The Quiet American (2002)


Graham Greene is known as a Catholic writer of religiously charged novels, but his later works are driven by politics, not religion. The Quiet American, published in 1955, marks the beginning of this change.

2002, Miramax. Directed by Phillip Noyce. Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Tzi Ma.

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Caveat Spectator

Occasional war-related violence and a scene of a terrorist bombing; a stabbing murder; depictions of nonmarital and extramarital affairs (no explicit nudity); brief scenes of opium use; some profanity, sex-related dialogue and crude language.

There’s still a vestige of Greene’s earlier interest in spiritual themes: As in The End of the Affair, the protagonist, partly based on Greene himself, is an atheist and an adulterer. Yet the drama no longer centers on the conflict between the hero’s faults and the reality of intractable religious truth that he is forced to confront; indeed, this confrontation never comes.

If Greene is no longer interested in subjecting his protagonist’s guilt to judgment, he’s not interested in rationalizing it either. It’s simply a fact in a morally and emotionally complex story of two very different but flawed Westerners living in 1950s Vietnam in the last days of French colonialism and the dawn of Vietnamese Communism.

Phillip Noyce’s film adaptation, one of the most faithful screen adaptations of Greene’s novels, eliminates the last traces of Greene’s religious motifs and focuses entirely on political and interpersonal themes. Yet these are at the heart of Greene’s story, so as an adaptation this film is successful where Neil Jordan’s recent The End of the Affair failed.

In a virtuoso performance, Michael Caine plays Fowler, a broken-down, cynical old political reporter for a London newspaper who makes a journalistic virtue out of apathy ("Even having an opinion is a form of action," he avers), but shows too little interest in actually writing anything for this dodge to be plausible. Fowler’s real life in Saigon revolves around opium and sex, both supplied by longtime companion Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), a lovely, unsettlingly young-looking local girl who worked in a dance hall before she took up with Fowler.

Into their lives comes Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an earnest, bookish Clark-Kent type who seems to want nothing more than to bring medical supplies and care to the Vietnamese. His idealism is the polar opposite of Fowler’s amicable disillusionment, but on one point they come to have something in common: Pyle falls for Phuong, and, with a strange blend of convention and audacity, openly persues her after first talking it over with Fowler, as if he were her father and not her lover.

Fowler, of course, is old enough to be Phuong’s grandfather. Moreover, he’s married, and his wife, a Catholic living in England, is unlikely to agree to a divorce. Pyle offers the prospect of a respectable marriage, and he says he loves her, though in fact he may be moved by an impulse to save and protect her. Fowler’s attachment to Phuong is also intense, though it may be what she represents to him as an embodiment of youth and life rather than who she is as a person that he really wants.

Does she really belong with either of them? Do they belong in Vietnam at all, these Westerners? The personal relationships parallel the larger political situation: Fowler represents the old European colonialism, interested in exploiting Indochina for its own gain, while Pyle represents the ideological new American presence, keen on saving Vietnam from itself.

Writing in 1955, Greene anticipated increased American involvement in Vietnam leading to devastating consequences, and the film tells us the end of the story at the beginning: From the first scene we know that Pyle will be murdered, though we don’t know why or by whom. The film goes on to suggest an even darker side of American foreign policy, as the threat of looming Communism leads to overlooking or even exploiting atrocities committed by rival factions.

"Sooner or later," someone tells Fowler, "one has to take sides if one is to remain human." Yet which side, if any, does the film take? Certainly it disapproves of a barbarous warlord and those who support him, but is there’s anyone in the film whose decisions we’re meant to admire and agree with, whose side we’re meant to take? If so, the point wasn’t clear to me.

Much has been made of the film’s critical view of American policy (which caused Miramax to postpone the release date in the wake of 9/11 for fear of patriotic backlash). Greene’s book is certainly critical of the U.S. (and Greene himself despised a previous screen adaptation, made in 1958 by Joseph Mankiewicz, that gave the story a pro-American, anti-Communist spin). This film retains Greene’s political message, though it’s less subtle than the book and basically depicts all Americans (other than Pyle) and certainly their proxies as one-dimensional villains.

