The Quiet American
This is about both the movie and the Graham Green novel. A few weeks ago the movie was shown on one of the cable channels that broadcasts movies uninterrupted (it wasn't TCM, so it must have been Sundance). On an impulse of curiosity I recorded it. I had read the novel some years ago--probably twenty-five or more years--with fairly high expectations, and been somewhat disappointed. Not that I had thought it bad, only rather slight, and not providing the insights I had expected of it. And I wondered how a filmmaker would treat it.
What insights? Well, it's set in Vietnam in the early 1950s, when the French were still fighting their colonial war against the communists, and the American of the title represents the earliest phase of the American involvement which would, in the following decade, become a long and destructive agony, one of the most serious crises in the history of the country, and of course devastating to the people of Vietnam. And this was Graham Greene still in his prime, or close to it, when one could still expect the clear presence of the Catholic faith in his work, before left-wing politics had begun to dominate it. I thought the novel would shed some light on the war in Vietnam, both the then-contemporary situation and what was to come. And I expected something beyond politics and history, something significant about the human condition. And the novel seemed a letdown.
So I watched the movie, and thought it was pretty good. And, my memory of the book being pretty hazy, I wondered how faithful the movie was to it, and whether this was perhaps one of those instances where a good film is produced from a mediocre novel. I particularly wondered whether a sort of postlude to the film--a montage of headlines outlining the transition of the French war to an American one, the growing involvement, the protests, and the sad end--was justified by the book's view of the war. So I read the book again.
I can report that the movie is in fact quite faithful to the book, given the limits inherent in that transition, and that both are excellent. I don't know what was the matter with me when I first read the book, but the fault was definitely in me, and not it. It's a fine novel, beautifully written and well-designed.
The plot: middle-aged world-weary opium-smoking Englishman Thomas Fowler is covering the Vietnam war for an English paper. He has been in the East for some years, has a beautiful young Vietnamese mistress, and never wants to return to England, still less to see the wife he left there. Naive young American Alden Pyle arrives in the country ostensibly as part of an aid mission engaged in humanitarian relief, but in fact as an intelligence agent involved in assisting the growth of a "third force"--not the colonialists, not the communists--to save the country. The story is driven simultaneously by Pyle's endeavors in this cause, and by his falling in love with Phuong, Fowler's mistress, and attempting to win her away from him. The narrative is by Fowler in the first person, and most of it is a retrospective from the opening scene in which we learn of Pyle's death (I am not giving away anything important here, as this becomes clear within the first few pages).
Fowler is of course outraged by Pyle's move on Phoung, and just as much by Pyle's naive meddling in the war. And yet he likes Pyle, who is energetic and genuinely, if not entirely, motivated by high ideals. He wants to take Phuong away from a situation he views as sordid, and he wants to displace both the corrupt and treacherous colonials and the ruthless communists as contestants for the destiny of Vietnam. He wants to bring American-style democracy to this ancient and complex--and far from "freedom-loving"--culture, and he seems to think it will be a pretty straightforward matter.
This sounds all too familiar, of course. And as we all know Vietnam was not the last of our tragic attempts at "nation-building." And those whose praise for the novel is based primarily on its political insights are not wrong, as far as that goes. Alden Pyle is the embodiment of a persistent American trait that I once called "sinister innocence." Another way to describe it is that it's culpable naivete: a willingness to interfere in complex affairs with simple but unworkable solutions, often with very good intentions, sometimes with terrible consequences. In Pyle's case the good intentions are part of what Fowler likes and part of what he hates: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."
I have heard the novel described as being anti-war, but that doesn't even merit being called an over-simplification. It's anti-war only in the sense of being informed by a sense of fatalistic outrage at the carnage: as propaganda for the anti-war cause, it is decidely listless and far too ambivalent. And, presaging the later Greene's biases, the violence of the communists is taken for granted--not really excused, but for the most part tacitly accepted, as if it were a natural phenomenon.
What's more important, though, is that this is about as far from a simple political tract as one can imagine. Yes, the portrait of Pyle and its implicit condemnation of American judgement and policies is important and strikingly perceptive. But the novel is very much more than that. Its moral complexities are far deeper than can be summed up in a term like "anti-war" or "anti-American," and in the end have more to do with the drama of the individual conscience than with global politics. I have not even touched on those here; you really need to read the book. As for Greene's Catholicism, no, it is not much in evidence directly--Fowler is an atheist--but for those with eyes to see it is there, silent in the background, especially in the last lines.
Back to the movie: I'm speaking of the 2002 film, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. There is also a 1958 version which I have not seen. As I mentioned earlier, I really can't find any major fault with the film at all. But it is a film, and much of the book's "action" is interior. Fowler is the narrator, and his reflections on what is happening, and on Pyle's character--which remains somewhat opaque to us as well as to Fowler--are not transferable to the screen. So the movie is considerably less than the book, but within its limits very good. Its ambience of place and time are convincing, the essentials of the story are not compromised, and the acting of the two principals is very fine. I did not recognize Brendan Fraser's name, but he is eminently believable in this role. And who better could you possibly find to play a jaded Englishman in the colonial Far East than Michael Caine?
Fowler, Pyle, Phuong