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One of cinema’s most powerful genres is the war film. Through their depiction of the physical destruction and mental devastation that war inflicts upon soldiers and civilians alike, the best war films tell universal tales that are relatable to people of all eras, cultures, and lifestyles. One of the shortcomings of watching period war films, however, is that they are unable to provide the full story of any given conflict within the confines of the screen. As a result, it is difficult for viewers to see the big picture of the numerous events leading up to or gain insight into the reasons behind any given conflict. One unique war film, however, chronicles not only the turmoil of war but also the various political intrigues that spark and fuel it; The Quiet American. Through its portrayal of civil unrest and domestic distress in 1950’s Vietnam, The Quiet American provides an unusual and unusually informative take on the Vietnam War, which its story foreshadows.
The story begins in 1952 Saigon as British reporter Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) introduces viewers to the seeming paradise of his expatriate life. Fowler spends his days writing bland articles chronicling the most obvious events of the civil war unfolding between colonialists and communists in the northern part of Vietnam, and his nights doting upon his Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). The simple comforts of Fowler’s life are soon called into question, however, with the arrival of American aid worker Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), whose friendship challenges Fowler’s stance upon the political events surrounding him. According to Pyle, neither colonialism nor communism is the solution to Vietnam’s troubles and a third, moderate, force must therefore be utilized to neutralize both sides. Fowler initially brushes off Pyle’s political theories as the vague, idealistic, dreams that are so common amongst the young and inexperienced. Despite their different political views, the two form a strong friendship that is later tested when Pyle falls in love with Phuong and offers her the two things that Fowler never can; marriage and passage out of Vietnam. When his newspaper requests that he return to London after determining that there is not enough of a story to cover, Fowler sets out to find the inside story behind the accepted Vietnam narrative. During his investigation, Fowler unexpectedly meets up with Pyle again and learns that there is far more to his American friend than naive ideals after all.
While numerous films have related varying accounts of the Vietnam War, The Quiet American stands out for its willingness to examine the reasons and events that led to it. Rather than taking a definitive stance, the film instead chooses an approach similar to that of its protagonist and observes as the intrigues between the conflicting factions unfold. The film relates both the financial motives and paternalistic approach that fueled the colonial rule of the French controlled government of Indochina (the colonial name for Vietnam), as well the oppression that led to the nation’s eventual communist uprising. The film delves even deeper into the politics of the time by including the covert tactics utilized by the United States in Vietnam and other nations throughout the Cold War. The most effective aspect of the film’s political portrayal is the way in which all sides are shown to be equally and ruthlessly devoted to their own goals, regardless of the damage that will be inflicted upon the civilian population in order for those goals to be achieved.
The film was originally due to be released in September, 2001, but was held back after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, as its politically charged story was deemed to be ‘anti-American’, rather than simply anti-war. It was this same view of the story that led MGM to alter Pyle’s character and soften the film’s ending in their 1958 adaptation, which both nullified the message of Graham Green’s original novel and limited the story’s emotional impact. In order to avoid a possible backlash, Miramax planned to release the film straight to dvd, but fortunately reconsidered after being persuaded to test the film at the Toronto International Film Festival by star Michael Caine. The film went on to become a critical success at the festival and an even greater success later at the Academy Awards in which Caine was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. The story remains as effective an anti-war tale today as it was upon the novel’s publication in 1955 and has as much, if not more, poignancy and relevance in today’s world of complicated and conflicted international relations.
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While the central love triangle serves as an excellent metaphor for the rival forces competing for control of Vietnam (Fowler represents complacent Europe while Pyle represents idealistic America) the domestic struggle that it creates is just as complicated and compelling as the political struggle that provides its backdrop. Instead of one man being the clear choice for Phuong, both men are shown to be equally in love with her and both are later revealed to be guarding secrets from her. Initially, Fowler’s relationship with her seems to be a superficial one based upon his physical attraction and her need for financial stability. This first impression is further reinforced when Fowler confides in Pyle that the reason that he and Phuong are living together rather than married is because he already has a wife whom he left behind in London. Similarly, Pyle’s relationship with her is based upon his need to protect and take care of someone, and she in turn is all too happy to be taken care of. As the film continues, however, Pyle’s desire to take care of both Phuong and her country is shown to be far more complicated and dangerous than a simple need to help others. The love triangle turns even more convoluted when Pyle is eventually revealed to be working in Vietnam as a CIA agent rather than an aid worker, and the true depth of Fowler’s feelings for Phuong finally becomes all too clear to both her and viewers. As a result, audiences are able to empathize with all three parties, which in turn enables them to become more engaged with both the characters and the overall story.
Although the film’s script is excellent, the final product would not have been nearly as effective or intriguing without its talented cast. As the world weary Fowler, Michael Caine demonstrates equal parts cynicism and vulnerability, making him equally convincing as both a detached playboy expatriate and a crusading reporter. The subtlety of his performance allows him to display a full range of contradicting emotions while remaining believable and relatable. Similarly, Brendan Fraser perfectly captures Pyle’s outward naivety and hidden ruthlessness with equal skill. His portrayal of Pyle is particularly worth noting for the fact that even after Pyle’s double life is revealed he is still able to maintain his character’s initial idealism, providing credibility to Pyle’s devotion to what he tells himself is a just cause. Finally, Do Hai Yen provides a fascinating performance as the enigmatic Phuong, elevating her heroine beyond a mere symbol into a flesh and blood woman.
For its mature approach to a complex topic, The Quiet American is a film that will continue to inform and entertain for years to come. Through its exploration of the early causes and intrigues that preceded the Vietnam War, the film provides excellent insight into how and why the war occurred. Through its intelligent script, superb performances, and gorgeous cinematography, the film provides viewers with a combination of romance, mystery, intrigue, and atmosphere that is both entertaining and informative. While the story of The Quiet American is specific to Vietnam, its message is one that remains relevant in any age or nation.
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