Some of the ambiguities, hypocrisies and perplexities of cold war politics are observed, dramatized and, to a degree, analyzed in The Ugly American. It is a thought-provoking but uneven screen translation taken from, but not in a literal sense based upon, the popular novel by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick.
Focal figure of the story is an American ambassador (Marlon Brando) to a Southeast Asian nation who, after jumping to conclusions in the course of dealing with an uprising of the natives of that country against the existing regime and what they interpret as Yankee imperialism comes to understand that there is more to modern political revolution than meets the casual or jaundiced bystander’s eye. As a result of his experience, he senses that Americans ‘can’t hope to win the cold war unless we remember what we’re for as well as what we’re against’.
Although skillfully and often explosively directed by George Englund and well played by Brando and others in the cast, the film tends to be overly talkative and lethargic in certain areas, vague and confusing in others. Probably the most jarring single flaw is the failure to clarify the exact nature of events during the ultimate upheaval.
Brando’s performance is a towering one; restrained, intelligent and always masculine. Japanese actor Eiji Okada of Hiroshima, mon amour renown, makes a strong impression.
Mass riot scene near the outset of the picture is frighteningly realistic. Art direction is outstanding, with a convincing replica of a Southeast Asian village on the Universal backlot.