THE QUIET AMERICAN (2002)
a commentary by Tony McRae

The International Movie Database lists forty-two entries under “Graham Greene, Writer.”  Like any long-term marriage Graham Greene and the Movies have had their ups and downs, more downs than ups actually, but there are satisfying moments , and certainly two triumphal ones, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, though some argue that these were more Carol Reed’s pictures. 

The remake of The End of the Affair a few years ago was notable for Julianne Moore’s performance and not much else: Greene’s wrestling with adultery and Catholic teaching somehow becomes marginalized in favor of a sodden love triangle that has little of the original’s uneasiness. Happily Greene’s edgy tension is back in Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American.

The story takes place in 1952 Vietnam as communists from the north are fighting the French colonists who will soon be driven from the region. The key character is Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), an English journalist in love with Vietnam and a Vietnamese woman, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), a former “professional dancer” half his age.  In the best Graham Greene tradition, Fowler is married to a Catholic living in England who refuses to give him a  divorce so that he may marry Phuong. And without marriage, Phuong has no chance to escape Vietnam and the impending war. In lieu of marriage, Fowler is content to have things stay as they are, to do minimal reporting for his London paper so that he can pay his bills and keep Phuong, who has no choice in the matter, not if she wishes to stay away from her former life. Fowler is her only way out. Until the young American arrives.

When Aiden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) arrives in Saigon, supposedly with a medical aid organization, he falls in love with Phuong and subsequently takes her from Fowler.

This love triangle and the political and military activities surrounding the communist threat in the north are seen from Fowler’s cynical yet romantic viewpoint, cynical because he has no interest in the politics of colonialism nor in the communist threat unless either was to endanger his relationship with Phuong. He tells himself that he’s found in Saigon a heightened reality, which comes in part from his addiction to opium, but more so because of his addiction to Phuong. 

Greene’s story is about betrayal--several betrayals, in fact. First, there is Fowler’s betrayal of Pyle, or rather his perceived betrayal of Pyle, for we are never quite sure of his motives.  When Pyle is killed (we're told this in the first minutes of the movie) the viewer, along with Fowler himself, asks if the British newsman set the American up so as to remove a rival for Phuong's affection.  There is a second betrayal of sorts when Fowler tells Phuong that his wife will give him a divorce so that they can marry. This is the first time he’s dishonest with Phuong, and it propels her into Pyle’s arms. 

Some observers see this film as an effort to show American interference in yet another misguided attempt to establish democracy at any cost.  It's true that America does not come off well, but this is not Noyce's main concern, which is the interaction of his three principals.  When we learn that Alden Pyle, the quiet American, is a covert operative whose job is to halt the communist menace in the north, we immediately wonder--at least I did--what effect this revelation would have on Phuong and Fowler's efforts to recapture her heart.

Good movies from good books will invite multiple interpretations, and such is the case with The Quiet America. Most film critics have commented that Phuong represents Vietnam and Fowler and Pyle the colonial forces that lust for that country. This is all well and good, and it certainly adds to the complexity of Greene’s novel and Noyce’s film. Yet when you’re watching Michael Caine as Fowler you put that aside—at least I did. His performance is so real, so on the mark that you are caught up in his dilemmas (and he has several), his guilt over his betrayals or possible betrayals, that you forget all that other stuff.  In the novel Greene has Fowler think: “How sad I was to envy Pyle.”  That line is not necessary in the film: all you have to do is watch Michael Caine’s face to feel his near emptiness.


Visit the IMDb for more information about The Quiet American.

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