What would Graham Greene do? Or more to the point, what would he write about our current time, its terrorist horrors, its shadows of war on the horizon? Perhaps our situation would sound familiar to the author, who set a similarly foreboding scene in his 1955 novel The Quiet American, the subject of Phillip Noyce's recent film adaptation.
The book takes place in Vietnam before French colonial death spasms gave way to our Apocalypse Now, and it offers a scathing critique of the nascent U.S. involvement in that country. Focused on a symbolic love triangle between a naive American do-gooder, a jaded British journalist and the Englishman's Vietnamese mistress, the novel was called anti-American after its publication -- and prescient after the U.S. foray into Vietnam began. During the conflict, the book found a following among U.S. correspondents stationed there; these days, young boys hawk pirated copies on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.
Although there's no telling how prescient the film will prove about our future engagements in other countries, it has already suffered from the same charges that Greene's book faced. Ready for release in the fall of 2001, the film was held back after September 11 by Miramax executives who worried, according to co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein, that opening a movie about "bad Americans" would be "unpatriotic." After lead actor Michael Caine rallied to the film's defense, Miramax screened it last November in New York and Los Angeles (so that it would qualify for the Oscars) and opened a limited release nationwide in February.
It's a pity the movie is still so difficult to find in theaters. While some might say its lessons are more apt for history and a country in thrall to far-off Red Scares, The Quiet American warns us of the potential dangers of American arrogance and violent international engagement -- a message with real relevance to our present, hair-trigger geopolitical moment. But it also illustrates something subtler: the psychology that can lead to that violence. It shows us how little America -- blinded by hubris, power or sheer good intentions -- may understand the rest of the world. These days America is dealing with the flip side of The Quiet American's feminized Other, that Asian woman fought over by two white men. In her stead, we have her more difficult male relatives -- these dangerous men, reduced to images of thugs and madmen, who must be paddled and sent to their rooms. But one thing holds true: In the rush to pave the world's way to safety and democracy, The Quiet American seems to imply, the United States fails to see faraway places as anything more than ideological or strategic battlegrounds, fails to see those countries' citizens as equals -- or even actors -- in a global dialogue. And if those people are not real to us, we will not hesitate to kill their bodies to save their souls, to paraphrase Lord Byron's epigram in Greene's book.
America's representative in Greeneland doesn't seem so threatening at first. The quiet American is just a terrible dancer, a great galoot in a white suit, listing forward and shuffling like a bear. Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) is patient: The exquisite former taxi dancer has dealt with drunkards and other things far worse than a would-be gallant with two left feet. At his request, she tests her eager partner with some Vietnamese. "When you dance, don't try to lead," she says. He furrows his big brow in puzzlement -- it's a lost cause.
In the eyes of The Quiet American's British narrator, that scene may well sum up the whole of Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) -- a clumsy white knight who distresses the toes of a damsel in no need of rescue. And as both Noyce and Greene make clear, Pyle is a not-so-subtle metaphor for America itself, and how it crashes into the outside world with the best of intentions.
Thomas Fowler (Caine) is the aging, dissolute journalist watching this painful scene. He is English, he tells us, and as the English are wont to do, he has habits: Phuong, an opium pipe and Vietnam, which is filmed in all its languorous beauty by cinematographer Chris Doyle. Fowler is content, with nary an opinion on Vietnam's political turmoil that would mar his personal land of the lotus-eaters. Content, that is, until Pyle threatens both to take Phuong away and forever change the country itself. Pyle's ostensibly an economic aid worker, you see, but he seems to be determined to strike a blow for democracy in Vietnam -- in any way he can.
It's an awkward, three-legged waltz: the Brit representing cynical "Old Europe," Pyle as the idealistic American upstart and both sparring for the soul of Asia, depicted by a woman as pliant and ungraspable as smoke. I am always wary of the use of empty women characters as stand-ins for countries where the West has gotten into scrapes. But in Greene's novel, all the characters are mere vessels for the author's acid views on U.S. foreign policy.
