Graham Greene’s prescient novel about the early stages of U.S. involvement in Vietnam receives incisive and nuanced treatment in this second screen version of “The Quiet American.” On the shelf for a year for the ostensible reason that the material’s critique of Yank behavior overseas would not go down well in the post-September 11 political environment, this highly faithful adaptation of the late British author’s 1955 tome will still rankle conservatives and knee-jerk patriots. But the resulting controversy can only stimulate interest and, if Miramax releases the film quickly enough (there is still no opening date set), it could play into the growing public debate about the advisability of future American military interventions in distant lands. In addition, pic features one of Michael Caine’s very best performances in the leading role. If Miramax were to put the sort of muscle behind this that it has to numerous previous “challenging” titles, a very good career on the specialized circuit could ensue.
Long-in-the-works project represents a case in which remaking an earlier film is actually highly justified. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s hard-to-see black-and-white 1958 version had certain qualities, notably Michael Redgrave’s performance and the not-unintelligent tenor of the extensive dialogue, but was fatally flawed by Audie Murphy’s shallow turn as the title character and by the wimpy but perhaps necessary decision to make the American a strictly private operator rather than a covert government rep, resulting in a pro-Yank slant.
New version, very well-directed by Phillip Noyce from a literate and dramatically balanced script by playwrights Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan, not only has the advantage of fidelity (not a bad idea when the author was as fine a storyteller and creator of characters as Greene), but that of the authenticity of having lensed in Vietnam and employed local actors (original picked up some location shots there but was mostly made in Rome, and the leading lady was European).
Film’s eventual power and sensitivity to things not being as they first seem are amply suggested by the opening scene, in which what initially appears to be a lively evening in Saigon, circa 1952, is shortly revealed to be a chaotic night that produces the body of a young American washing up in the river.
Vet London Times correspondent Thomas Fowler (Caine) is questioned about the incident by a French inspector (Rade Sherbedgia), and the savvy old journo launches into an account of his relationship with Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser). At first glance, Pyle is the living picture of American innocence abroad, an eager, well-groomed do-gooder in suit, tie and spectacles who claims to be in Indo-China strictly on a medical mission.
Although it’s easy for a seasoned Asia hand like Fowler to make light of Pyle’s evident naivete, he does find this “quiet,” well-educated Ivy Leaguer and professor’s son infinitely preferable to the boorish and often drunken Yanks that dot the clubs and other colonial hangouts during France’s waning moments of local power.
Fowler has a pretty easy time of it in Saigon, filing few stories since the outside world isn’t yet much interested in this Southeast Asian backwater and enjoying an affair with a beautiful mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), who obligingly prepares his opium pipes and provides sex with no expectations of marriage, since Fowler’s wife back in England won’t give him a divorce.
But the waters become choppy when the young and vigorous Pyle takes an immediate liking to Phuong and the Times pages Fowler back to London. The writer responds to the latter threat by heading north, where he accompanies the French military to survey what looks to have been a communist massacre, and where Pyle mysteriously appears, principally to tell Fowler of his feelings for Phuong.
“I want to protect her,” the American says, making explicit Phuong’s status as symbol for Vietnam itself, but she soon rejects him, freeing him to spend all his time supplying “medical” help to the vaunted Third Force that the Yanks believe must be established in Indo-China as an alternative to both the French and Ho Chi Minh’s forces.
The Americans find their man in an egomaniacal officer who proclaims himself General The, while Fowler gradually begins to realize that Pyle is up to much more than he lets on. As time goes on, the relationship between the two men becomes ever more complex; Phuong takes up with Pyle and dumps the older man, who is fully convinced that her leaving will be “the beginning of death” for him, when Fowler blatantly lies that his wife has changed her mind about divorce, and Pyle saves the journalist’s life after they are attacked in an isolated watchtower one night.
Film’s political stance, like that of the novel, grows out of the pivotal scene of car bombs going off in Saigon Square. Again, the communists are blamed for the incident, which kills more than 30, but Fowler discovers that it was a covert CIA job, with Pyle in charge.
This, then, makes the American a terrorist, although he sees it differently: “In the long run, I’m going to save lives,” he insists to Fowler, who suddenly finds it easy to abandon his long-standing sense of political detachment. Pic ends, as the novel could not, with a sobering succession of Fowler newspaper articles tracking U.S. involvement and escalation of war through the ’60s.
Although the picture’s ideological perspective is clear enough, it’s all handled with subtlety and on a human rather than grandstanding scale. Accurately reflecting Greene, approach is rife with irony and moral conundrums on all sides; certainly the Old World repped by Fowler and the French comes off little better than the Yanks, who nonetheless get most of the heat for so brashly assuming that they have all the answers.
Fowler seems notably more cynical in the novel than he does onscreen, and significant credit must go to Caine for making the aging and somewhat decadent scribe an open, vulnerable character. Fowler reps one of Caine’s meatiest roles, and he handles it with power, humanity and remarkable emotional fluidity; from the opening moments, an enormous amount comes through his eyes alone.
He also matches up very well with his two co-stars, each of whom shines. Fraser very capably projects the awkward zeal that initially brands Pyle in the eyes of the more world-weary characters, then darkens his characterization while retaining multiple dimensions. Hai Yen, a Vietnamese dancer who has previously appeared in a handful of films including Hung Anh Tran’s “Vertical Summer,” beautifully projects Phuong’s outwardly compliant behavior, as well as her occasionally detectable steeliness.
Production designer Roger Ford and his team have been able to adapt modern Vietnamese locations to provide a highly flavorsome taste of the old colonial world. Ace Asian-based lenser Christopher Doyle bathes the proceedings in a moist, slightly grainy texture. Dramatic style is more muted and the pacing more measured than in most contempo films, which is all to the good.