Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Unquiet Grave of The Quiet American

I do not like being moved; for the will is excited, and action
Is a most dangerous thing; I tremble for something factitious,
Some malpractice of heart and illegitimate process;
We're so prone to these things, with our terrible notions of duty. -- A. H. Clough

Graham Greene has not been well served by his film adaptations. Neil Jordan included a scene in his adaptation of The End of the Affair (1999) in which Maurice (Ralph Fiennes) takes Sarah (Julianne Moore) to see a movie based on one of his novels. As they watch, Fiennes whispers to Moore, "not in my book." The scene occurs in Greene's novel, and Jordan's inclusion of it is a rather backhanded tribute to Greene, since Jordan's film takes liberties of its own with Greene's book, like completely eliminating the miracle of the birthmark's disappearance.

Propaganda may not have been foremost in the mind of Graham Greene when he wrote The Quiet American, but events certainly made the novel seem much more anti-American than perhaps he intended. The tale of a British correspondent's encounter with an American intelligence agent, disguising himself and his actions with platitudes about goodwill and finding a "third force" among the Vietnamese to satisfy both sides has come to seem prophetic, given the course of events. When it was published in 1955, Vietnam was still making up its own mind about how to govern itself - but self-government was the ultimate goal.

The novel is by no means up to Greene's former standards (The Power and the Glory, 1940), but it is an excellent divertissement, whatever its political insights. Greene, the traveling trouble-sniffer, warned against the perils of taking action and how political motives can sometimes be a disguise for less noble ones. Its setting is 1952, when the French were still fighting Ho Chih Minh's Communist forces (the so-called Viet-Minh) in the North. the French quit Vietnam for good in 1954, and an uneasy division of the country along the 17th Parallel was enforced, with Ho Chih Minh agreeing to honor the sovereignty of a foreign-funded government in the South. Since the Communists were unacceptable to the U.S. and the "elected" government in Saigon was unacceptable to most Vietnamese, a "third force" was sought that might make everyone happy. One such force were the Caodaists. It was during this relatively peaceful ceasefire that Joseph L. Mankiewicz adapted The Quiet American to film. And a more thorough hatchet job of the novel and of Greene could not have been devised.

In the opening credits, Mankiewicz's film is based "upon a novel by Graham Greene," and makes so many alterations that it hardly resembles the novel of the same name. Mankiewicz makes Pyle the hero and Fowler the unwitting dupe of Communist agents.(1) In the novel, Vigot, the French police inspector, is portrayed as calmly incompetent, and merely reports the death of Pyle to Fowler, mentions his suspicions to him but does not pursue them. He puts one in mind, as Greene intended, of how the French lost Indochina. In the Mankiewicz film, the role is expanded considerably. He is played by Claude Dauphin, and he becomes Fowler's vicar as he turns up at the oddest moments to badger him into believing in Pyle's innocence. Pyle is played by Audie Murphy, who was a bonafide American war hero, but a big zero as a film actor. The only time he managed to suggest more than two dimensions was in John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage (1951), in which he played, of all things, a war deserter. In The Quiet American, he utters his homespun pieties, as expected, with a complete lack of conviction.

But Murphy is not, alas, the worst actor in the Mankiewicz film. Aside from location photography in Vietnam (by the great Robert Krasker[2]), Mankiewicz utilized Cinecittà in Rome for his interior scenes. I cannot think of any other reasons why he cast the Italian actress, Giorgia Moll, as Phuong, Fowler's Vietnamese mistress. Her preposterous presence, big-boned and round-eyed, is, to put it mildly, more than a little disorienting. At least the Algerian actress, Kerima, who plays Phuong's sister and who was so unforgettable in Carol Reed's Outcast of the Islands (1952), is comfortable in her exotic surroundings. When Michael Caine, who plays Fowler in the 2001 version of The Quiet American, says that losing Phuong, played by the beautiful (and Vietnamese) Do Thi Hai Yen, would be "the beginning of death," I can understand his feeling. When Michael Redgrave expresses the same sentiment for Giorgia Moll in Mankiewicz's version, all I can feel is puzzlement or pity.

The only even remotely real person in the Mankiewicz film is Redgrave as Fowler. In a later interview (3) he regretted his involvement with the film, for obvious reasons. But he is splendid. He seems to be the only actor onscreen who did not have to learn his lines. Redgrave lives them. And by taking such apparent pleasure in destroying him, Mankiewicz merely makes himself look ridiculous. All objections aside, the film has been buried by history. The year after its release, North Vietnam declared war on South Vietnam to unite the two countries - an outcome that was finally realized sixteen years later. But only after some of the most inhuman carnage ever inflicted by one people on another. If history has proven Graham Greene right, he cannot have taken much satisfaction from it. As if to emphasize the film's mistake, a title appears over the final shot that reads, "To the people of the Republic of Vietnam - to their chosen president and administrators our appreciation for their help and kindness."

