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Saturday, October 26th, 2002


The Quiet American (Penguin Classics)

by Graham Greene

A review by C. P. Farley

When Graham Greene first published The Quiet American, it was largely dismissed in this country as anti-American. In 1955, that particular criticism carried substantial weight. When Joseph Mankiewicz made the novel into a film three years later, he substantially toned down the story's political content, much to Greene's outspoken chagrin.

Now, Greene's celebrated novel has once again been translated to film, this time by Australian director Phillip Noyce. In fact, the movie's been in the can for over a year. Originally scheduled to hit theaters last fall, after September 11th the release was postponed indefinitely, because, once again, "it has what some people may consider anti-American themes." Though Noyce had expressed concern that his movie would never be shown in theaters, we are now told that The Quiet American will be released in late November so that Michael Caine will be eligible for the 2002 Academy Award for Best Actor.

Now that the film's release is assured, the question becomes, How will American audiences respond? Of course, the public's response to any movie is impossible to predict, and depends to some degree on the quality of the film (though, alas, often less than one might hope). But the American public's response to The Quiet American will hinge, in part, on whether or not the backhanded portrayal of the American character is interpreted as gratuitous anti-Americanism or valid criticism.

There's little doubt that Greene harbored negative feelings toward America. In a number of his novels, the American characters are naïve, or corrupt, or both. But it's also hard to deny that this subtle, moving depiction of one American innocent causing unwitting harm in Vietnam proved prophetic.

The quiet American of his title is Pyle, who has come to Saigon in the early fifties as part of a medical assistance delegation sent by a benevolent US government. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that Pyle is in fact a CIA operative covertly arming a Vietnamese splinter group in an attempt to surreptitiously steer the war according to American interests.

Pyle is an acolyte of an American foreign policy theorist named York Harding, who has proposed that the solution to the problems in French Indochina is a "third force." Harding's third player, which would take the place of both the colonialists and the Vietnamese insurgents currently battling for control of the country, is, of course, a euphemism for democratic America.

Loosely mirroring Harding’s triad, Greene’s main characters include a colonialist, a Vietnamese, and an American whose worldviews are wildly divergent, but whose interests are deeply intertwined. The story is narrated by a cynical, dissipated British foreign correspondent named Fowler — or as the French pronounce it, Fowlair (get it?). His mistress is a young Vietnamese woman named Phuong whose goals are strictly practical: financial security through marriage. Then, there’s Pyle: honest, sincere, and without doubt about the rightness of his course.

Despite the fact that Pyle falls in love with Phuong, and then seduces her away from Fowler with promises of marriage, the worldly Brit and the earnest American become improbable friends. To a morally weary colonialist like Fowler, Pyle's guileless decency is endearing, if somewhat ludicrous. In the end, though, their friendship is strained not by their desire for the same woman, but by Fowler's growing uneasiness with the effects of Pyle's clandestine activities, however well intentioned.

After a bomb in downtown Saigon kills several innocent bystanders, Fowler traces the contents of the bomb back to Pyle. Though he never questions Pyle's intentions, Fowler realizes that in his blind adherence to too-tidy ideological theories, Pyle has sacrificed his ability to admit actual human consequences. Though his integrity remains intact, his moral compass does not. Pyle is the quintessential innocent, which for Fowler is not a compliment:

"'...I had better look after Pyle.' That was my first instinct — to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection, when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world meaning no harm."

It will be interesting to see how Pyle is portrayed in the forthcoming movie. Reading the book today, it's hard not to draw parallels between Pyle's arrogant naïveté and the misguided American policies that in the years to come would cause such grief in this small Southeast Asian country. Will Noyce play up or tone down this connection?

But it will be even more interesting to see if Greene's uncannily accurate assessment of the American character was limited to a specific time and place. Considering what happened in Vietnam as a result of American good intentions, let's hope so. Given current American posturing on the world stage, I would hate to think that Fowler's assessment of Pyle was still relevant: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."

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