In one of the few and most memorable scenes of violence in The Quiet American — based on the Graham Greene novel and starring Michael Caine as the British journalist, Thomas Fowler — a car bomb explodes outside a café in Saigon. After the initial shock of the event, Fowler takes in the devastation around him — bodies, burned, mutilated, limbless. As he rushes to the aid of one of the victims, an American, Alden Pyle (played by Brendan Fraser), arrives, dispassionately surveys the carnage, shouts orders to local authorities, and calmly wipes blood from his pants. The scene is pivotal, shattering Fowler’s journalistic objectivity and revealing the secret designs of Pyle, the quiet American of the title.
The scene also illumines the mixed success of the film and perhaps of Greene’s novel as well.
On the one hand, the film’s attempt to mix multiple plots and themes — it is at once a love story, a murder mystery, and a tale of political intrigue — works wonderfully well. There is a richness to the characters and a resonance to the dialogue that captures the texture of Greene’s novel without seeming stilted. And Caine’s performance is nothing short of magnificent; he deserves to win the Oscar for best actor.
On the other hand, the Anti-Americanism of the film is not quite convincing. Aside from Pyle, the American characters are all cardboard bad guys. And Pyle, at least as played by Brendan Fraser, cannot sustain the dramatic burden placed on him. He lacks the depth and complexity to seem in one moment the naïve idealist and in the next, a diabolical wizard controlling the events of world history behind the scenes. (The Quiet American is a remake, closer to the story line of Greene’s novel than was Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1958 version, which Greene is said to have detested because it turned the anti-Americanism of the novel into a celebration of American anti-Communism.)
At the beginning of the film, Fowler is a jaded journalist, whose productivity has fallen off to such a degree that he’s in danger of being recalled to London. Estranged from his wife, who remains in England, he has taken up with a stunningly beautiful and much younger Vietnamese woman, Phuong (Do Thin Hai Yen). He soon meets Pyle, a young, idealistic, and apparently unassuming American. In an early exchange, Pyle urges that the Vietnamese need freedom of choice. Fowler counters, “Let them vote and they might elect Ho Chi Minh. It’s more complicated than that.”
Initially friendly, the two men are soon competing for the affections of Phuong and end up on opposite sides of the battle for the soul of Vietnam. In his presence, Fowler offers Pyle the opportunity to propose to Phuong. She stares straight ahead and states clearly but weakly, “No.” The men take this as an answer to Pyle’s question but it can also be seen as a response to the way both men treat her and, symbolically, to the way outsiders treat Vietnam.
Whatever might have been its original impetus, Fowler’s love of Phuong proves genuine and parallels his growing realization that he must act against the forces trying to control Vietnam’s fate. His personal love for an individual, Vietnamese woman stands in contrast to Pyle’s political insistence on seeing things in terms of the “big picture.” In some ways, the film is deeply conservative, favoring the concrete complexities of political and economic phenomena over political abstractions and underscoring the way settled customs and political practices resist manipulation and reorganization.
Yet, the analogy between the love for a single Vietnamese woman and the conduct of international affairs is seriously deficient. Although the political cannot ignore the personal, it is not identical to it. And the film does not deal adequately with political realities. Indeed, it continually flirts with a romantic vision of Vietnam as a pristine, non-Western country. In his voiceovers, Fowler speaks of Vietnam as an exotic other, luring the western male with charms to entice and delight the senses. He describes the way Vietnam saturates the senses, the way a Vietnamese “woman’s voice can drug you.” In Vietnam, you will find “whatever you long for…in exchange for your soul.” (It is interesting to note that these are precisely the sorts of “exotic-other” descriptions of the East that are excoriated by the likes of Edward Said.)
But the romantic vision of Vietnam does not even fit the realities of the film. When the Americans come on the scene, Communism and the French are already there, already reshaping the politics of the region. If, as Fowler comes to believe, one must choose sides or risk losing one’s humanity, then it seems that one must choose not just in light of an original culture, but also in light of the concrete political realities operative here and now.
In the end, what captivates and satisfies in the film is not the quiet American and all that he is supposed to symbolize, but Caine’s Fowler, a weary observer whose love for a woman brings him back to life. It is an eloquent and memorable performance. You believe him when he confesses: “You start out promiscuous and end up like your grandfather….To lose her would be the beginning of death.”
— Thomas S. Hibbs, professor of Philosophy at Boston College, is the author of Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld.