the 1992 gold Modern Library hardcover of Graham Greene's The Quiet American

The Quiet American

  • Author:  Graham Greene  (1904  –  1991)
  • Rank:  #56
  • Published:  1955
  • Publisher:  William Heinemann Ltd.
  • Pages:  189
  • First Line:  “After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinat; he had said ‘I’ll be with you at latest by ten,’ and when midnight struck I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and went down into the street.”
  • Last Line:  “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.”
  • ML Edition:  #382 (1967); 1992 gold hardcover
  • Film:  1958  (**.5);  2002  (****)
  • First Read:  Fall, 2001

The Novel: When Graham Greene’s The Quiet American came out in 1955, it did not do particularly well in the United States.  It was widely perceived as anti-American, especially for a bombing scene which kills many innocent civilians and the blame for which can be laid right at the feet of the CIA.  It is too bad then, that more politicians and military strategists didn’t read the novel.  The novel perfectly predicts the ways in which American involvement in Vietnam in the wake of the end of the First Indochina War will end in disaster for all involved, but especially for the Americans.  If only the right damn people had read the book than 58,175 names wouldn’t be on a wall in Washington.  At the time it was easy to dismiss the writings of a British author in the wake of the collapse of the British Empire after the Second World War – just another Brit who no longer controls the world who wants to tell America what to think.  But any deep reading of the novel will push that notion to the side.  This is a fantastic novel – well written, thoughtful, with deep philosophical views not only about colonial involvement in Indochina, but also about love and death and the way they can interact.

Part of how the well the book works is that it works on numerous different levels.  The producers of the original film version certainly understood that it worked as a love story, though that seemed to be all they understood.  While Fowler, the older, experienced British newspaper man, is still clearly in love with Phuong, the young Vietnamese woman (“Suddenly watching her feet, so light and precise and mistress of his shuffle, I was in love again.”), yet he also knows his situation (“I could hardly believe that in an hour, two hours, she would be coming back to me to that dingy room with the communal closet and the old women squatting on the floor.”)  And of course, when Pyle insists that they both have her interests at heart, Fowler insists “You can have her interests.  I only want her body.”

It works as well, on the difference between Pyle and Fowler, in the difference between youth and experience.  “One forgets so quickly one’s own youth: once I was interested myself in what for want of a better term they call news.”  In the middle of the book is a fascinating scene where the two men are trapped in the night in a tower outside Saigon.  They debate back and forth, about Phuong, about the East, about their reasons for being there.  It is Fowler’s knowledge and cynicism that is fascinating here, yet it is Pyle’s training that allows them to survive the night alive.

Then of course, there is the political aspect.  For while Pyle might be a quiet American, he is also a rather dangerous one.  In one scene, when bombs have gone off, slaughtering women and children, Fowler looks at him and thinks “You can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless.  All you can do is control them or eliminate them.  Innocence is a kind of insanity.”  It these words which are directed at Pyle, but really speak so much more about the American mindset itself in the years before things would actually progress towards war.  And Fowler isn’t done; he has some harsh words for the Economic Attache that Pyle works for: “He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair’s about, and you gave him money and York Harding’s books on the East and said ‘Go ahead.  Win the East for democracy.'”

It all comes down to those words that Fowler uses so perfectly to describe Pyle: “Saving the country and saving a woman would be the same thing to a man like that.”

The Films:

the original, mediocre, film version of The Quiet American

1958 version (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz):

As I have written before here, here and here, it is a shame that so many of the great black-and-white films made from the novels of Graham Greene are difficult to find (though that finally seems to be being rectified), while the two relentlessly mediocre color films (The End of the Affair is the other one) made in the fifties, which were re-made some 40 years later, both more faithfully and more successfully, are easy to get hold of.  (A quick side note: one of the great failures of Netflix currently is the inability to search by writer – how nice it would be to simply find out which films made from Graham Greene novels they have available).

