The Quiet American
review by Laura Bushell, 29 November 2002

Graham Greene was incensed when Joseph L Mankiewicz’s 1958 adaptation of his novel turned the story’s critical eye away from it’s anti-American standpoint and towards an anti-Communist led stance. Greene purists will therefore be more at ease with Philip Noyce’s new adaptation of The Quiet American, which deals more explicitly with the US involvement with Indo-Chinese politics during the 50s at the root of events leading up to the Vietnam War. His second politically sensitive film of the year after Rabbit Proof Fence, Noyce’s adaptation is a timely one that has been held back from release for over a year. But while it’s political implications may not sit easily in the current post September 11 / pre potential Iraq attack climate, they are worthy of thought and discussion, and Noyce’s film is adult and intelligent to bear this weight.

The eponymous American at the center of the tale is first encountered as his corpse is fished out of the Saigon river in the opening scenes, identified as Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) by his English reporter friend Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine). Only then does Fowler’s voiceover takes us back to Pyle’s ill-fated arrival in Saigon as a young an idealistic aide with charitable intentions for the war-torn area. Ostensibly good-natured, Pyle’s ideals clash with the world-weary London Times reporter Fowler, who is comfortably installed in an opium fuelled existence with his young Vietnamese lover Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). While Fowler keeps a distance between the political events and his role as a reporter, Pyle feels an inevitable involvement in the action and a need to help out, but nevertheless the two become friends.

It’s at this point in the story that Greene’s ability to graft political anxieties onto human relationships comes into play, as the love struck Pyle vies for Phuong, threatening Fowler and turning his attitude towards self-preservation. This is subtly dealt with by Noyce, but most superbly played out by Caine, who gives one of his best performances of late. The vulnerable older lover in danger of losing his woman to a younger contender, his crisis is one that’s been played out in literature since Chaucer, but here Phuong comes to represent Vietnam itself; the subject of dual intentions from established colonialism and new arrogance. Pyle expresses his intention to take care of Phuong, to protect and ultimately possess her - reflecting the military aspirations that lie behind Pyle and his fellow Americans’ façade in their meddling with Vietnamese politics. A little over-explained later on in the film, especially when Pyle actually states that ‘Phuong is like Vietnam,’ this theme remains by and large a subtle one. Noyce allows the tension between these three characters to play out whilst building up the political situation around them and allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions.

This metaphorical conflict of cultures is played out against the backdrop of real conflict that already exists in the region. Early on, a shot of Saigon harbor shows an idealistic combination of twinkling lights and tiny boats bobbing on the water. But flashing in the sky and rumbling in the distance are signs of discord beneath this sweet façade, a sense that pervades the entire film like the sense of foreboding underling Phuong’s change of allegiances. But where the film will be most problematic is in Pyle’s overt political ideology, the naïve view that a moral ‘third way’ brought about by surreptitious American involvement with General The’s (Quang Hai) alternative army will resolve the Franco-Communist conflict. But The’s bombing of Saigon Square later on leaves thirty people dead, possibly more over time, leaving the US complicit in the slaughter and anguish of innocent civilians.

But, given all these heavy politics, The Quiet American remains a pleasurable and entertaining film, nervously given a small December release so that it might qualify for the Oscars. And let’s hope it does. Caine is such a pleasure to watch and his conflicted, ambiguous character such a worthy evocations of Greene’s creation he deserves another statuette. Christopher Hampton’s screenplay has to rank as one of the most successful Greene adaptations so far, aided along the way by the voiceover written by producer Anthony Minghella. Of a similarly high caliber is Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, which recreates the humid, sticky, and exotic atmosphere of the era, and the mysterious allure that Vietnam held during this time. His work is as lush and artistic as the stunning imagery he created for Wong Kar Wai in In the Mood for Love. But if Noyce’s sumptuous film is brushed under the carpet in the name of political correctness, then we really are in trouble. Cinema as a challenging and mentally stimulating medium is just as important as escapism, even if it does raise questions we don’t really want to answer.

Directed by:
Phillip Noyce

Michael Caine
Brendan Fraser
Do Thi Hai Yen
Rade Serbedzija
Tzi Ma
Robert Stanton
Holmes Osborne
Pham Thi Mai Hoa
Quang Hai
Ferdinand Hoang
Nguyen Thi Hieu
Khoa Do
Mathias Mlekuz

Written by:
Graham Greene Christopher Hampton Robert Schenkkan

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult guardian.






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