Political Film Society - Newsletter #150 - November 25, 2002

November 25, 2002


In 1945, when Ho Chi Minh read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, modeled after the American Declaration of 1776, American warplanes flying overhead dipped down to show approval, and the Vietnamese in the square below cheered. The United States and Ho Chi Minh's forces were then allies, both fighting the Japanese. The situation changed drastically, however, by 1955, the year of publication of Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American. When the film The Quiet American, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, was released in 1958, Hollywood and the United States knew little about Vietnam, and the film was not much of a success; Greene was furious that his anti-American message was lost in a Hollywood still reeling from the blacklist of leftists. A remake of the film, directed by Phillip Noyce, was ready for release last year, but the events of 9/11 postponed the first public screening until November 22, 2002 (by some coincidence, the 39th anniversary of the day when President John Kennedy was assassinated). The story is now more faithful to Greene's message, and filmviewers are better prepared to interpret the meaning of Greene's prophetic warning that the American anti-Communist obsession would cause more killing yet without defeating the determined, popular anticolonial mood of a sophisticated enemy that could have been, similar to Yugoslavia's Marshall Tito, a bulwark against both Chinese and Soviet communism. The hero of the story is middle-aged Thomas Fowler (played by Michael Caine), a British journalist, who had sent only three dispatches to London during 1952 until events moved quickly. Early in the film he meets thirty-two-year-old Alden Pyle (played by Brendan Fraser), who claims to be an aid official assigned to the American consulate in Saigon to provide medical assistance for victims of an eye disease. Pyle seems rather contemplative and is described as "quiet." In time, Fowler realizes that Pyle's so-called medical aid mission is a cover for a more sinister plot, namely, to arm a democratic Third Force that would "save" Vietnam from both the French and the Communists.

Indeed, when Fowler meets Pyle, the latter is carrying a book that contains an argument for the concept of a Third Force. (In actuality, the CIA began to set up Ngo Dinh Diem as a "third force" in 1954, and he was "elected" President of South Vietnam in 1955.) As a journalist, Fowler goes to a massacre in the North which the French blame on the Communists, though only Vietnamese are dead, and Pyle is strangely on the scene. Fowler also goes to interview General Thé (played by Quang Hai), who is unable to answer tough questions about his lack of military strength and democratic rhetoric vis-à-vis the Communists, and Pyle is again present. Fowler next discovers that explosives masquerading as American medical supplies, cleared by Pyle, are being shipped to General Thé. Soon, he observes an explosion on a street in Saigon that kills many innocent people; there are obvious footprints from the American supplies, especially when Pyle shows up to speak fluent Vietnamese to stop local police from sending victims to a hospital for treatment so that embassy personnel can photograph the atrocity. Afterward, Fowler reports that American aid increased, and several news stories about the skyrocketing American military commitment to Vietnam flash across the screen until the fateful year 1965, when the United States began to send hundreds of thousands of young men to fight in Vietnam. In the midst of the story, Fowler and Pyle compete for the attentions of Phuong (played by Do Thi Hai Yen), a beautiful, aristocratic woman who was forced to become a taxi dancer after her parents died. Pyle is eventually murdered, we learn early in the film, but filmviewers are not allowed to solve the crime until almost the very end. Epigrams from the pen of Graham Greene say a lot to a Washington that never listened, but the delayed release of The Quiet American remake is well timed to tell the American people what is in store for them as Iraq becomes the next target in the continuing quest to project American power abroad. The Political Film Society, accordingly, has nominated The Quiet American for best film of 2002 in raising consciousness about the need for peace. MH

Amazon.com Music

The Quiet American
by Graham Greene

While the French Army in Indo-China is grappling with the Vietminh, back in Saigon a young and high-minded American named Pyle begins to channel economic aid to a "Third Force."