What would Graham Greene make of the present time with its undercurrents of terrorism, conspiracy, regional conflict, and reactionary retrenchment? Sounds a bit like the backdrop to his 1956 novel The Quiet American, which is seen here in Phillip Noyce’s conventional but resolute and moving adaptation.
Years before Vietnam was our Vietnam, when the colonial French were still struggling with steady attrition, ineffectual lies, and inevitable defeat, Greene’s novel presciently characterized the next half-century of American foreign policy. Embodied by "American Aid worker" Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a bespectacled geek fresh off the plane in Saigon filled with a Harvard-bred zeal for spreading democracy, the policy is bumptious, naive, earnest, ruthless, and perhaps treacherous.
And amusing, too, at least for the more jaded and resigned Europeans on assignment there. Such as Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), a London Times "reporter" — he refuses to accept the title "correspondent" because it implies involvement — who at once befriends the callow stranger. But Thomas is involved — with Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen, who is stunning, inscrutable, and shallow), an orphaned bourgeois beauty whom he’s rescued from the ranks of taxi dancers. And Alden threatens that involvement, for as Thomas points out in his sometimes intrusive voiceover, he’s the kind of man likely to confuse a woman with a cause or a country.
As, of course, are Greene and Noyce, for whom the international triangle of Thomas, Alden, and Phuong is a not so subtle allegory of the rivalry between the brash American upstarts and the "aging European" — as Alden undiplomatically describes his British friend — for the prize of Asia’s soul. Although Noyce isn’t as condescending in his Asian stereotypes as Greene is in the book (or rather, Greene’s Thomas is, since he proves an unreliable first-person narrator), he does portray the Vietnamese in general, and Phuong in particular, as menacing enigmas, alluring and potentially fatal. Perhaps Noyce is attempting to re-create the romanticized image of the East that was prevalent in this period, an image here made glorious by Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, which deviates from his gritty work with Wong Kar-Wai to embrace a kind of lush, 1950s Technicolor exoticism.
Fortunately, the performances offset this prettiness. As the two men’s ambiguous friendship and volatile rivalry parallel the disintegrating military situation and the chaotic rise of a "Third Force" between the Colonials and the Communists, Fraser’s beefy charm holds up well against Caine’s whiskey-seasoned, opium-addled nihilism, proving that innocence and idealism are always the best disguise. Their scenes together express far more passion than either actor’s scenes with the object of his obsession. Alden has a suspicious habit of popping up whenever Thomas is in a tight spot, and that gives them opportunities for intimate tête-à-têtes while they wait for certain death. There may be atheists in foxholes (Thomas insists he’s one), but few can endure a mortar barrage without baring the soul. During one such ordeal, Thomas points out — and Caine’s performance here is reason enough to give him an Oscar — that if he loses Phuong, it will be, for him, the beginning of death.
No doubt Alden would agree, adding that losing Phuong would get the dominoes falling and before you know it we’d be facing the Communists in our own backyard. For Alden’s love is as true and as indifferent to the needs of his beloved as is Thomas’s. Since all is fair in love and war, can Thomas condemn Alden even when his love and idealism lead to the dismembered corpses of innocents in the street? Shouldn’t we condemn Thomas when his love and cynicism lead to the death of a different kind of innocence in a squalid alley?
Greene doesn’t judge. Noyce seems to, and the film’s perceived anti-Americanism led to a long delay in its release after September 11. Whether its stand on the issues is an æsthetic weakness and a marketing obstacle, it certainly is a courageous gesture. Whereas the 1958 Joseph L. Mankiewicz version starring Audie Murphy and Michael Redgrave featured a then politically correct ending, this American has the vantage of historical hindsight, if not more tolerant times, to support its less fashionable point of view. And maybe it, too, is prescient about a catastrophic conflict in the making.