One doesn't have to be surprised that this movie received less attention than it deserved.
First, we are now preoccupied with other colonial wars and distracted by the concerns they raise. Second, as my fading generation recovers from its obsession and paralysis caused by the Vietnam war, national leadership and a younger set want to forget that a conflict ever existed in Vietnam (to forget is to allow it to happen again, or is that already underway?).
Additionally, someone already made a movie about the seemingly clairvoyant 1955 Graham Greene novel. That 1958 movie starred WWII hero Audie Murphy, with strapping good looks and an impeccable war record including the Medal of Honor, and he was cast anonymously as “the American,” rather than Alden Pyle. Michael Redgrave, a quintessential Brit, like Caine and Greene, played Thomas Fowler.
The Joseph Mankiewicz version is a Hollywood paean to the West in the world that once had its Manichean opposites paired as compass points. Greene objected to Mankiewicz's movie's saccharine aspects that downplayed Greene's cynical duet of a naïve American pitted against a world-weary and cynical British correspondent, who Redgrave played more with wit than pathos.
This Philip Noyce vehicle for the Graham Greene tale has more nuance, and an ability to haunt our sensibilities about out own blunders in Vietnam, and takes on a Cassandra-like aura for those who see it now.
Writing Elegantly about Morally Ambiguous Situations in Exotic Places
Greene typically wrote elegantly about morally ambiguous situations in exotic places. His plots were compelling; his characters ambiguous on good days and flawed always, but reprobates when behaving badly.
The concept for his Quiet American antedated the American intervention after the failed French colonialism and its attempt to quash a nationalistic liberating revolution.
These were the days that we celebrated the Marquis de Lafayette and the French aid during our own liberation from British tyranny.
Today we are joined at the hip with the Brits in coalition, and the French are cast as foes from old Europe—my, how things have changed. Ho Chi Minh was labeled “communist” by western propagandists, conveniently forgetting that he and his loyal troops drove the Empire of Japan out of Vietnam during World War II with dogged guerilla action, then relentlessly pestered and taunted the French, and made a mockery of the US when it tried to cast Vietnam as an East vs. West cold war chess game rather than a colonial rebellion.
Failing to understand the history of place and the culture of people who dwell there seems to be a common theme of colonial powers. I've also seen it with leaders at medical centers and schools as well.
Failing to understand and identify what one does not know, and admitting that one does not know it, is the first step on the road to enlightenment. Misunderstanding turns one down a path of destruction with the naïve hope that characterizing one's position as right or holy, and seeing villainy and evil from those with different points of view.
2 Semi-Heroic Characters
The Quiet American tells a tale quite adroitly in terms of two semi-heroic characters in an enchanted land we know is in for deep trouble.
Thomas Fowler is the wizened British journalist, who has seen it all, and has experienced much more than he articulates, but it oozes from Caine's masterful performance.
He is well aware of the forces at play in Vietnam, and he is also burdened by a distant and unhappy marriage. He also has a disturbing drug problem that makes him remarkably less sympathetic.
Caine plays this role masterfully and was fully deserving of the Best Actor nod that his performance earned. He solves his personal discomfort by an ongoing relationship with a beautiful Vietnamese courtesan. She (Phuong) is portrayed not as a victim, but as a counterweight to the two westerners vying for her affection.
“This worthy movie tells a tale adroitly of two characters in an enchanted land that we know is in for deep trouble.”
She does not so much reveal her motives and aspirations, but is contrasted by her suitors who project their needs onto her person.
Clearly, Fowler sees her as crucial to his emotional survival, but he is unwilling to carry through his perhaps pseudo-plans to divorce his wife and marry her—music that plays well to Phuong and her sister, but we know that the tune is false, and the intentions phony. But is Fowler convincing himself that he is serious as well? He protests that “he doesn't get involved,” and that he is “just a reporter with no point of view.”
Brendan Fraser as Alden Pyle, a handsome Dudley Do-right with chiseled features and naïve optimism, falls for the allure of a beautiful land and a more beautiful woman. He is sure that he can rescue both Vietnam and Phuong, and will save each from their sordid pasts and dalliances with the wrong people.
Pyle possesses a “face with no history, no problems.” The young man's folly is to mistake purchased sex for true love, and to fervently believe that his youth will triumph over the hoary Fowler, and that youthful passion will surmount the years of liaison between Fowler and Phuong. All does not end well, and he is the worse for the effort.
The Quiet American would better be called The Naïve American, and that innocence needs to be lost. Equally the opposite, single vantage points of view that can discern no nuance between our ways and the legitimate differences and points of view of others.
Philip Noyce clucks his tongue at his fellow Australians in his previous film, Rabbit Proof Fence, and I think he is equally dismayed with us as portrayed in this worthy movie.