnam (which he must, inevitably, when his paper calls him back), to return to her former life as a taxi dancer. When Pyle asks to marry her sister, Miss Hei is delighted — Americans are wealthy, young, and strong (especially compared with the aging Fowler). Not incidentally, Miss Hei also lands a job for herself at Alden’s office.
As Pyle and Fowler contend with one another, all stakes are raised. In an effort to maintain his own sense of relevance in Vietnam (as well as prove to his employer that he has a reason to stay), Fowler heads off to the field, tracking illegal weapons trade that involve the brutal General Thé (Quang Hai). On the battlefield with French troops, Fowler runs smack into Pyle, seemingly stumbling on the scene accidentally. It’s odd that this ostensibly out-of-touch American would know just where some major action is occurring, but Fowler lets his shady explanation slide.
That night, the two are stranded on the road between Phat Diem and Saigon, where they are attacked by Communist troops. Their narrow escape simultaneously seals their friendship and divides them irreversibly. Their self-images are at risk when they return to the city. And so, they push Phuong to make a decision. As if it’s up to her.
The film’s insight into the power imbalances of these intersecting relationships is surely rewarding, but also unnerving. This isn’t to say that every aspect of Noyce’s movie is perfect: the plot proceeds methodically, Fraser’s awkwardness is well used, but it is awkwardness just the same. And Caine, as nuanced and pained as his performance is, may be, as some reviewers have noted, too old for the role. But such quibbles don’t detract from this Quiet American‘s intelligence and urgency, or from its evocative, sorrowful beauty, shot by the brilliant cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Greene’s novel was previously filmed, by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1958, with All-American hero Audie Murphy as Pyle and Michael Redgrave as Fowler; at the time, fears abounded that the story was too overtly “anti-American,” and so the ending was changed (indeed, in his later years, Greene was tagged “anti-American” by the FBI, for meeting with Fidel Castro, among others).
The Quiet American plainly underlines its characters’ melodrama and willful blindness to stage a potent allegory. Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan’s screenplay is faithful to Greene’s antipathy to American activities in Vietnam, covert and not. While Pyle’s “Yankee” arrogance is obvious, he also often appears ignorant, which might be taken as a kind of perverse “saving grace.” Fowler is more self-aware, and, to a point, more aware of his environment, even if he wants to make it conform to his needs. In that sense, Fowler and Pyle embody different modes of colonial and imperial imperatives. The historical timing of Greene’s story, adopted here, is precise: the French are about to be defeated by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, at which point, the U.S. military makes its fateful commitment to the war it would never declare.
For much of the film, Pyle appears to bumble along, with good, if completely misguided, intentions. He holds to ideals, imagining that “democracy” can be bought and imposed, with little regard and no understanding of the culture on which he would impose it (“We can disagree and remain friends,” he says, seemingly believing it). Such arrogance is an increasingly visible element in U.S. policy-making, stand-offs with Iraq, North Korea, the U.N., Germany and France, and NATO being only the most recent, distressing instances. That the U.S. imagines itself in the position to take unilateral decisions that affect the rest of the world is as much a function of the nation’s founding myths (all that “city on a hill” business, represented in Pyle’s notion that he can save Phuong) as it is its economic might (Pyle’s knowledge that he can support Phuong).
And yet, Alden Pyle’s evident awkwardness and inexperience lead Fowler to “like” him, if not to trust him, exactly. The abrupt change in (his view of) Pyle — captured in an instant, just after a terrorist bombing, when Fowler overhears him speaking fluent Vietnamese — is devastating. Everything that Fowler does from this moment is colored by his sense of betrayal and horror, this glimpse into profound treachery and the film invites you to share his outrage.
Thus the designated villain, Pyle is frightening precisely because he apparently believes that he’s not a cowboy, but a noble crusader. Indeed, the film’s attitude toward the quiet American, secretly plotting, has much to do with the film’s troubled route to theaters. Ready for release before 9-11, The Quiet American was shelved by Miramax because, according to co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, the studio felt it couldn’t “release this film now; it’s unpatriotic. America has to be cohesive and band together. We were worried that nobody had the stomach for a movie about bad Americans anymore.” Or again, as producer Sydney Pollack said at the time, “There will be people who are sensitive about seeing the American point of view presented as less than sympathetic.”
In response to this move, Caine had to lobby to get it released during 2002. Noyce took it to Toronto last year, where it was well received, and Miramax finally agreed to open it in New York and L.A., for two weeks only, in November. Now, as of 11 February, Caine is a Best Actor Academy Award nominee. Perhaps this means that the film will be released more widely, even if it presents “the American point of view… as less than sympathetic.” As the Bush Administration continues to position itself as beset, presuming pre-emptive leeway and directing other nations’ votes, monies, and military maneuvers.
It’s telling, in this context, that Phuong’s role in The Quiet American, as self-aware object of the men’s desires, tends to be “forgotten” by interviewers more interested in talking about and with the “stars.” During Fraser’s recent appearance on the Today Show, for instance, he made a point of reminding Katie Couric that the film is not only about Alden’s relationship with Fowler: “And let’s not forget that there’s another character called Phuong, who is the… Vietnamese, and she represents dignity and…” At which point, Couric helpfully inserts, “And Vietnam itself, really, right?”
This sort of reductive thinking with regard to Vietnam (the war, the nation and its people), is hardly specific to this interview. The Vietnamese were regularly “denigrated” to “feminine” (i.e., “inferior,” “beatable”) during the war and in U.S. troops’ training (see Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket or its source novel, Gustav Hasford’s The Short Timers, for detailed examinations of this ugly, if practical, process). And the idea has been rehearsed by various U.S.-made Vietnam War films, from Platoon to Good Morning, Vietnam.
But if the metaphor isn’t original, it remains trenchant. Phuong’s desires hardly concern Fowler or Pyle, and her display of acute discernment and self-interest startles Fowler by film’s end. This may be the film’s most important point, that the idealized Phuong has will and determination, that she fully understands her situation, and that she doesn’t much care what either of her would-be saviors wants of her. She is autonomous and resolute, long before they are willing or able to see it.