Plenty to Shout About

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Review of 'The Quiet American', director Phillip Noyce

Upon its 1956 release Graham Greene's original novel, 'The Quiet American', was attacked for its anti-American sentiments. Despite this, Hollywood pressed ahead with a film adaptation two years later, simply changing its ending to accommodate McCarthy-charged expectations and champion Western ideology over Communism. Now a new film version, directed by Philip Noyce, is having the same accusations levelled at it as the original. Its distributors Miramax, having already delayed its release for a year, are nervous, and the film's lead, Michael Caine, has felt compelled to declare, 'I'm the most pro-American foreigner there is.'

It is set in Saigon in 1952, amid the Communist-led fight for Vietnamese independence from French colonialism. The fighting taking place largely in the north of the country is beginning to impact upon the south. Fowler (Michael Caine) is a politically neutral, embittered reporter for the 'Times'. He meets the title character, Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a younger man who idealistically extols the virtues of American liberal democracy. He is there under the pretence of being an economic aid worker and seems eager to learn about the local political situation. All is not as it appears though and Pyle's true identity as an agent in the fledgeling CIA soon becomes apparent. Recognising that French defeat is inevitable, Pyle is overseeing US backing for an emerging nationalist force as a realistic alternative in the region. This 'third force', aligned neither with the French nor the Communist Party, has embarked on a campaign of terror. It is designed to frame the Communist Party, to strengthen ideological opposition and, most importantly, to guarantee increased financial support from the US.

The fact that the US is shown to be participating in acts of terrorism to promote its own ideology does not sit comfortably with the current 'war on terrorism'. In the aftermath of 11 September the last thing the film's distributor wanted to be promoting was a film that seemingly criticised US imperialism. Do not be surprised if 'The Quiet American' is now billed as a love story in an effort to detract from its political content. Although romance does form a substantial and influential part of the narrative, the love triangle between Pyle, Fowler, and his Vietnamese mistress Phuong (played by first time actress Do Thi Hai Yen) serves merely to facilitate the political developments and fails to stand up on its own merits. This is due largely to Phuong's character, which is not developed in any meaningful way.

One scene is particularly harrowing and poignant. There is a terrorist attack at the heart of Saigon, and both Pyle and Fowler are involved. The camera remains in the carnage that follows and time slows down. It is the moment when Pyle's true colours are exposed, and his culpability realised. It is powerful stuff--especially if you know that many of the extras used in the shoot were suitable because of injuries incurred in landmine explosions, or as a consequence of Agent Orange. Whether this is out of convenience or deliberate on the director's part, there is no denying the continuing relevance to American intervention in the world today.