(Note and Warning: I have only seen the 2002 film, though I intend to read the novel. Thus, this writeup is meant ONLY as an analysis of the movie. This writeup also contains SPOILERS, so be forewarned.)

"...we had to destroy the village in order to save it."
— attributed to an American officer in Vietnam

Not a single review of the recent film adaptation of Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American can resist using the label "anti-American." Yes, Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American as an allegorical indictment of American involvement in 1950's Vietnam (then a part of French Indochina). Yes, the film refers to real-life incidents involving American complicity in terrorism in Vietnam. Yes, it is powerfully relevant against the backdrop of the September 11th New York terrorist attacks and the looming threat of war in Iraq. But the trite and over-simplistic label "anti-American" mars the the subtleties of the film's message.

Michael Caine is superb as Thomas Fowler, a British reporter for the London Times. He is more or less content with his life in Vietnam, living with his lover Phoung (Do Thi Hai Yen), smoking opium, and remaining comfortably uninvolved in the war surrounding him—comfortable, that is, until he meets the "quiet American," Brendan Fraser's1 Alden Pyle. Pyle introduces himself as a eye doctor in America's humanitarian aid service. He appears naive and innocent, mistaking the sound of a grenade for a car's backfire and optimistically championing democracy's responsibility to fight Communism. Fowler and Pyle strike up a friendship until Pyle meets Phoung and is immediately infatuated, triggering the love triangle that becomes the film's centerpiece. Fowler is married, and his wife's religion forbids divorce, so he is unable to marry Phoung, whereas Pyle wants to "save" Phoung by marrying her and giving her stability. The tense battle for Phoung's affections becomes a metaphor for the colonialist war over Vietnam itself.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE:

As Fowler and Pyle oscillate between enraged jealousy and a strange, strained friendship, Fowler begins to realize that Pyle is not all that he seems. Pyle is in actuality a CIA agent working with a "Third Force" in Vietnam, a faction that is neither French nor Communist. The CIA is supplying the rogue General Thé with explosives, which he uses to launch terrorist attacks against Vietnamese civilians, which will be blamed on the Communists. Ostensibly outraged by Fraser's hypocrisy, Fowler betrays Pyle to his aide Hinh (Tzi Ma), who has Communist contacts. Pyle is cornered on the way to a dinner with Fowler and stabbed to death.

The Quiet American's most striking themes explore opinion and the philosophy of Realpolitik. Early in the movie, and while their friendship is still genuine, Fowler explains to Pyle that he is not a "correspondent" but a "reporter", the distinction being that he merely records and relays happenings without a slant, opinion, or cause. He is uninvolved, ambiguous, a stance that is symbolized (in the grand tradition of the country western hero's white hat) in his grey attire throughout most of the movie. In contrast, Pyle wears an ostentatious white suit, and firmly believes that it is western democracy's responsibilty to protect the Vietnamese from Communism. In one of the film's most pivotal lines, Hinh admits to Fowler that he is a Communist sympathizer, saying, "Sooner or later, Mr. Fowler, one has to take sides if one is to remain human." Fowler's decision to help have Pyle killed seems at first an indication that he has chosen his side, outraged by Pyle's terrorist actions.

Another prevalent theme of the film, however, puts Fowler's motives in question. America's involvement in Vietnam, and indeed much of its foreign policy during the late twentieth century, was conducted under the philosophy of Realpolitik, simplified as the statement "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." It is this philosophy that allows Pyle to support General Thé's terrorism while retaining his idealistically righteous anti-Communism. "People will die, but in the end I will have saved lives," he says. Seen through this lens, Fowler's actions become much more ambiguous—does he betray Pyle out of a sense of moral indignation, or simply because Pyle has stolen his lover? The romantic battle between the two men provides sickening insight into the depravity of Realpolitik.

Cast:

Michael Caine - Thomas Fowler
Brendan Fraser - Alden Pyle
Do Thi Hai Yen - Phuong
Rade Serbedzija - Inspector Vigot
Tzi Ma - Hinh
Robert Stanton - Joe Tunney
Holmes Osborne - Bill Granger
Quang Hai - General Thé
Ferdinand Hoang - Mr. Muoi
Pham Thi Mai Hoa - Phuong's Sister

Crew:

Phillip Noyce - Director
Staffan Ahrenberg - Producer
William Horberg - Producer
Graham Greene - Book Author
Christopher Hampton - Screenwriter
Robert Schenkkan - Screenwriter
Christopher Doyle - Cinematographer
Craig Armstrong - Composer (Music Score)


1: Yes, I know what you're thinking: "George of the Jungle? In a serious movie?"a Don't worry, Fraser gives a performance that is quite worthy of this film, with even his silly grin (which I can only describe vulgarly as "shit-eating") serving to accentuate the naivete of his character and add contrast to his dark side.

a: I hear Brendan Fraser was good in Gods and Monsters, and I have in fact also enjoyed his comic movies. His "type" thus far in his career has been overwhelmingly the bumbling idiot, however.*

I won't repeat plot details so I suggest if you haven't read the book or seen the film you read the excellent write-up above first.

