Shiny Shelf


LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: The Quiet American

By Stephen Lavington on 13 November 2002

At this film’s London Film Festival premiere, director Phillip Noyce denied rumours of problems with its North American distribution. It appears that these press reports originated in protests at test screenings conducted in New York in the immediate wake of the September 11th attacks. These protests were partially based in the widely reported anti-American Imperialist views of the film (themselves rooted in the decades-old writing of Graham Greene – the author of the novel ‘The Quiet American’) but were mostly due to specific scenes – scenes which, in all frankness, probably ought not to have been shown in city then so recently bereaved in the manner it was two years ago.

Still, it is nice to have such worrying tales of ‘patriotic’ censorship scotched. Indeed, far from ‘The Quiet American’ being somehow ‘inappropriate in tone’ now is, more than ever, the time for this film to be released in the States. It would be a shame if only smug non-Americans saw its important message in its unadulterated fullness: if audiences should only consist of those likely to nod their heads in agreement but to whom this message is not really directed.

The actions of British journalist protagonist Thomas Fowler (Sir Michael Caine) appear good-hearted and altruistic at first but are as much based in self-interest. The real interest in the film – as in the current political situation – is the national character of a country which presents a schizophrenic foreign policy which is simultaneously based around a near-messianic desire to preach the goodliness of democratic representative government yet involves a long-running tendency for cloak-and-dagger tactics designed to ‘influence’ foreign countries and the frequent, nay regular, backing of authoritarian, unelected leaders over left-wing populists.

The plot deals with Fowler, living as an ex-pat lotus-eater in 1950’s Saigon. He has a Vietnamese mistress, a tidy and insignificant office for the Times and a wholly ambivalent attitude to France’s colonial struggles in Vietnam. This changes with the arrival of the eponymous ‘Quiet American’ Alden Pyle (played by a competent Brendon Fraser).

The way the story works is a brilliant example of how impeccable source material, adapted in a sensitive and skilful way (by Christopher Hampton), removes the need for contrived twists or knee-jerk shock tactics. This is not to simplistically deny the place of special effects in modern filmmaking. Indeed, such things are present in this film, woven in with a sensitivity that shows how such techniques can form a seamless union rather than noisily dominate. This stage is elaborately constructed for the benefit of Michael Caine. Like Christopher Lee, Caine is turning in some of his best performances in his autumn years. Torment, confusion, uncertainty and desperation are all ably conveyed by this veteran actor and, like Lee’s stentorian tones and angular face, it is a real pleasure to see Caine’s bulky frame and battered yet familiar features not only on screen but as central character. Roll on the Oscars.

Some Greene fans will no doubt find reason to criticise the adaptation, and I spotted a few narrative incongruities and rushed successions of scenes (especially odd given the relatively short running time- it is likely some deleted footage will pop up on DVD), but the key thrust of the movie is clear and the application of a fifty year-old story to today’s world is almost note-perfect. It’s about as preachy as a film designed as critique could be without becoming unpalatable, but this is the view of a liberal Briton (albeit one with a great regard for America) and this film is unlikely to play well in (Say)Peoria. Hopefully this will not be true of the country as a whole and this thoughtful and wise film will get the wide attention it deserves.


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By Stephen Lavington




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