The Quiet American by Graham Greene: Book and Movie

This is my first selection for the Graham Greene Challenge hosted by CarrieK at Books And Movies.

I watched the film The Quiet American some years back, but not read the book. And my memory is vague. Only remember Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, the setting in Vietnam, in the early 50’s, a complex fusion of political thriller, murder mystery, and a love triangle.

But now that I’ve read the book I’m thoroughly intrigued, thanks to this Penguin Classics Graham Greene Centennial Edition (1904 – 2004), with the intro written by American novelist Robert Stone. Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers about the Vietnam war and its effects won the 1975 National Book Award. From his introduction, I’ve come to appreciate how intricate and multi-layered the conflicts are, and, how political the novel stands.

Interesting to learn from Stone about the joke embedded in the title: the only quiet American is a dead American. In the midst of a colonial war between the French and the communists in 1950’s Saigon, American Alden Pyle’s subversive brand of democracy satisfied none other than his own idealism. A Harvard grad, armed with naiveté and book knowledge, a CIA under the guise of the American Economic Attaché, Pyle’s involvement might well represent American meddling in other country’s affairs in the name of spreading democracy.

We see all these through the eyes of the narrator, the British reporter Thomas Fowler. Much older, more experienced, and having been posted in Vietnam for some years, Fowler has grown to love the humanity therein, but is plagued by bitter cynicism. He doesn’t take sides, he just writes his story as an observer, smokes his opium pipe prepared by his young mistress Phuong, and lies in bed with her. But Fowler’s noncommittal stance comes to a breaking point at the end:

… one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.

The Quiet American is noted for its divergent from Greene’s ‘Catholic’ novels. But the existential issues are very much in the forefront. Fowler is a man of conscience, albeit aloof in his outward stance. The climax comes as he resolves a moral dilemma. Guilt is his nemesis, regarding his wife in England, regarding Phuong, and much more acutely at the end of the novel, regarding Pyle. The book ends with this line:

I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.

And then there’s Phuong, manipulated by her older sister, weaves herself between the two foreigners whom she sees as her ticket out of the country and into a dream future. I find her reaction to Pyle’s death most disturbing.

In a short 180 pages, Greene has brilliantly depicted the political complexities of the conflicts at the time, and addressed the internal war waged within a man’s conscience, ironically, a man whose outward creed is noninvolvement. I’m thoroughly intrigued by the story that is told with depth, eloquence and skill by a master storyteller.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

The Movie: DVD

I watch the film again after finishing the book. It has altered some characters, and taken a more sympathetic view of Phuong. But the overall story and perspective remain intact. Upon this second time viewing, I find several interesting facts that I wasn’t aware of before.

Michael Caine was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and Golden Globe in 2003 for his role as British reporter Thomas Fowler. He has portrayed the character convincingly. Brendan Fraser as the young American I feel is a miscast. If they’re making the film today, James Franco would be my choice for Alden Pyle.

Director is the award-winning Australian Phillip Noyce. (Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002). One of the two screenwriters is Christopher Hampton who got an Oscar nom for his adapted screenplay Atonement from Ian McEwan’s novel. He is also the screenwriter for the current film A Dangerous Method. Executive producers were two personalities whom I highly respect, Anthony Minghella of The English Patient fame plus some more, and Sydney Pollack whose credits are too numerous to mention. It was a great loss that they both passed away within two months in 2008.

The DVD comes with a resource of special features. Other than all the interviews and making-of, there is a useful “Vietnam Timeline”, outlining the history of Vietnam from 1940 to 1980. Further, I appreciate the inclusion of original book reviews. One line particularly stands out. From the 1956 review of the book by John Lehman of The New Republic: 

The Quiet American is one of the most icily anti-American books I’ve ever read.

Oh…  the wealth of information one can gather from watching these special features.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

***

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “The Quiet American by Graham Greene: Book and Movie”

  1. I always thought this was a much longer read. I’ve not read the book or seen the movie.

    .
    Ti,

    I’m not one for long works. So this one’s just fine for me. It only took Greene 180 pages to tell his story, compact, multi-layered and intriguing.

    Arti

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  2. This is one of Greene’s I’ve not read, and it’s just been added to my list.

    I’m intrigued by your review, and the rough plotline. In its dynamics, it sounds very much like a tale that could have been told in pre-coup Liberia, although the issue wasn’t always “American meddling in other country’s affairs in the name of spreading democracy”, but repatriated slaves from America bringing the worst of their masters back to Africa.

    Another slight irony: I know a child attending a progressive school where there never is any “choosing of sides” for a game. Choosing sides has been abolished, lest someone feel left out or distressed. I wonder what Greene, and Fowler, would think about that.

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    Linda,

    I think you’ll be interested in this book. Mind you, it was first published in 1955, which just showed the foresight Greene had had. As for ‘progressive’ schools, this one I haven’t heard of that kids are not supposed to take sides. But, here in Cowtown, some years ago now, I heard of one case where teachers didn’t put down an ‘x’ to indicate a wrong answer, cause that would hurt students’ self-esteem. Take that!

