Graham Greene was a highly recommended British novelist when I was in college in the 1950’s. He viewed the world from a Catholic perspective, a religion to which he converted as a young man. He also had a penchant to write thriller novels with an underpinning of political and undercover activities. “The Quiet American” was published in 1955, but initially was regarded in the U.S. as anti-American.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Michael Caine - Wikimedia
Michael Caine is portrayed as Thomas Fowler, a British reporter for the London Times, stationed in Saigon in the year 1952. Graham Greene himself held this same position which makes this novel at least semi-autobiographical. Fowler is aging at this point, which does not preclude his having a beautiful young Vietnamese mistress named Phuong, probably thirty years younger than he, who lives with him and shares his opium sessions. Fowler’s wife in England refuses to divorce him, given that she is Catholic. Fowler would gladly marry Phuong and take her back to London, but she knows deep down that this will never happen. Sadly, no Vietnamese man would ever marry her either, now that she has lowered herself to be a mistress.
Lately, Fowler has filed very few reports to the London Times concerning the Vietnam conflict between the Communists and the French, concentrating instead on his romance with Phuong. Those back home are unconcerned about the events transpiring in Vietnam anyway. A message from the Times, announcing that he is to be re-assigned to the London office, goads him into action again to do actual field work for the Paper. They agree to an extended stay when Fowler promises a major story on a General The, who promises a “Third Force” in Vietnam, which will exclude both the Communists and the French.
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Brendan Fraser - Wikimedia
The Quiet American
In his work, Fowler meets a “quiet American,” Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), who is supposedly part of a Medical Mission set up to aid the Vietnamese. In reality, as we soon learn, he is a CIA agent, allied against both the Communists and the French colonials.
Fowler invites Pyle to his home where he meets Phuong and admits to Fowler that he has fallen in love with her. Pyle has all the characteristics that would be advantageous for Phuong. Phuong’s older sister, who acts as her guardian, recognizes this and encourages Phuong to pursue a relationship with Pyle rather than to stay with Fowler. In contrast to Fowler, Pyle is a young American, not wealthy but certainly well-off, who is in a position to marry her and provide her with a wonderful life in Vietnam or in the United States. He knows that Fowler’s wife will not give him a divorce. Initially, Phuong refuses him and he understands, and Pyle and Fowler remain friends.
The War Up North
Fowler sets out to a place up north called Phat Diem where he hopes to interview General The, who had broken away from the French and formed his own army. A massacre occurred in Phat Diem. Pyle has also come to Phat Diem and was able to arrange an interview for Fowler with General The. The interview was unproductive, and Fowler and Pyle drove back together to Saigon. Their car was low on Petrol; apparently someone in Phat Diem had siphoned it off, and they took shelter in a tower. A grenade was thrown at the tower and their car was burned. Pyle was able to save Fowler’s life, which prompted Fowler to say “If I had died, you could have had her.”
Fowler had written to his wife once more, asking for a divorce. When he and Pyle returned from Phat Diem to Fowler’s house, Phuong handed him a letter from London. Fowler told Phuong and Pyle that his wife agreed to a divorce. Later, Phuong happily showed the letter to her sister who was able to translate it, and told Phuong angrily that Fowler had lied; his wife again refused to divorce him. Her sister encouraged Phuong to leave Fowler and go with Pyle, which Phuong did. Pyle had also gotten Phuong’s sister a job with the Americans, which also swayed her to his side.
A poignant scene shows Fowler sobbing to himself when he is alone over the events that have just taken place.
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Map of Vietnam - Wikimedia
Bombing of Saigon
A blast occurred in the street near Fowler’s place, killing hundreds of people and injuring others. Fowler dashed out to help some of the unfortunates, and spotted Pyle calmly wiping blood off his pants while those around him were begging for help. He learned that a series of bombings that had recently taken place and were blamed on the Communists, in reality were arranged by Pyle. He had orchestrated the arming of The’s men with American weapons, enabling them to terrorize Saigon with the string of bombings, killing innocent women and children. Pyle naively believed he was doing the right thing.
Fowler invited Pyle to dinner at the fashionable restaurant, the Vieux Moulin, the next evening at 9 o’clock. Before he reached the restaurant, Pyle is chased through the streets and fatally stabbed. The viewer is never told who the perpetrators are, but Fowler’s Vietnamese assistant is seen in the melee driving away on his bicycle. A policeman questioned Fowler, making the statement “You asked for a table for one, not two.” Fowler merely pointed out that there is a war on and people are getting killed every day.
Did Phuong return to Fowler after Pyle was killed? You will have to see the film to find out.
Release of Film Postponed
“The Quiet American” was scheduled to be released in 2001. However, after the tragedy of 9/11, it was decided to postpone the opening since the film intimated that the United States could be labeled a terrorist as well, and would probably not be well received. It was eventually released on November 22, 2002.
Michael Caine was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in “The Quiet American.” He was edged out that year by Adrien Brody who played the title role in “The Pianist.” Michael Caine was also nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance that year.
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