The Quiet American (2002)

Directed by Philip Noyce

One of my favourite writers has always been Graham Greene. It’s probably due to the very fine architecture of his plotting and that romantic melancholy that hangs over his writings. And, perhaps more than either of these, it’s the inevitable moral dilemmas that inform his stories.

While not top of my list of Greene books, The Quiet American is one I like very much and Philip Noyce has done an excellent job of putting it on film.

Of course, Greene’s novels seem to lend themselves to cinema.

The moral problem in this one belongs to Fowler, the character brilliantly played by Michael Caine.

Michael Caine as the uninvolved Thomas Fowler.

Set in Vietnam in the early fifties (just before the French left), Fowler is a journalist who is running away from his life. His creed is uninvolvement. He chooses no sides, he simply watches from the sidelines.

This dubious detachment is put to the test when Brendan Fraser as Alden Pyle (the quiet American) appears on the scene with a completely opposite view.

He wants to be involved. Very much. He has an eagerness and naiveté that Fowler finds appalling, though somewhat fascinating too.

As the story unfolds, it soon seems everyone is involved in one sense or another – everyone but Fowler. But as events transpire, he begins to see he cannot stay on the sidelines, not without losing those things he cares about – the country he has come to see as home and the young Vietnamese woman Phuong (played by Do Thi Hai Yen), whom he would marry but can’t because a wife back in England will not divorce him.

Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) wants to get involved; Thomas Fowler wants nothing to do with it.

The woman Phuong becomes the centre of the story’s (and Fowler’s) moral dilemma. Pyle falls in love with her and wants to essentially save her – marry her, take her back to America, things Phuong appears to want though you’re never quite certain what she wants.

Forgive the cultural stereotype, but there is an inscrutability to her due, I think, to the precarious position she and her country are in.

Against all of this is the political quagmire of Vietnam and the various sides everyone is on. As Fowler is threatened by the idea of losing Phuong, and as he sees what is happening now the Americans are on the scene and secretly supporting a “Third Force” (neither the French nor the Communists), he’s forced to throw off his detachment and choose.

A resigned Thomas Fowler listens to the eager and optimistic Alden Pyle.

Noyce presents the film very nicely and finely, slowly laying a foundation and building the drama to its peak. This is not a frenetic film; it plays out with an intelligent pace. He works the mystery of the film to draw us in.

It opens with the death of Pyle. The mystery is in the who and why of the murder.

Michael Caine plays Fowler, the main character, perfectly (it’s similar to the main character in all Green’s books). He captures the detachment, sadness, and impotent cynicism exactly.

In 1983 Caine starred in The Honorary Consul (back then lamely renamed Beyond the Limit) and was the best thing in that weak film because, I think, he seems to have a complete understanding of the principal Graham Greene character.

The Quiet American is an excellent film rooted in an excellent story. It does a wonderful job of telling the individual, human story at the core while also providing great insight into the broader social-political context it uses as its backdrop. You’ll likely get a greater insight into the modern history of Vietnam by watching this movie than by reading a dozen books (unless, of course, one of them is Green’s The Quiet American).

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