Message of ‘Quiet’ rings loud & clear

“The Quiet American” revolves around this central conflict: “Sooner or later…one has to take sides, one has to stay human.” Using a love triangle as its political metaphor, the film juxtaposes the shortcomings of cool-headed neutrality with the dangers of fervent patriotism.

Veteran British foreign correspondent Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) prides himself on impartiality and detachment, but his friendship with American advisor Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) forces him to confront the human consequences of warfare. Pyle believes that Machiavellian decision-making is justified by good intentions. For Pyle, and metaphorically for all Americans, loss of human life is a necessary means by which to achieve ideological imperatives.

Although not imperialistic like the Europeans, the Americans are portrayed as similarly guilty of arrogance. It is arrogance that perpetuates the ignorance behind Pyle’s initiatives, all intended to improve Vietnamese life. Needless to say, this depiction has made the story’s popularity a function of political climate.

When journalist Graham Greene’s original novel of war-torn Vietnam was first published during the 1950s, it was widely criticized for its perceived anti-American agenda. An early film adaptation, released in 1958 and a product of its McCarthy-era background, distorted Greene’s message into one of patriotic propaganda.

Political controversy also played a role in this most recent version of the novel, which languished for months between production and release. A test screening was done in New Jersey the day before the 9/11 attacks and garnered favorable reviews. On the morning of 9/11, Mirimax executives were scheduled to meet with director Phillip Noyce in Manhattan to discuss the results of the screening.

Due to its theme, the project was shelved until Caine stepped forward to negotiate its release. He believed (rightly) that his performance would meet with critical acclaim – his flawless turn as the honest Fowler earned him his sixth Oscar nomination. Without Caine, “The Quiet American” would wander from one beautifully executed scene to the next without any clear direction. In fact, the development of Fowler’s character is more compelling than the development of war-torn Vietnam.

Fowler begins as a reporter who takes pride in his objectivity – “even an opinion is a form of action.” His eventual embroilment comes as a result of his love affair with native beauty Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), who acts as a metaphor for all of Vietnam. Pyle falls in love with Phuong at first sight (or rather, with the idea of Phuong). As they compete for her affections, both men display honesty, though in very different ways. Where Fowler is honest with himself and willing to acknowledge his selfish motivations for holding on to Phuong, Pyle is absurdly honest about his love. Not only does he trek across dangerous terrain to confess his love to Fowler, but he insists on openly declaring his desire for marriage to Phuong with Fowler present.

The proposal scene makes clear that while Fowler may have selfish reasons for wanting Phuong, he at least sees her as a person and not an object, as Pyle does. Not only does Pyle treat Phuong terribly, Fraser also treats the script terribly. It’s hard to imagine how the production team managed to act so brilliantly in casting Caine and so stupidly in casting Fraser. (Though we should count our blessings – the first stars slated for the project were Sean Connery and Johnny Depp.) Fraser never looks comfortable as Pyle. Because his substantial build makes him a strong presence on screen, he looks out of place as the American academic clad head-to-toe in white seersucker. To be sure, Pyle is an inherently awkward character, but Fraser delivers his lines as if the words were bricks.

“The Quiet American” rarely strays from Greene’s outline, but while the book trumps the film in nearly every category, the film adds a dimension to Phuong that is significantly lacking in the book. Greene imparts no sense of Phuong’s character aside from her appearence as a fragile doll in need of rescuing. On screen, Phuong is given greater freedom and development; during her conversations with her sister, we see that it is not Phuong’s mind that is simple, but her English.

Filmed on location in Hanoi and Ho Chih Minh City (formerly Saigon), the film is also able to paint a lush portrait of Vietnam, from its French colonial architecture in the city to its mazes of dark verdure in the countryside.

Following the showing at Images on Friday, co-producer and local resident Eyal Rimmon fielded audience questions alongside Williamstown Film Festival executive director Steve Lawson. A part of the project from the beginning, Rimmon spent years working to find studio interest in “The Quiet American” after reading the novel. He was impressed by the “prophetic” aspects of Greene’s work, which identified major strategic mistakes made by American forces in Vietnam prior to the years of quagmire.

Rimmon also expressed the film’s desire to appear “timeless,” despite its historical specificity. In this regard, “The Quiet American” is very much a success; thanks to Caine’s performance, the story’s overarching themes are put in perspective and Greene’s overt political message is universalized.