[Marxism] The Quiet American

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 22 13:59:21 MST 2006

Somebody asked me offlist if I had reviewed this film. Since we are 
on the topic of spy movies...

The Quiet American
posted to www.marxmail.org 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.<<

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