Before any other consideration, the Philip Noyce adaptation of The Quiet American is a necessary corrective to the Mankiewicz film. Full advantage was taken of the perspective of forty years and the frankness that was denied Mankiewicz in 1958. But in one significant detour from the original story, the new film betrays Greene almost as completely as the old one did.

Michael Caine is made up to look at least twenty years younger to play Fowler, and, miraculously, he pulls it off. The only time I nearly cringed was in the physical scenes of his escape from the tower that is attacked by communist "guerrillas," and in the love scenes with Do Thi Hai Yen.(4) Such relationships as that of Fowler and Phuong are prevalent in southeast Asia. On a physical level it is somewhat understandable: a girl that young and a man that old are about equally far from their sexual peaks. In the contribution to the DVD commentary for the film, Caine spoke of these relationships, saying it is a pity that the men do not seek women closer to their own level of maturity. Coming from a man whose wife is fourteen years younger than he (a difference that was more apparent when they were married), his comment suggests that Caine may believe he is quite a bit younger than his years.

The other characters are nicely observed in the Noyce film, with one glaring exception. The film does long overdue justice to the two principal Vietnamese characters, Phuong and Heng, Fowler's assistant at the Saigon Times office. Do Thi Hai Yen is almost too beautiful, but who could possibly take exception to such an advantage? The camera gets close enough to her, the one bedroom scene, to reveal a blemish or two to her otherwise flawless face.

But the one instance of miscasting perpetrated in the film is Brendan Fraser as Pyle. Though the role is restored to its original ambiguity, Fraser is hopeless both as the goofy innocent he pretends to be at first and as the cocksure agent of covert American military aid to the Caodaists. The scene when he confirms Fowler in his suspicions is powerful only because we cannot wait to see Fraser dispatched. What would have made Pyle immeasurably more sinister (though Audie Murphy is spooky enough) would have been to present him exactly as Green did, as a complete innocent who really believes in what he is saying and doing. His attraction to Phuong would have been easier to understand if we see it as Pyle's sincere attempt to redeem her from the life that Fowler, for all his genuine feelings for her, had condemned her. When Pyle is surrounded by the girls at the brothel, the look of helplessness on his face, as described by Greene, and his muttering the words, "they're all so beautiful" is where both films should have taken their cue.

But the way that the new film closes is a betrayal of Greene and gives Noyce an excuse to rub American noses in their own shit. Greene gave Fowler a happy ending - his wife grants him a divorce so that he can at last marry Phuong and take her to London. The very thought of Greene's Fowler even wanting to remain in Vietnam a moment longer than he has to is absurd. Instead of marrying Phuong, he keeps her as his mistress indefinitely.(5) Noyce makes them stay in Saigon throughout the war, sending dispatches to the Times about the war's escalation, all the way up to the height of American military involvement.

Both films flub Fowler's shattering last line: "I wish someone existed to whom I could say I was sorry." In the Noyce version, Fowler speaks them, slightly altered, to Phuong, who could not possibly understand him. But it is an immeasurable improvement over Mankiewicz's staging, in which poor Michael Redgrave speaks the exact words to Vigot, and then disappears into a crowd of revellers.

Certain bad ideas should not be permitted to die gracefully. That Communism should never prevail in Vietnam is such an idea. To this day, there are American conservatives who persist in believing that we lost the war in Vietnam because "we didn't go in there and do it right". (6) The United States failed in Vietnam not because of its enormous strategic blunders or because the manner of warfare had changed, but because we had no business being there in the first place. More than 50,000 Americans died for a cause that was doomed at its inception. And instead of entering at the war's conclusion a long and difficult period of questioning and self-examination, to at least determine how and why such a disaster could have befallen the world's pre-eminent military power, Americans by and large tried to pretend that it never happened. An entire generation of war veterans were forgotten. As Auden wrote of another war:

History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.(7)

(1) In the place of Pyle, who becomes the victim of Fowler's jealousy and hatred for Americans, Mankiewicz created "Dominguez," a rather oily character who is otherwise a replacement for Fowler's Vietnamese assistant, Heng.
(2) The interview is included in the special features of the Criterion edition of The Browning Version.
(3) The scene at the Caodaist sanctuary in the heart of the Vietnamese countryside is extraordinary, and emphasizes the extreme silliness of its philosophy.
(4) Bravely, Noyce includes a scene in which Phuong helps Fowler with his opium pipe. He excluded, however, Fowler's inability to fall asleep without his hand between Phuong's thighs.
(5) Though the scene in which he wins her back in the L'arc en ciel, buying a ticket so he can dance with her and explain their new "arrangement," is beautifully sad, what with Phuong's hapless sister hanging her head when she watches them embrace, knowing there is no longer any hope of making a respectable woman of Phuong.
(6) I heard the late William F. Buckley speak those very words in a debate with Ronald Reagan over the fate of the Panama Canal.
(7) W.H. Auden, "Spain, 1937."

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