ON THIS DAY in 1970, U.S. Army Lieutenant William Calley went on trial for the 1968 My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians. The incident was documented in the 1989 British TV production, FOUR HOURS IN MY LAI.
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AFTER I SAW the 2002 film version of THE QUIET AMERICAN, I read the Graham Greene novel on which it was based. Then I saw 1958 film version. To see both movies is an odd experience—not good, just odd—because they use the same story structure, the same characters, and sometimes the same dialogue to tell opposite stories.
The Book (1955)
The Quiet American was published in 1955. Greene based it on his experiences as a Saigon-based war correspondent in Vietnam from 1951 to 1954. At that point the French were fighting the First Indochina War. The American government was starting to take an interest in the place.
The plot concerns a clash of world views: the cynical, burned-out, middle-aged British journalist Thomas Fowler versus the idealistic, Harvard-educated young American Alden Pyle. It is implied that Pyle works for Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA. Pyle makes Fowler crazy with exasperation, not least because Pyle is in love with Fowler’s beautiful young Vietnamese mistress Phuong—an enigmatic character.
Because Pyle and his ideals cause a lot of harm, the book was widely and unsurprisingly perceived as anti-American. After its publication Greene—a British citizen—was watched by US intelligence agencies for about 35 years.
One wonders what Greene thought was going to happen when he sold the rights to MGM. Did he really believe they would film his book as written? Whatever his motives, he hated the finished product, saying that it was “deliberately made to attack the book and the author.”
The First Movie (1958)
Filmed in Saigon, the first version of THE QUIET AMERICAN conveys a strong sense of place (its cinematographer, Robert Krasker, also shot THE THIRD MAN). It features a brilliant performance by Michael Redgrave as Fowler.
Pyle is a private citizen on a mission for good. He is honorable, brave, and always right. Fowler is an adulterer and an atheist. Worse, he is a bad reporter who is easily duped.
The clash of world views and the love triangle are the same as in the book. The difference is that writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz gave Pyle the last word, every time. Even after Pyle is dead, he manages to get the last word: Fowler loses Phuong for good (in the book he gets her back).
The Second Movie (2002)
The 2002 remake of THE QUIET AMERICAN is more faithful to Greene’s characterization of Pyle. How faithful? Although the movie was completed in 2001, US distribution was held up more than a year because of fears of seeming anti-American after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
The filmmakers simplified the plot and turned up the heat a bit under the main characters: Pyle is more obviously up to no good, and Fowler is more sympathetic.
Like its predecessor, this movie has at its heart is a brilliant performance: Michael Caine was justly nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Fowler. The book’s sensuality, drained out of the 1958 version, was restored. The 2002 version is more graphic than the 1958 version; this too represents fidelity to the book.
I like the 2002 version because it uses the power of Greene’s story rather than working against it. “Isms and ocracies,” Fowler says wearily to Pyle. “Give me facts.”
in 2002 Michael Caine talked about his role in THE QUIET AMERICAN in this interview.
The Quiet American is available in several editions, including one that includes essays by Greene, historical writings, and reviews.