The film version of The Quiet American opens with the body of an American in a white linen suit bobbing face down in a river. The American is quiet because he is dead. He is dead because he tried to meddle in the politics of a country he barely understood. When the movie was screened soon after Sept. 11, apparently several test audiences responded negatively to this sequence of events, causing Miramax to delay the release of the film by a year, on the grounds that it was anti-American. To many involved in the movie’s production, the release may have seemed like bad timing. But it was not the first time that The Quiet American faced this particular accusation.
When the book came out in 1955, American critics rallied against it as if some sort of metaphorical violence were being done to their country. In The New Yorker, A.J. Liebling called the book “a nasty little plastic bomb,” claiming that the author “apparently resented passing on the world leadership to the Americans.” Newsweek ran an equally vitriolic review, “This Man’s Caricature of the American Abroad,” denouncing its “dreary stereotyping” and arguing that Greene was still bitter about difficulties he’d had in getting a visa to come to America. Later that year, in the charged political atmosphere of the McCarthy era, the magazine published dark innuendos about the book’s appeal to the Kremlin. And when the original movie version came out, in 1958, the producers altered the plot to make it more flattering to Americans—altered it so completely, in fact, that Greene said, “One could almost believe that the film was made deliberately to attack the book and the author.”
But was the book really anti-American? The quiet American of the book’s title, Alden Pyle, wanders through the streets of Saigon with a book called The Rise of the West tucked under his arm, a dog at his ankles, and visions of changing the world. He meets Thomas Fowler, a rumpled, opium-smoking British journalist, and a perverse drama unfolds: Pyle steals Fowler’s Vietnamese girlfriend, and Fowler is indirectly responsible for Pyle’s murder. Pyle embodies almost every cliché of the naive American abroad that has ever amused a turtlenecked European, and the novel elegantly satirizes everything from the Vegemite spread he eats to avoid the spicy local food to the maddening simplicity of his political beliefs to his embarrassing sexual earnestness.
Because Greene is Greene, the book is not content with its satire: It has to analyze the sources of hostility behind it. Fowler admits that his dislike of America merges with an intense, personal rivalry:
I began—almost unconsciously—to run down everything that was American. My conversation was full of the poverty of American literature, the scandals of American politics, the beastliness of American children. It was as though she were being taken away from me by a nation, rather than by a man. Nothing that America could do was right. I became a bore on the subject of America. It was as if I had been betrayed, but one is not betrayed by an enemy.
Fowler realizes, then, that in spite of himself and his sophisticated denigrations of the American’s character, he actually likes Pyle. In his tortured account of the events leading up the murder, it often seems as if he is drawing up a legal brief against himself: “All the time his innocence had angered me, some judge within myself had summed up in his favor, had compared his idealism, his half-baked ideas, with my cynicism. Oh I was right about the facts, but wasn’t he right too to be young and mistaken, and wasn’t he perhaps a better man.” Fowler is in the strange position of both murdering and elegizing Pyle: There is, mingled with his contempt for the American’s irritating and dangerous qualities, a kind of love.
In the early ‘50s, Greene wrote, “I don’t consider myself anti-American any more than I consider myself anti-Romanian or anti-Italian.” And in fact Greene’s exquisite condescension toward America is tinged, at every turn, with a kind of grudging appreciation. And as a result, the book is filled with quicksilver turns of mood; it tears Pyle down, reduces him to rubble, and then builds him up a moment later into a fairly admirable individual. Pyle is responsible for an explosion that kills women and children in a busy square but also for saving Fowler’s life, dragging him wounded through a field under Vietminh fire. Though the book’s affection for America—its energy, its innocence, its belief in changing the rotting world—is couched in fierce criticism, the novel presents a much richer and more nuanced view of Americans abroad than it has been given credit for.
Compared to the anti-Americanism now sweeping through Europe, Greene’s anti-Americanism, even at its most scathing, is relatively mild—and tellingly different in kind. In fact, the film version of The Quiet American inadvertently reveals just how much European anti-Americanism has changed over the last 50 years. In the film, there is a vivid scene, after the explosion in the square, when Fowler is startled to see Pyle speaking fluent Vietnamese, barking orders at a policeman. He suddenly realizes that the man he had thought of as ignorant was actually in complete command of the situation all along. Within seconds Pyle is transformed into a ruthless CIA mastermind—whereas in Greene’s version, he remains a bumbling and misguided figure who looks like he is going to faint when he sees the carnage.
Today, Greene’s view of Americans as dangerously innocent seems antiquated, almost quaint. His American funnels explosives to the wrong people because of his naive faith in bringing liberty to the paddy fields, because of the books he carries around under his arm. As Greene put it, “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” But there is no longer the sense in Europe that America is bungling its effort to spread democracy out of naiveté; on the contrary, motives are questioned. Aggression is assumed. A book claiming that the United States government was responsible for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 was a runaway best seller in France. “Let’s murder Bush” was the chant at a recent rally in Paris—murder him not because he is innocent, or destructively idealistic, but because no Parisian believes that his rhetoric about spreading freedom has any sincerity at all. The clichés of Americans as embarrassingly earnest faded after the Vietnam War. The caricatures are darker now; we are seen, even by some of our own, as greedy, bullying, and bloodthirsty. The innocent American Greene wrote about may well be dead.