    Arti

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  3. Great review! This is the only Graham Greene I’ve read so far, which of course, is why I’m hosting the challenge. I also watched the film after reading the book – I thought Brendan Fraser did an adequate job, but can definitely see Franco putting his own stamp on the role, too.

    I’ve added a link to this review to the main challenge page – thanks for participating!

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    Carrie,

    Thanks for hosting the Graham Greene Challenge. This is my first GG book albeit I’ve long been impressed by films based on his works or his own screenplay. I’ve two more lined up already, can’t wait. 🙂

    Arti

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  4. I don’t think I’ve read any Graham Greene — but this sounds intriguing. As does the movie. I’ve always been VERY fond of Michael Caine, so that’s a plus, too! As always, you introduce me to wonderful new things!

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    Jeanie,

    I think you’ll enjoy both. Do check them out… especially if you’re a MC fan.

    Arti

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  5. I loved Our Man in Havana, and have been intending to read more Graham Greene every since (oh and I loved The End of the Affair, too). I own The Quiet American and so I’m delighted to read your review, Arti. I definitely have a treat in store.

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    litlove,

    The End of the Affair is my next GG. I really look forward to it since I really liked the film. I think you’ll enjoy The Quiet Am. I’d like to know what you think about it after you finish.

    Arti

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  6. The ads for the new movie “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” brought to mind the movie “The Quiet American,” though not written about the same author, and I’d wanted to see “The Quiet American” again. Now, you’ve inspired to move from wishful thinking to actually requesting it from the library so I can see it again. I should read the book, too.

    In the book “The Lotus Eaters,” which takes place in Vietnam near the end of the American involvement in the war, there was a character who reminded me of Alden Pyle as well as several journalists who reminded me of Thomas Fowler. Perhaps, the author was inspired by this book in some chapters.

    I have to laugh sourly at so-called progressives not choosing sides. To not choose is to choose. Perhaps these people should avoid endeavors in which sides must be chosen. That said, I’m not big on competing athletically, because I have no talent!

    .
    Cathy,

    “To not choose is to choose” how true. The Quiet Am certainly deals with this issue in a complex way. I’ve not read The Lotus Eaters. It sounds intriguing. I should check that out.

    Arti

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  7. Thanks, Arti, for sharing this! I want to watch this now having just been to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

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    D,

    What a trip that must have been! Do check these out, book and film.

    Arti

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  8. Great review Arti. This is one of those book I “know off”, but never really got around to. I;ve read two Green’s and am always fascinated by his capacity to tell a complex story (with so many layers) is relatively few pages.

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    Alex,

    Thanks. You’re right about the economy of words and depth of expressions in GG’s works. Much to learn from and enjoy in his storytelling.

    Arti

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  9. I’d like to read the book one of these days. I notice it got half a ripple more than the movie did 🙂 Thanks for mentioning the joke about the title. I had no idea!

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    Stefanie,

    You know, I think you are the first person ever to mention about the number of ripples I give. 🙂 In this case, yes, the book is a much complex and rich account of an intriguing human experience with an international and historical backdrop.

    Arti

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  10. I rated this movie four out of five stars. The history as depicted in the movie is flawed, but the acting and story line are exceptional and, I believe, absolutely true to the novel, which I read many years ago. The fact that it was filmed in Vietnam may have impacted on how the French and Vietnamese are portrayed, i.e., wrong period uniforms, grossly mis-represented in racial make-up. For instance, by 1952 France had recognized Vietnam as 1) unified (note: there had been a 1946 attempt to split Cochinchina off from Annam and Tonkin, which had been laid to rest in 1949) and 2) as the State of Vietnam (all of Vietnam, obviously excluding the Communists). The end result of that recognition was more enlistments by Vietnamese into the French Army, rising to 40% of the combat force and more French and American support for raising and equipping the Vietnamese National Army, which later became the ARVN. Some of the film depicts fighting around Phat Diem, whose beleaguered “French” force consisted of an all-Vietnamese French colonial infantry battalion.

    Actors get paid to play parts, and in that regard I found Michael Caine brilliant and highly effective as Fowler. Fowler doesn’t have to be ‘right’. He just had to be believable as linguistically challenged reported desperately hanging on to his post in Vietnam in order to remain with his mistress. Thus everything he gets, and everything he bases his articles and opinions on, get filtered through English and French speaking Vietnamese, some of whom are in the Communist infrastructure.

    I also found Brendan Frasier effective as Pyle. Here is someone who plays his cards close to his chest, and maintains an effective outer cover. We only discover he speaks Vietnamese in a flashback to the bombing scene, which is what puts the climax in motion.

    The movie may not be as subtle as Graham Greene’s prose, but it is, along with Between Heaven and Earth and We Were Soldiers Once and Young, one of the very best films of the Vietnam war.

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    1. Hi g2…

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughtful comment. Your 4 our of 5 stars could well be equivalent to my 3 out of 4 Ripples. No matter how we rate them, this book is a classic and the movie one of the better literary adaptations I’ve seen. Thanks for sharing your view.

      Like

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