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