A lot is made of The Quiet American being strictly anti-American or opposed to American raison d'etat. I would tend not to see it as particularly anti-American, or even unambiguously anti-anything. This is obvious if you just think about the two main characters and how the reader is encouraged to relate to them - it is impossible to hate both Fowler and Pyle, nor love them completely. They are stereotypes and each of us lies somewhere between the two of them.

It was certainly ahead of its time in bringing up specific criticisms of America - remember, it was written in 1955, after the French war in Indochina was over but before the American war had truly begun. So, the criticisms that America was blindly in above its head in situations that it didn't understand (Pyle gets all his knowledge of the Orient from books, not experience) and America was interfering in places it could do no good were very original. Remember, America had been isolationist up until World War II, and only that event transformed it into the global power we know today.

Many of these criticisms have been repeated for so long that they are now cliches (this does not in and of itself make them incorrect). The one criticism that is so popular today that is missing, and which is projected back on the novel over the decades, is that America is purposefully malignant. The conspiracy theory interpretation of American actions which is now so popular was then exclusive to the Communist world and had hardly penetrated the American consciousness itself.1 So The Quiet American is not an accusation of American malignancy, but one of, if anything, its stupidity.

On a straightforward reading you could almost totally ignore the political element to the story and see it mainly as a love story. Here it is not entirely clear where are sympathies should lie. The Englishman Fowler is the wronged man because Pyle steals his woman, but he arguably brought it on himself through his cynicism and selfishness; anyway these qualities hardly make him likable. The American Pyle is immediately likable, being idealistic and selfless. However, he clearly lives in a world of kitsch, "life without the shit" as Milan Kundera put it. This is exemplified when he gets blood on his shoe from the bombing he just orchestrated, and still can't realize he just killed women and children.

Pyle's actions constantly hurt others and yet he is incapable of realizing this, and this innocence puts him beyond the hatred of even Fowler. This is clear in their personal lives, but also in their relationship to the war. And the battle over the girl, Phuong, is closely related to the battle over Vietnam.

Fowler understands Phuong as a human being, which to him does not sound as wonderful as you girls who wish your men did the same might imagine. His understanding of human beings is that they are cynical, craven, and self-interested. Hence, while he has a deep affection for Phuong (mostly physical), he does not love her in the way only the idealistic young Pyle can. Pyle loves her, but to love so completely is to love the idea of someone, not the person themselves; it is to love an ideal. Hence Pyle describes her as delicate, childlike, and in need of his protection.

Now realize that Phuong is the Vietnamese people. Pyle sees them as childlike and in need of the guidance of the West. He doesn't care that some people get killed on the way to building the democratic Vietnam he so desires because he believes in the end it is the best, and it is impossible to hate him for this idealism, however wrong we think he may be. He doesn't even understand his life is at risk in this crusade until it is too late, but if he did it is doubtful he would go home. He has a sort of courage.

Fowler doesn't get involved in the war, he just reports it. He just wants the war to stop so that he and the Vietnamese can live a quiet life. He has no grand dreams of a national democracy or a Communist utopia, because he believes them beyond the realm of the possible. He is happy to live in a cynical and depraved world because he sees it as the only option. He is realistic and treats the Vietnamese people as he treats Phuong - as imperfect human beings that act as such. In the end, he wins, but is this really best for Phuong, who wanted so much to see those bright lights in New York? And is it best for the Vietnamese, who we know suffered prison camps and death, rather than those bright lights in their own country? Who is to be preferred? American idealism or Fowler's cynicism? And who is to be morally condemned? These are not easy questions and anyone who says they have a complete answer is lying.

Whatever your answers, Greene was very prescient about how American foreign policy would develop in the decades to come - the pursuit of idealistic and laudable goals with practices that in the minds of many fell short. Idealism through realpolitik, you might say. I need not remind you of the relevance of such questions, and hence Greene's book, today.

1. The history of conspiracy theories is remarkable, and we would understand the twentieth century much better if we understood them completely. Look how popular the anti-American conspiracy theory is today; and I'm not even especially looking at the left wing (as if they were exclusive to that wing), but more at the Third World. Hugo Chavez, whatever you may think of him, is a prime example. The most stupendous believer was Stalin, who believed in a huge Anglo-American conspiracy that was tearing down Russia (when in fact he himself was doing it, this being the 1930s) at a time when British intelligence had thirty employees and there was no American intelligence service.

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