Unlike Joseph Mankiewicz, who directed a 1958 adaptation that completely excised the writer's damning indictment (and left Greene in a permanent fury about Hollywood treatments of his books), Noyce thankfully doesn't defang that critique. And in a pleasant surprise, the new film actually manages to enrich the human aspect of the novel, thanks in no small part to its actors.
Fraser uses his bulk, his Boy Scout bonhomie, to good effect. He lopes onto the scene like a half-grown golden retriever, obedience school no match for a lashing tail and too-large feet. Outfitted with a crew cut, Boston Red Sox cap, Clark Kent glasses and the writings of the fictional York Harding, a gung-ho democracy advocate, Fraser's Pyle is clearly someone who has read too much and lived too little. Just before his dance with Phuong, Pyle finds himself in the company of louder, uglier Americans, and is mauled by a flood of prostitutes, like a fish caught in an anemone's devouring grasp. When he holds Phuong a little later, is it any surprise that this good boy falls for her like a stone, wants to rescue her from the other women's fate?
Not to Fowler, who observes that Pyle is the type who would mistake saving a woman with saving a country. Fowler is wry, he is British, but he holds a terrified love for Phuong beneath the barbs he throws Pyle's way. Caine may be some years too old for the role, but he erases some of the despairing age -- the death obsession, the crusty bitterness of something boiled over and burned -- from Greene's Fowler. It's a brilliant, selfless performance, free from actorly flourishes and hamming. Caine disappears completely into Fowler's emotional brittleness, the conflicted affection and rivalry he feels toward Pyle.
Caine is at his finest in the film's most traumatic scene -- a bomb explosion that leaves innocents dead and dismembered and transforms everything in its path. The journalistic skills Fowler has used to distance himself from the world are instantly charged with power: Within seconds he goes from blasé observer to horrified participant. "There was a woman with a baby," he says, trembling with the memory. "She covered it with her hat." And out of this hellish murk comes Pyle, jarringly transformed, speaking a torrent of Vietnamese and swiping impatiently at his bloody pants. Greene's Pyle doesn't have this callous reaction; he's stunned sick, more in keeping with the sheltered boy we have grown to both like and scorn. In turning his Pyle into a sudden hobgoblin, Noyce cheapens his film a bit, sticks us with a twist: Did we ever really know him at all?
Perhaps that's the point Noyce is trying to make, if a bit clumsily. After all, what are we to think when Fowler himself is jerked out of habitual inertia, taking up a course of action that leads to the demise of another kind of innocence? And can anyone know Phuong? Noyce is too sensitive a filmmaker to have overlooked her. In a sort of political cinematic statement, he left the bomb scene in the hands of Vietnamese second unit director Dang Nhat Minh, whose father was killed in a U.S. bombing raid. Minh cast the scene with Vietnamese who had survived Agent Orange exposure or mine explosions. Covered with fake blood and raw meat, their limbless bodies offer a mute, horrifying testimony on the lingering pain of Vietnam's American war. Hai Yen is given nearly as little to say as these extras, but she manages to convey some of the silken strength in the character of Phuong (which translates, aptly, as "phoenix"). If we don't know her, Noyce seems to imply, perhaps it's because Pyle and Fowler don't either -- nor do they understand the inscrutable Orient they've forced her to represent.
Despite these flashes of insight, Noyce's movie has more inspired moments and atmospheric emotion than true cohesion. Nor does the film live up to Greene's insistence on moral ambiguity, his rejection of the tatty, homespun homilies of "good" and "evil" that are so popular these days. All's not fair in love and war, Greene seems to whisper, and the best we can hope for is a sort of compromised grace. And while Greene might not judge between oblivious idealism and self-aware complicity, Noyce does. But they both agree on the ultimate point: It is best to lay both innocence and cynicism down, for they obscure one's ability to truly see that person from half a world away -- the one who's standing just an arm's length off on a darkened dance floor.