At the same time, it’s safe to say that no one is shown in an admirable light, from the French to the Communists to the resistance. (Greene may have begun to sympathize with Communism at this point, but there’s no indication of it here.)

As Pyle, Frasier gives a fine, intelligent performance through most of the film, and he uses his size to good effect. However, a key scene early in the third act follows unconvincingly from what we’ve seen before, whether due to some limitation of Frasier’s or to a failure in the way the character was conceived.

Although Noyce’s film has no interest in religious themes, and the book’s interest was only passing, it’s worth noting that themes in the story’s plot compare and contrast strikingly with similar themes from Greene’s previous book, The End of the Affair. Spoiler warning: The following reflections involve climactic plot points, so the following paragraphs are only for readers who either know both stories or don’t mind learning here how they end.

A convert to Catholicism from atheism, Greene was a believer but a conflicted one. Drawn to the Church by his passion for the woman he married, herself a Catholic convert, Greene was later unfaithful to her with other women. At the peak of his literary powers, driven by guilt and inner turmoil, he reflected profoundly in novels like The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair on faith and the sinful human condition, producing works that are vindications of belief without being vindications of every believer.

The parallels between the relationships in The End of the Affair and The Quiet American are striking. Both stories center on romantic triangles involving one woman and two men. In both books the protagonist, one of the men, is an atheist and an adulterer, while the other man is a respectable rival who is not an adulterer. A married woman who is or becomes Catholic figures in both stories, and both books open with the revelation that one of the principals is going to die. Additionally, both protagonists lose the woman they love at one point.

Yet the differences are even more striking. In The End of the Affair, the protagonist Bendrix embarks on an affair with a married woman that ends when the woman undergoes a moral transformation and embraces Catholic faith. The novel ends with Bendrix alone and on the outside, the woman he loved having suddenly sickened and gone to be with her God after her moral triumph, leaving Bendrix to contemplate the strange legacy of his onetime lover’s faith.

In The Quiet American, by contrast, the character who dies is not the woman but the respectable rival, Pyle. The believing woman in this story isn’t the woman in the middle of the triangle, but the protagonist’s wife, back home in England. And the story ends with the protagonist neither bereaved and alone like Bendrix, nor returning back home to his wife, but permanently abandoning his wife (who won’t give him a divorce) and living happily ever after in sin with his lover. Thus, it’s the Catholic wife, not the adulterous protagonist, who’s left alone and on the outside as the story ends.

As mentioned above, Greene doesn’t seek to rationalize or justify his characters’ choices. Yet the sense of deep conflict from the earlier works has been diminished. The divergences from the earlier patterns in Greene’s work mark the beginning of an erosion of the religious and moral contradictions in Greene’s work as his sense of guilt began to succumb to laxity of belief and an increasing preoccupation with politics.

Greene once quoted Charles Péguy in an epigraph to The Heart of the Matter: "The sinner is at the very heart of Christianity… No one is as competent as the sinner in Christian affairs. No one, except the saint." But one cannot live forever with a deep sense of conviction over unrepentant sin. One must eventually either heed the Holy Spirit or cease to hear his voice. No one can judge Greene’s soul; but the increasingly complacent trajectory of his later novels offers a prophetic warning even more stark than the tortured guilt of his earlier ones.




The End of the Affair (1999)

The film may be said to be largely faithful to the book, in the sense that the great majority of scenes are adapted more or less as they were written. But this is like saying that the character of Sarah (Julianne Moore) is largely faithful to her husband Henry (Stephen Rea) because the great majority of her time she isn’t sleeping with her lover Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes): the betrayal is crucial, and gives the lie to the supposed fidelity of the rest.