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The Quiet American

September 3, 2005

The Quiet American (2002)

After several decades, Graham Greene's novel about the early days (1952) of American involvement in Vietnam is finally given a proper film adaptation. The earlier film version made in 1958, whatever its virtues, had the ending changed to be Cold War friendly in stark contrast to Greene's novel which was trenchantly critical of the American role. In this sad, moving film, which features at its center a typically flawed Greene protagonist, Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), the "quiet American" Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) is idealistic and full of grand visions about helping the Vietnamese people. In one conversation Pyle is going on about bringing liberty to the Vietnamese and Fowler interrupts him: "'Liberty' is a very western word. How do you define it for the Vietnamese?" Pyle responds with typical gung-ho idealism,"By giving people the freedom to choose." Fowler's years of experience in Vietnam speak, "OK, you give them the freedom to choose, they vote, and they elect Ho Chi Minh... Things are more complicated then they seem."

Eventually Fowler discovers that Pyle is CIA and is funding a "third force", neither French nor communist, through which he hopes Vietnam will be saved. When his third force kills 30 civilians in a bombing in a square in Saigon so they can pin it on the communists Fowler confronts him about it. Pyle says "In a war you use the tools you've got" and when pressed about the atrocity defends it: "What happened in the square today makes me sick. But in the long run, I'm going to save lives." A 1956 review of Greene's book by John Lehman of the New Republic stated that Greene's novel was "icily anti-American". But we might wonder if it is "American" to intervene militarily across the globe and sponsor terrorist attacks on civilians in the name of a greater good. This film, telling a story still relevant 50 years after the novel was published, demonstrates that we are still wondering. Rated R for violence and sexual situations. See this review.

More Films on Liberty and the State.

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