This is one of those films that I looked forward to, only to receive a tremendous disappointment.  After all, it was made by a director that made my Top 100, it was from a brilliant novel and it starred Michael Redgrave.  The problem was that they drifted too far from the novel and too much towards the romance.  In the novel, the romance provides a catalyst for a story that had deep political and philosophical significance.  In the film, the political story was emasculated in order to please American audiences and the focus moved towards the romance.  That was the first problem with the film and that can be laid at Mankiewicz’s feet, for he wrote and directed the film and while there might have been studio pressure to make the American of the title seem less odious, he still chose the direction for the film.  The other problem is that, outside of Redgrave, the acting in the film is really pretty awful.

So, what do we have left?  We have a solid Redgrave performance (given the talents in the family over the years that seems a fairly redundant statement) in a story that is fairly common-place (mixed race romance; May-December romance; romantic triangle) that isn’t particularly well-made.  Given the later, far superior film, there really is no reason to seek this one out.  I was about to say, except for Greene fans, but Greene fans will no likely be disappointed at the mockery it makes of the deeper issues in the book and would be better off if they skip it all together.

the fantastic 2002 film version of Graham Greene's The Quiet American

2002 version (dir. Philip Noyce):

Much like the original film version, this version provokes a “what the fuck” moment.  But, while the moment in the first film comes from the twisted way in which the story is altered to fit the American mood, here it is from the way in which the film almost never saw a theatrical release because of the American mood.  The film was originally planned for a late 2001 release, but after 9/11, Harvey Weinstein decided that perhaps a film that shows the brutal actions of Americans in other countries wasn’t what people wanted to see.  So, close to a year later, he was planning to dump it straight to video when Michael Caine (who, after all, had won an Oscar in a Miramax film three years before) made the case to Harvey to show it at the Toronto Film Festival.  The rave reviews there were the only thing that earned it a theatrical release in time to qualify for the Oscars where Caine was again nominated.

How tragic that this film was almost swept under the carpet.  This film manages to do everything right that the previous version did wrong.  First, it did a magnificent job of adapting the novel, staying very true to the book.  Second, it was expertly made – from the cinematography and music to the direction and writing to the acting.  Third, it did a tremendous job of casting.  While Redgrave was solid in the original version, Michael Caine is absolutely perfect here – in fact, after seeing him, how could you possibly imagine anyone else ever playing the part?  But it also found a great job in finding an unknown Vietnamese actress, Do Thi Hai Yen, to play Phuong.  But, most importantly, in Brendan Fraser, it had an actor who could so perfectly embody the foolish naivete of the kind of American that Greene had written about.

Three things about this film actually worked in its favor when all of them could have easily backfired.  The first is that this actually worked well with the national mood.  It probably would have been a disaster to open it in the months after 9/11, but by the time it opened, with the country preparing for war in Iraq, it perfectly exposed the kind of flawed thinking that had led us into Vietnam in the first place.  Second, it was directed by Philip Noyce.  Noyce had spent a decade in Hollywood after the success of Dead Calm, but finally returned to Australia and made two films back to back that were both released in 2002: this and Rabbit-Proof Fence.  Suddenly, a director who looked like a Hollywood failure reminded us that not all talented filmmakers thrive in Hollywood and many do their best work out on their own.

The third and final success was the presence of Brendan Fraser.  At one point, Tom Cruise had been interested in the part, but in the end, Fraser was the perfect person.  First, being younger, he more perfectly embodied the innocence of the American who would believe so firmly in his theories.  Second, is the irony inherent in Cruise being in the picture.  In the early 80’s, it was hard to take Cruise seriously as an actor, but then he made The Color of Money and Rain Man and was able to stand his ground on-screen with both Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman (both older actors won Oscars).  Fraser had long been playing ridiculous characters before Gods and Monsters, but between that and The Quiet American, where he stood his ground on-screen with both Ian McKellen and Michael Caine (both of whom were nominated and both deserved to win), he suddenly became a viable actor.  Looking back on the two films, it’s easy to see how they could have backfired (I was very leery of the choice of Fraser both times), but he actually fit both films so perfectly, it is now hard to imagine any other actor.