Unless you take your historical cues from Chuck Norris, nearly 30 years have passed since the last U.S. soldier died in Vietnam. But the war continues to superheat the American imagination. The new Miramax film The Quiet American, based on the chilling 1955 Graham Greene novel that predicted America's bloody Vietnam nightmare, sparked the latest flare-up.
The film—the first version faithful to Greene's dark, classic tale of Saigon during the French Indochina War—stars Michael Caine as cynical British reporter Fowler and Brendan Fraser as Pyle, the idealistic but irresponsible CIA officer who causes so much trouble. Supposedly modeled after General Edward Lansdale, the real-life CIA spook who directed U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the 1950s, Pyle has since become the subject of much debate among American policy makers. Had the Pentagon and Langley understood Pyle's significance back in the late 1950s, some say, the "burn the village to save the village" bloodbath of the 1960s might never have happened.
When first published, Greene's novel outraged Americans. The new film, directed by Australian Philip Noyce (Dead Calm) and scheduled for U.S. release on Nov. 29, seems likely to reprise the panic. Completed more than a year ago, The Quiet American had its first test screening in New Jersey on Sept. 10, 2001. It has been sitting in a Miramax vault ever since. Some speculate the Sept. 11 attacks made studio head Harvey Weinstein squeamish, a claim Miramax denies.
"There was never any controversy about the film," said a Miramax spokeswoman who insisted on anonymity. "We always planned to take it to film festivals. Now we're releasing it."
But last month, a year after the film's first screening, industry trade magazine Variety observed that studio executives predicted "the material's critique of Yank behavior overseas would not go down well in the post-Sept. 11 political environment [and that] the highly faithful adaptation . . . will still rankle conservatives and knee-jerk patriots."
"I could not understand what was going on," Caine told the British Sunday Times on Sept. 23. "I felt it would be a shame if this film was lost. Harvey [Weinstein] felt it was too anti-American, unpatriotic or something like that, especially after the Sept. 11 bombings. So I shouted at him and told him he was wrong, that that was just silly, and I think he listened."
Last month, the film got its debut at the Toronto Film Festival to rave reviews. Roger Ebert proclaimed it one of Caine's best films, quite a pronouncement for the actor who starred in Alfie and The Man Who Would Be King and won Oscars for his roles in Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules.
Greene's novel has a history of making studios nervous. The book is unsparingly critical of what Greene—who was in and out of Indochina from 1952 through 1955—saw as increasingly dangerous and arrogant meddling by the U.S. in Vietnamese affairs. As the heavily armed but inept French colonial army crumbled under relentless Viet Minh guerrilla pressure, Greene watched rising American aid and assistance flow into Saigon. The quiet American of the title is a dangerous do-gooder, a man whose flexible ethics allow him to set off bombs and kill civilians for, as he saw it, the greater good. His death, the seminal event that opens the book and the movie, is more blessing than tragedy.
Still considered one of Greene's best, The Quiet American came out in 1955 to vicious U.S. criticism. Most famously, A.J. Liebling fried it in a scathing New Yorker review, ridiculing Greene, a Brit, for his sometimes hamfisted attempts to make Pyle the American sound like an American.
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Studio executives were incapable of bringing that book to the big screen. In 1958, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who produced The Philadelphia Story and directed The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, produced, wrote and directed a radically rewritten take on Greene's original story. Starring Michael Redgrave as Fowler, soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy as Pyle and the European actress Giorgia Moll as the Vietnamese girl both men love, Mankiewicz's film was heavily sanitized for Cold War American sensibilities. Pyle had become a hero, murdered by godless Viet Minh. The film is all but impossible to locate today.
Needless to say, Greene was pissed about the metamorphosis—mostly because Mankiewicz turned to, of all people, Lansdale himself for script recommendations. Lansdale was happy to help. In 1957, he told South Vietnamese dictator (and U.S. puppet) Ngo Dinh Diem that the Mankiewicz version was "an excellent change from Mr. Greene's novel of despair."
But as U.S. adventurism in Southeast Asia swallowed some 2 million lives and billions of dollars, reducing the beautiful Vietnamese highlands and forests to the most bombed territory on the planet, domestic opinion changed. In just a few years, The Quiet American went from Limey harping to prescient wisdom.
Of course, by then, it was too late. But with American Green Berets today hunting guerrillas from the mountains of Afghanistan and Russian Georgia to the jungles of Colombia and the Philippines, Greene's theme—that atrocities may spring from the best intentions—has added significance.