Quiet concern over Saigon saga

I hope Graham Greene is still paying attention, as the foolish dance goes on around the latest Quiet American. Not that he would be surprised; he always had a low opinion of American acumen, and lower still of its defensive rhetoric. “Wasn’t it all a long time ago?’’ he might murmur.
Well, yes, of course — so we repeat ourselves.

About a year ago the distribution company Miramax had The Quiet American ready to go. This was a new film scripted by Christopher Hampton, directed by the Australian Phillip Noyce, with Michael Caine as Fowler and Brendan Fraser as Pyle.

They are the leading characters from Greene’s novel, first published in Britain in 1955. The setting is Saigon at the last gasp of French occupation of Indo-China. Fowler is middle-aged, the Saigon correspondent for The Times, with a dried-up marriage in London and a lovely, pliant Saigon mistress. Then along comes Pyle — young, earnest, naive, clumsy, high-minded, and with the American Economic Aid Mission to Saigon. In fact, he is a bit of a spy: an American agent looking to find a more viable military leader against the communists.

Pyle falls in love with Phuong, Fowler’s mistress, and offers her marriage. Phuong slides away from Fowler, but the Englishman comes to realise what Pyle is doing politically. In fact, Pyle has helped in the delivery of high explosives used in a terrorist attack to stiffen up resistance. Pyle is a pioneer of the future United States involvement in Vietnam. And, for one reason and another, Fowler gently assists in the assassination of Pyle. Phuong comes back to Fowler, and the novel ends in Fowler’s voice: “Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.”

A good novel? Well, it stands up to being re-read every couple of years — what more can you ask? Of course, the atmosphere was all there, because Greene himself had been in Saigon from 1951 onwards as a journalist. Was it anti-American of him to see what the real-life versions of Pyle were doing?

One would have thought that an opposite argument could be made: that Greene was offering the US a warning about not getting stuck in the place that would be known as Vietnam.

However, a country as intellectually insecure and as fearful of cowardice as the US is not made to heed good advice. When The Quiet American was published in New York, in 1956, it was attacked violently. Greene was condemned as being “anti-American”, all of which sharpened his suspicion of many things American. Nevertheless, Hollywood decided to make a picture of The Quiet American.

But the writer-director, Joseph L Mankiewicz (who had made All About Eve, The Barefoot Contessa and Guys and Dolls), didn’t film Greene straight. His film changes the novel’s ending: now Fowler is tricked by the communists into aiding in Pyle’s death; Pyle is seen as a lost hero; and Phuong abandons Fowler. These nervous attempts to appease the American box office didn’t work.

The film was a flop. Mankiewicz later blamed the mess on his upset at the time — his wife had committed suicide. But the film is bad for other reasons, not least casting Audie Murphy as Pyle. Murphy was a real-life hero in World War II, who became a star of westerns and war movies. He was oddly baby-faced and he never said he could act. That was the more apparent because Michael Redgrave was so good, very full of self-loathing, as Fowler, and because Pyle is a difficult part.

Much blood and water have passed on the Mekong and, more than 40 years later, Pyle is still a challenging role. The reason for that, I think, is that American cinema has no tradition of presenting the well meaning idiot.

So actors don’t have those genes — even if it is a label that might fit many of their profession. Fraser is very good casting, because he has been so subtle, so funny, so decent as an intelligent chump. Fraser gets close to it sometimes in the Noyce film, without quite nailing it down. Caine is likely to be overpraised as Fowler. He is suitably faded, compromised, sad and bitter. All that’s OK. But Caine doesn’t have — and has made his living on not having — the upper middle-class background shared by Fowler, Redgrave, Trevor Howard (who could have been superb) and Greene himself.

There’s ample room for disagreement on this matter, but for me the Noyce film doesn’t quite work because of those short-comings in the actors. Not that that’s the problem, or a reason why Greene’s ghost might be smiling now. No, the real problem is that Miramax and its leader, Harvey Weinstein, are nervous in the 1950s way.

That kind of fear and loathing of anti-Americanism has passed. Joseph McCarthy has been dead a long time, and, as is well known, the Red menace turned very pale then vanished in the frosty glare of Cold War. So everything is hunky-dory now? Well, no.

Just as Miramax began to consider a campaign for The Quiet American, September 11 occurred. At first inspection, you might wonder what one thing has to do with another. But that would only expose your failure to grasp the sentimental atmosphere in the US. The Quiet American does include one nasty terrorist incident — a bomb in a Saigon square. By today’s standards, it’s a little amateur maybe. But the film makes it plain that an American has helped in the explosion (for the best of long-term reasons, of course — to keep communists out of Indo-China). Miramax easily saw how this could be tricky in a mounting mood of condemnation of terrorism and idealisation of the American spirit.

So it decided that Christmas 2001 was no time to release the picture. No one in public ever addressed the indisputable fact that, yes, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Americans, in Vietnam to “observe’’ or deliver advice, did actually conspire in military actions, coups and terrorist acts.

And certainly there was no enthusiasm, as the dust settled over the World Trade Centre, for noting that America’s history of involvement with and bringing aid to some of today’s terrorists was complicated. It was a time for simpler ideas.

The Quiet American has had festival screenings, and some admire it more than I do. But Miramax is a good deal more apprehensive in that the air has only grown cloudier since September 11. To quote The New York Times, Miramax “worried that what had been a romance set against the backdrop of early American involvement in Vietnam now could be seen as a searing critique of US imperialism”.

Sydney Pollack, a producer on the film, said: “There will be people who are sensitive about seeing the American point of view presented as less than sympathetic.” As Greene might have suggested, it all comes down to that point at which plain words become political spin. I can’t see how anyone could conclude that The Quiet American is a “romance”. Phuong (beautiful) is a sexual prize, and the film does suggest the pleasures of such sex. But it’s never a love story. Indeed, Greene was a more natural writer about lovelessness or love denied than he was a dealer in “romance”.

Then again, what does Pollack mean by “sensitive’‘and “sympathetic”?

The liberty that the US is very busy and righteous about defending against terrorist attack is built upon free speech, critical thinking, open argument and a respect for history. In many parts of the world, the US has taken pre-emptive, drastic steps against enemies or opponents, many of which may have felt like terror if the victims were “sensitive”, or alive long enough to register the pain. The Quiet American is a study of how American confidence and ignorance can misunderstand the foreign world it sees. And blunder into disaster on the same momentum.

So it doesn’t matter that I find this movie less than ideal. Greene’s story has been told, faithfully. And I can think of no better time for a responsible distributor to show it. — Â

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