Director: Phillip Noyce
Writers: Christopher Hampton (screenplay), Robert Schenkkan (screenplay), Graham Greene (novel)
Stars: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen
“Graham Greene’s Quiet American likens the U.S. rescuing a country to a man rescuing the woman he loves from danger. She may be vulnerable but his life is at stake.”
Viet Nam, 1950’s. The French are losing the war to Communists. An aging, jaded British journalist, Thomas Fowler (exquisitely performed by Michael Caine), lives in Saigon, filing as few stories as possible until his paper threatens to pull him home. He feels about Vietnam the same way he feels about Phuong, his live-in concubine; he loves them both as sources of respite, balm to a seared skin of cynical depression.
Enter the Americans, covertly (in the 50’s) competing with the French and the Communists for Vietnam. This triangle of warring suitors doubles back and over a romantic triangle that develops when a young American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Frazer) arrives. Pyle is a doctor seemingly intent upon healing the eyes of thousands of Vietnamese with a new and simple technique. His mission reeks of hypocrisy, right down to the metaphor of clearing Vietnamese eyesight. Of course, Pyle isn’t there to administer medical treatment and, of course, he falls in love – at first sight – with Fowler’s mistress, Phuong. He’s the predictable wolf in sheep’s clothing. Phuong is the quintessential symbol of Vietnam, an idealized beauty no one wants to see fall into the hands of a predator. This film may have been shelved for a year due to 9/11 but it’s easily argued to be even more provocative now. Like it or not, the”Quiet American” raises questions about American intentions in Iraq.
The opening shot in”Quiet American” of the idealistic young American face down, dead in the water in a white suit, memorializes an already known ending to American desires for Vietnam. In the”Quiet American“, Pyle is the nice young man next door who went to Vietnam with patriotic zeal. Not the rowdy one crashing parties or wearing long hair, Pyle looks like an All-American football player who drives a beat-up car and takes his girlfriend to the movies on Saturday night. He is the young Martin Sheen going up the river in Apocalypse Now, finding more than he bargained for. Or is he? Why is that super nice guy Pyle speaking fluent Vietnamese when American schools barely offer French or Spanish? In fact, Pyle’s trained. In fact, he’s on a military mission, however well dressed.
The film especially provokes reflection on the way American advertising equates a woman with her country — and how qualifying as a real man in America can be sealed by rescue missions in love and war. In the”Quiet American“, Alden Pyle feels about Vietnam much the same way he feels about the Vietnamese woman he falls in love with; he wants to protect her, show off her beauty and possess her — be her one and only. There’s an old fairy tale where a king takes the most beautiful songbird in his kingdom home from the forest because he fears predators will kill her, depriving him of her song. He places her in a golden cage by his bed. Sadly, the songbird dies in captivity. To re-invoke his beloved songbird, the king orders a perfect replica that performs upon command but, alas, sings mechanically. The king soon dies of a broken heart. In”Quiet American“, Fowler tells the young American who lusts after Phuong,”Of course, I’m not essential to her but if I lost her, I would begin to die.” Pyle listens without hearing. He can offer Phuong the marriage that will save her from the horrors of Saigon. Fowler cannot. But Pyle, like the king in the fairy tale, does not see what awaits him as he pursues domination of the Vietnam spirit.
The American loses his life as an innocent who believes that ‘caging the bird’ can prevent evil from happening. The Brit must give up his wasteful way of life to ‘get the girl’, get his spirit back. He will file the horror stories that mark one of the worst wars of the century; he must give up his depression, choose sides and devote himself to revealing the truth of man’s inhumanity to man.
How many deaths of innocent kings and princes will occur before the resplendent bird of paradise can take her own chances in the wild? Of course, with Graham Greene’s hard-hitting truth behind the film,”Quiet American“, Phuong represents her country well; she goes with the suitor who offers her the most.