The Quiet American: Graham Greene's Brilliant Novel Shines as a New Film

by H. Arthur Scott Trask by H. Arthur Scott Trask

If you missed the long-awaited release of The Quiet American last winter, you should rent or purchase a copy at once (picking up a nice French Bordeaux on the way) and reserve an evening this weekend. While I could go on at length praising this film's artistic qualities, suffice it to say that it perfectly fulfills the promise (though rarely fulfilled) of film as a visual art form that brings the drama of human existence to life through cinematography, natural scenery, evocative music, memorable language, and realistic acting. The opening scene of the Quiet American is simply intoxicating, and before it is over, you have will have been drawn into the world of French Indochina in 1952. The French are fighting, and losing, a guerrilla war with the Vietminh Communists, and the Americans are already there planning to take their place as the de facto overlords of the country, but Saigon retains the charms of the French Orient.

The screenplay is excellent, full of memorable lines spoken with perfect pitch by the actors Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. Its excellence is due in large part to how closely it follows the novel of the same name (1955) by English author Graham Greene (1904–1991). Greene, who had spent time in Vietnam in the early 50s reporting on the war, believed that America's mission to step in for the French and save Vietnam from communism was doomed. If Americans had read this novel in 1955 and realized that the story, although fictional, was imbued with truth, they would never have plunged into that morass. Of course, had they the capacity to learn from literature, or history, or the desire to do so, they would not have been American. Idealism divorced from reality, along with a crusading moralism at war with morality, remains the hall-mark of the American character, and no novelist has captured it more brilliantly than Greene in this novel.

Greene's story takes place mostly in Saigon and centers on the friendship and romantic rivalry between Alden Pyle, a young, earnest Harvard graduate who works for the U.S. Economic Aid Mission, and Thomas Fowler, a middle-aged truth-telling reporter for the London Times. Pyle (played in the film by Brendan Fraser) is in truth a CIA operative whose aim is to create in Vietnam a so-called "Third Force," or "national democracy," that is independent of both the French and the Communists. Fowler (played in the film by Michael Caine) regards the plan as a fool's errand, and he dismisses Pyle's hand-picked leader of the movement, General The (pronounced tay), as "only a bandit with a few thousand men." (One immediately thinks of the CIA asset Hamid Karzai now presiding over the American puppet regime in Kabul.)

Pyle is a disciple of an American political theorist named York Harding who has written books with titles such as The Advance of Red China, The Role of the West, and The Challenge to Democracy. Fowler says of Pyle, "Democracy was another subject of his, and he had pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world." Fowler, as a representative of the "old colonialists," has learned from bitter experience that the world is not infinitely malleable, that problems are often intractable, and that certain western abstractions, such as democracy, are mere "mental concepts" that have no reality (that is, they do not correspond in any way to how the world actually works). Growing impatient with Pyle's arguments from abstraction, he snaps "Isms and ocracies. Give me facts." He tells Pyle that the people of Vietnam are not interested in fighting an anti-communist crusade. What they want is simple: "enough rice," "not to be shot at," "one day to be much the same as another;" and, above all, "they don't want our white skins around telling them what they want." After all, "This is their country."

Fowler admits to being "an isolationist," and it turns out that so is Pyle's blue-blood Bostonian father. The irony is clear. Young America, which started out tending its own garden, has embraced global interventionism, while Old Europe, imperialist for centuries, has re-discovered the wisdom of tending one's own garden and letting other nations work out their destinies in their own way.

Their ethics are different in another way as well. Fowler strives to be "a truthful observer," an accurate reporter, and he makes it a principle not to take sides, not to get involved. Pyle's morals, on the other hand, are interventionist and teleological. Other people's affairs, including those of his friend Fowler, are his business. What is more, he judges his actions by their intended effects. Fowler discovers that Pyle's CIA team is supplying General The's forces with Diolacton, a plastic used to make explosives. Pyle and the general are secretly carrying out a series of targeted bombings which they will then blame on the Communists. When an outraged Fowler, who has just witnessed the carnage produced by one of these explosions in Saigon, confronts Pyle, the latter protests that the bombing should not have taken place because the military parade that the bomb was intended to strike had been cancelled, but he had not been there to stop it. Fowler realizes that Pyle believes that the killing and maiming of civilians would have been justified if only the parade had taken place. In other words, he regards the civilian carnage as acceptable, incidental damage. Fowler asks, "How many dead colonels justify a child's or a trishaw driver's death when you are building a national democratic front?"

A few days later, Pyle is unrepentant. Fowler asks him if he is done with the general. Pyle responds that The, for all his flaws, "is the only hope we have. If he came to power with our help, we could rely on him." As far as the trishaw driver with the severed legs, or the woman weeping over her dead child, "They were only war casualties. It was a pity, but you can't always hit your target. Anyway, they died in the right cause. … They died for democracy." (The screenwriters changed the dialogue here slightly but brilliantly. In the film, Pyle intones, "What happened in the square today sickens me Thomas, but in the long run we shall save lives." How often have we heard that one?)

Fowler is so appalled that he agrees to set up his friend for assassination by the Vietminh (of course, his desire to get back Phuong furnishes an additional motive). He knows that he is violating his own principle of non-involvement, but as a Vietnamese tells him, "Sooner or lateru2014one has to take sidesu2014if one is to remain human." Fowler's motives are certainly mixed (one doubts if he would have cooperated if Phuong had not been involved; he could have chosen to write a story exposing Pyle and his murderous CIA terrorist operation). Yet, as Pyle himself admits, there is a war going on, and Pyle is involved. Despite his decision to cooperate in an act of violence, Fowler, unlike Pyle, is not a man of violence (his act is sui generis), and he retains his humanity throughout even as Pyle sacrifices his on the altar of democracy.

Fowler's summing up of Pyle reads as an epitaph for those Americans who have planned and executed one failed, nation-building, peace-imposing foreign adventure after another, from Somalia to Haiti, Kosovo to Afghanistan. "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." Pyle was "impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance." Together, they amounted to a kind of invincible "innocence." Pyle, the prototypical idealist American, would "always be innocent [i.e., persuaded of his own innocence]. You can't blame the innocent, they are always guiltless [i.e., incapable of guilt]. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity." If Greene is right about the Americans (and did not Vietnam prove him to be so, as well as the Balkans and now Iraq?), then the only thing that will stop the United States from aspiring to rule the world will be crushing military defeat abroad. Nothing else will suffice.

Reading the Quiet American today, or watching the film, one is struck by how little Americans have learned from history, how its leaders continue to repeat the mistakes of the past, and how the character and mind-set of American missionaries for "democracy," whether they be military officers, diplomats, CIA operatives, administration officials, or grand theorists, has not changed at all (not in fifty years). Steeped in intellectual abstractions, historical forgetfulness, self-righteous innocence, and crusading zeal, Americans (represented by Pyle) continue to plunge into the world oblivious to the realities that keep intruding to spoil their ambitious programs for world redemption, but their wake is strewn with dead bodies, mangled children, ruined countries, and new and ever-more determined enemies. How long must we endure the murderous idealism and vengeful innocence of America?


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