(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.
- Thomas Fowler
- Alden Pyle
Do Thi Hai Yen
- Inspector Vigot
- Joe Tunney
- Bill Granger
- General Thé
- Mr. Muoi
Pham Thi Mai Hoa
- Phuong's Sister
- Book Author
- 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.*