The Sweaty Englishman

The Quiet American is fast, mythically uneasy, and brilliantly acted.

Fraser and Caine in the murk of Vietnam
Fraser and Caine in the murk of Vietnam

It’s hard to imagine a tighter, more gripping adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American than Philip Noyce’s new movie (Miramax) from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton. The story of Fowler (Michael Caine), an aging English foreign correspondent in Saigon who develops a strangely affectionate enmity for an idealistic young American named Pyle (Brendan Fraser), the film is a classical piece of work, swiftly and evocatively told, with a fair amount of narration in the first half but mounting dramatic concision (and dread) thereafter. Sans credits, it runs less than 90 minutes, and Noyce doesn’t waste a frame. That’s what makes the movie a grabber, and that’s what slightly diminishes its impact: There isn’t a lot of time for Greene’s worldview to sink in.

Greene didn’t have an ideological ax to grind when he wrote the book between 1952 and 1955—which might be why he made the case against American intervention in Vietnam with such amazing prescience. He had no love for the homegrown Communist forces—the Viet Minh—amassing in the North, but he saw them (wrongly but understandably) as the least of evils, more in touch with the needs of the people than the brutally inept French colonialists, and less likely to commit atrocities than the megalomaniacal and anti-democratic military leaders with whom the Americans managed, with the best of intentions, to ally themselves.

As was Greene’s bent, he told the story through the prism of a love triangle. The cynical reporter and the romantic American compete for Fowler’s mistress, a silken Vietnamese beauty named Phuong (played onscreen—somewhat inertly—by Do Thi Hai Yen); and the struggle over the woman is meant to echo the struggle for Vietnam. Although the parallel somewhat objectifies both Phuong and her country, Greene was aware of his restricted vantage. Representing old Europe (with a Catholic wife back home who won’t divorce him), Greene’s alter ego is honest about his sexual and emotional selfishness and Phuong’s limited options and just as blunt in his assessment of her people: “They want enough rice. They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.”

What troubles Fowler (and Greene) is Pyle’s view of himself as a savior—a view that’s rooted not in knowledge of Phuong or Vietnam but in post-World War II chivalric egoism and the writings of a (fictional) author called York Harding, who calls for a “Third Force” to counter both colonialism and communism. The quiet American, who seems to be behind the supply of plastic explosives to a despotic general named The, is the most ingratiating villain imaginable: “He was as incapable of imagining pain or danger to himself as he was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause others.”

Both the novel and the film open with the discovery of Pyle’s murdered body, then flash back to the events that led to his killing. It’s no mystery, given its modulated but firm anti-Americanism, why The Quiet American went unreleased for a year after Sept. 11. If anything, the movie’s launch on the eve of an invasion with Iraq could be even touchier—or would be, if its political dimension were allowed to breathe. As it stands, we don’t hear enough about Pyle’s passionate belief in the Third Force, and a lot of the Gen. The material simply whizzes by. You’d need to have read the novel to understand what’s happening when Fowler watches two American women hurriedly leave a public square before an explosion set by The’s men. And Hampton and Noyce barrel through the book’s most gripping chapter, in which Fowler and Pyle find themselves out of gas and trapped in one of the hideously vulnerable watchtowers on the road between the north and Saigon, opposite two young and scared recruits.

That said, what’s in the film is well-nigh perfect. That watchtower looks haunted in the fading light, and the shots of Saigon at night, with its sampans drifting lyrically in the foreground and the mortar flashes on the horizon, have a mythic beauty and unease. The scenes of carnage are staged and shot—in agonized slow motion—to register the obscenity of “collateral damage,” of ends valued over means when the means are the ravaged, limbless bodies of men, women, and children.

As conceived by Greene and Hampton, Pyle is dramatically uninteresting and probably unplayable. Someone like a young Sean Penn might have found a creative back door to the character’s shallowness—but it beats me where it would be. Fraser is good, though—better than you’ve heard. He’s a buoyant actor who can’t help stylizing Pyle’s sincerity (think Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent), but he doesn’t condescend to the character. His Pyle is a man with enormous sympathy and zero empathy: He wanders through the landscape like a man (in Greene’s words) “impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.”

Michael Caine was the right age for Fowler when he played a version of the same part in the much underrated 1983 adaptation of Greene’s The Honorary Consul, senselessly retitled Beyond the Limit. But it scarcely matters that he’s a few years too old for the role: He has grown into one of the finest film actors of all time, and his Fowler is an understated masterpiece. No one sweats through a role the way Caine does: You can see his character’s simultaneous terror of losing Phuong and his struggle to remain aloof in Caine’s pores, in the position of his head, in the light or the dimness of his eyes. Caine makes Hampton’s too-literary narration work by playing it as an inner dialogue: It’s the best performance of narration I’ve ever heard. It makes you want to hear Caine read the whole book—or read anything.