'The Quiet American'

Film Review of 'The Quiet American'

The film 'The Quiet American' is made by Phillip Noyce and based on a novel written by Graham Greene. It is a complex story about war, colonialism, politics, love and moral conflicts. It takes place in Vietnam in the early 50’s, when Vietnam was a French colony and the Vietnamese were fighting for independence from French colonial rule.
In the middle of this situation we meet Tomas Fowler, a British reporter who is working for the London Times and who has a young Vietnamese lover called Phoung. We also meet a young American man who claims that he is working as a medical doctor for the American Economic Ministry, helping the Vietnamese people. There are several conflicts arising between these characters as we are led through the dramatic events that determine their lives.

The middle aged Fowler represents the old colonialism. He is cynical, but because he is a British reporter he claims to be neutral in the war and to report it objectively. This changes later in the film when he becomes more emotionally involved in the war. The truth is that he has fallen in love with Vietman, the atmosphere, the people and also with Phoung. He wants to spend the rest of his life there. However, his happiness is threatened by the young Pyle, who also falls in love with Phoung and who, because of his young age, his wealth and ability to marry, is regarded as a better match for Phoung.
Pyle represents America and the American eagerness to “replace” the French and fight against the Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, in order to make Vietnam a democratic country. Pyle is idealistic and very naïve. He does not know the country nor its culture and he portraits the American attitude of being ignorant and uninterested in learning about ‘the others’ culture. He believes in democracy and in ‘saving’ the Vietnamese, unconcerned with the evil means that are used trying to reach the goal.
The conflict that arises between Fowler and Pyle is on one hand a conflict concerning love since both of them want the same girl and on the other hand a political conflict. Fowler is witnessing Pyle’s naivety, ignorance and idealism. As he discovers that Pyle is working for the CIA and is responsible for a bomb attack that killed many civilians, a crime plot is forming. Fowler and Pyles have been good friends and Pyle even saved Fowlers life once. Because of this Fowler faces a moral ambivalence of how to react to Pyle’s actions which troubles him on behalf of his personal life as well as the life of the Vietnamese people and the interest of the country. Fowler faces a moral dilemma of justice and personal involvement. In the end he makes a decision which makes him responsible for Pyle’s death.

The contrasting attitudes of Fowler and Pyle is clearly demonstrated in the bomb attack that they both witness in Saigon. While Fowler is very upset and is trying to help the people who are wounded, Pyle is just concerned about wiping blood off his trouser leg.
The title “The Quiet American” refers to Pyle, and the fact that he plays a quiet part in the colonial war between the French and the Vietnamese. Despite this, his ideas about democracy and his will to force his ideas on the Vietnamese by all means, is not quiet. The way the American nation enforces certain ideas upon other, foreign nations and cultures is anything but quiet.
As well as saving the country, Pyle wants to ‘save’ Phoung from a life with Fowler who can’t marry her because he is already married to a British catholic woman who doesn’t want a divorce. Pyle is disillusioned, but he always has 'good' intentions. He sees Phoung as a child who needs protection.
Phoung represents Vietnam, ruled by the French colonialists. She fears for being misused and betrayed by the French or other foreigners like so many other Vietnamese girls. She and the other Vietnamese girls are regarded as exotic, mystical, beautiful and innocent by the old colonial powers; the French and the British, and by the Americans.

The film deals with the concept of ‘otherness’. The Vietnamese people and their culture is something different and unknown to the old colonial powers and to the Americans. This is clearly shown by the way that Fowler and particularly Pyle treat Phoung. She appears to be exotic and innocent and sometimes almost invisible. They talk about her in third person, as if she’s not there. She is regarded almost like a child, and because of the gap between the Western culture that they belong to and the Eastern culture that she belongs to, they don’t understand her. They don’t make the effort of trying to see her perspective. The way that Pyle acts towards Phoung can be compared to the way that the Americans has acted towards Vietnam and Indo China as such.
Fowler wants to be with Phoung because she pleases him and because a life with her is simple, quiet and harmonious. She is always affectionate and respectful. After a while, she ends up with Pyle because he can marry her. She always seems to be unaffected no matter what goes on around her.

In the end of the film Fowler is responsible for the death of Pyle. The murder of Pyle can be seen as revenge for the way that Pyle has disturbed Fowler’s personal life and taken his girlfriend, Phoung. However, the murder of Pyle can also be interpreted as a result of political motives. It appears to be a combination of both.
The American, although quiet, acting with the best intentions, is seen as a threat because he is so ignorant and lacks both empathy as well as understanding for the consequences of his actions. His naivety, ignorance and bind fight for democracy is a reason why Fowler makes his decision.
The film gives a picture of friendship and love in times of war, when a friend suddenly is an enemy and things are not as they seem. The acting clearly depicts all the nuance and ambiguities in the relationship between the tree characters. The film can also be seen as a critical presentation of imperialism and American foreign policy in Vietnam.
It is a very well made film which deals with historical events that are important to remember and to learn from.

M. Johannessen, April 2003

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