Stream On: Going Greene—‘The Quiet American,’ a very bad dancer

By on September 28, 2023

“This is the patent age of new inventions For killing bodies, and for saving souls, All propagated with the best intentions.” (Byron)

Graham Greene (The Third Man) published his novel The Quiet American in 1955, and while the plot is a love triangle, its setting was prophetic, foreshadowing the futility of America’s involvement in Vietnam (1959-1975).


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“Let’s just look at Phuong … the beauty … this daughter of a professor, taxi dancer, mistress of an older European man. Well, that pretty much describes the whole country, doesn’t it? We are here to save Vietnam from all of that.” (Alden Pyle, “a very quiet American”)

Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine, The Ipcress File, Children of Men), who narrates the story, is a burned out London Times correspondent reporting on the French Indochina War in 1952. “I don’t get involved.” His American friend Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) is found dead of a knife wound by the authorities, and Fowler is called in to identify him. The French detective tells Fowler, “To tell you the truth, I am not completely sorry. These Americans are causing a lot of trouble to us. But still … a murder is a murder.”

Fowler had become friendly with Pyle, “a face with no history and no problems—a face we all had once,” a guileless American boy-scout type working for the Economic Aid Mission who “falls in love” with Fowler’s twenty-year-old mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen).

The Quiet American author Graham Greene was “a stranger with no shortage of calling cards: devout Catholic, lifelong adulterer, pulpy hack, canonical novelist; self-destructive, meticulously disciplined, deliriously romantic, bitterly cynical; moral relativist, strict theologian, salon communist, closet monarchist; civilized to a stuffy fault and louche to drugged-out distraction, anti-imperialist crusader and postcolonial parasite, self-excoriating and self-aggrandizing, to name just a few” (The Nation). He was apparently inspired to write The Quiet American during October 1951 while driving to Saigon from Ben Tre province, accompanied by an American aid worker, Leo Hochstetter, who lectured him about CIA officer Edward Lansdale and finding a “third force in Vietnam.”

Pyle, who says he considers Fowler “his best friend” shortly after they meet, turns up at General Thé’s compound at Phat Diem where Fowler goes for a story. General Thé was based on Trình Minh Thế, a Vietnamese nationalist whose militia worked with the Americans in 1954, before they officially allied with the South Vietnamese government in their fight with the Communist Viet Minh after the defeat of the colonial French Union.

It turns out that Pyle is a CIA operative sent to steer the war according to America’s interests, and is passionately devoted to the ideas of an American foreign policy theorist who said that what Vietnam needed was a “third force” to take the place of both the colonialists and the Vietnamese rebels and restore order.

Meanwhile, Pyle promises Fowler’s mistress Phuong marriage and security. (Fowler’s Catholic wife in England refuses to give him a divorce.) When Fowler finds out about Pyle’s involvement in Thế’s terrorist bombings designed to sway public opinion against the Communists, he gets involved.

The novel had been first filmed in 1958, but in it the moral had been flipped in favor of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and Greene disowned the film, calling it American propaganda. (Edward Lansdale had contributed to the screenplay, uncredited.)

The first cut of Phillip Noyce’s version of Greene’s story set against the beginning of the twenty-year-long American involvement in Vietnam was screened to a test audience on September 10, 2001 and received positive ratings. However, the September 11 attacks took place the next day, and audience ratings dropped with each subsequent screening. The public mood had changed in favor of another twenty-year-long American intervention on the other side of the world.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers. Columns are archived and updated when necessary on Substack.


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