Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Quiet American

Published in EPPC Online on November 25, 2002



Alas, the years have not been kind to Sir Michael Caine. Although he is only 69, he looks every day of it as Fowler, the clapped-out British journalist in French Indochina, circa 1952, in Phillip Noyce’s cinematic adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. The film ends with a montage of newspaper clippings taking the now-familiar Vietnam story down to 1966, all of them allegedly penned by the London Times’s man in Saigon, Thomas Fowler, which would have made him the only octogenarian war correspondent in the business, one supposes. Maybe after marrying Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) he cleaned up, got the opium monkey off his back and joined a gym?

Mr Caine hobbles about, flapping his arms like an old man in the scene where the American stooges set off bombs in a Saigon square. It is pathetic. You’ll want to avert your eyes. But the age of the hero is less a fault of this movie than the age of its message, which is (as in Greene) one of moral equivalence. The Americans in Vietnam were — or could be expected to be, since the novel was written in 1955 — just as bad as if not worse than the communists. And when the time comes that even the resolutely non-engagé Fowler must choose between them, he chooses the latter. “Sooner or later, Mr Fowler,” says his faithful assistant, the communist spy, Heng, here called Hinh (Tzi Ma), “one has to take sides if one is to remain human.”

Well, he got that right. And allowances may be made for Graham Greene who, like his hero, chose the communists wherever they gave him the slightest excuse. Insofar as America’s leaders really did believe in the “Third Force” of General Thé as a viable alternative to both the French and the communists — and perhaps only a troll through the CIA’s archives would reveal how far that was — they were guilty of the naVveté that Greene attributes to them and that clings to the whole Vietnam adventure on this telling. But what excuse does Mr Noyce have, or his screenwriters, Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan? Their version of Vietnam might have looked intelligent and sophisticated in 1967, but how does it look now, after the Boat People and the Killing Fields and the re-education camps and the appalling stuff that has come out since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989?

For it was hardly naVveté that led the U.S. into Vietnam long after the French had departed, or which resulted in the deaths of over 50,000 American servicemen. To be sure, America made a lot of mistakes, and was guilty of a lot of self-deception on the subject of what it would take to win. It could even be argued that the game wasn’t worth the candle in the end, that the benefits — and there were benefits, most notably in the form of communist insurgency movements elsewhere in Asia that never developed or were more easily thwarted because of the American example — did not outweigh the costs. But what cannot be said, it seems to me, is that the Americans who took us into the war were more naVve about the communist menace than those sophisticated Europeans and world citizens who, thinking the Viet Cong merely peasant patriots who were no threat either to America or their fellow Vietnamese, tried to stop them.

Couldn’t the film-makers have had a look at The Black Book of Communism by Stephane Courtois and his colleagues before concluding that Graham Greene was more right about what was at stake in Vietnam than Lyndon Johnson?

But, even though the movie was made before September 11, 2001 and its release delayed because of the too-short-lived mood of patriotism which ensued, its appearance now suggests that it is useful, like so many other movies, less as history than as archetype. The archetype here is of course that of America the wide-eyed innocent, personified by Brendan Fraser — whose movie speciality from Encino Man to George of the Jungle to Blast from the Past to Dudley Do-Right has been in wide-eyed innocents — in the role of Pyle, the CIA man. Whatever revisions we may make in our understanding of Vietnamese communism, Pyle lives on to flatter the assumptions of the international left, including a great many Americans, about America.

Fowler, the sophisticated European opium smoker who looks down his nose at the likes of Pyle is of course just as much a part of the picture, but Noyce and company leave out, for some reason, his Greenean despair. The Fowler of the novel has the death-wish that so many of Greene’s heroes have, but here that is entirely omitted, unless you count the part where he says in voiceover that “the fear of losing Phuong [was] greater than of any bullet.” Is this as good as the death wish, that he would rather die than part from Phuong? I don’t think so. It just makes him look like some kind of wacko stalker.

This is not a trivial point, since it is his own wish to die which is meant, in the novel, to mitigate the fault of his betrayal of Pyle. The death wish, like the opium, is Greene’s way of making his hero his idea of everyman: someone so crippled with guilt that he can now do anything and it will make no difference to him. But the price of this crippling guilt is the death wish. As he is clearly doing the best he can to put himself into an early grave, we have no right to condemn him. He stands for all of guilty mankind. The only sin in Graham Greene’s world is to think innocence is possible, and that is why it is all right for Fowler to betray Pyle. He did terrible things without ever losing his innocence. Obviously, he had to die. But without his despair, Pyle looks much more calculating. It might occur to some to say: Hang (or even Heng) on! Isn’t he just getting Pyle out of the way, now that he has an excuse from the explosion and an opportunity thanks to Heng, so that Phuong will come back to him?

Remind me once again what it is that is supposed to be so bad about innocence?

But the movie is too intent on making its political point to bother about such questions as this. It must seem providential to the makers now that its portrait of America as the bull in the world’s china shop which has to submit itself to the guidance and restraint of wise old European heads should be ready for release. Now that American forces are once again poised to engage themselves in what some, and not only those on the left, are inclined to see as an imperial adventure in Iraq, it must look to them, and to their good friend Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, a good time to trot out this tired old mythography, which is almost exactly contemporaneous with Michael Caine’s film career. Now seems to me a good time for both to be retired.

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