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The Return of the Quiet American
Fowler: You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren’t interested. Pyle: They don’t want communism. Fowler: They want enough rice. They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.
from The Quiet American, by Graham Greene
I saw the movie version of Graham Greene’s novel just before Miramax film exec Harvey Weinstein quietly yanked The Quiet American from the market, despite the good reviews it had gleaned. The word around the industry (Hollywood) had it that given the current climate, the strains of “anti-Americanism” in the film might offend sensitive publics. The government had set the tone with media acquiescence on standards of “acceptability” in the aftermath of 9/11. It didn’t have to make a “no critical films” list as it did for anti-war activists who appear on airline computer screens as part of a no-fly list. Nor did the FBI have to circulate to Hollywood a memo on “don’t portray Americans as equivalents of Al Qaeda terrorists” as it circulated to large corporations a list of people it “suspected” of having “possible” terrorist links (mostly Muslim-Americans).
The government didn’t have to scare Miramax executives, who read about new categories like “enemy combatants,” those without rights and authorization for the CIA to assassinate “terrorists.” Hollywood execs knew that the new government lists coincide with the denial of old individual rights, especially those connected with privacy. Better watch what you check out of the library or purchase at the book or video rental store, because the FBI is checking.
Hollywood responds viscerally when the government restricts liberties and widens its intrusive powers. Look at the new James Bond movie, Die Another Day, and you will see how the crony media reinforces the government’s version of recent history. The official story goes like this: On 9/11/01, Americans lost not only their innocence but their tolerance for nay-sayers as well. Miramax executives, like most large corporate CEOs, understood the message. CEOs get nervous when their relations with the government become less than harmonious.
The company had held a test screening in New Jersey on September 10, 2001. The audience liked the film. The next day, September 11, world reality changed. So Miramax’ subsequent “tests” showed that audiences supposedly
found the film’s implicit critique of US policy less than appealing. Predictably, some flunky denied that Miramax delayed the release plans and then removed the film quickly from the market because of 9/11 reverberations. You judge for yourself.
Under the new post 9/11 movie and TV script, we as a nation lost almost 3,000 lives to the cowardly bombers and our collective virginity to boot. To remedy this, we would have to stand together against the terrorists, whatever that means. Bush launched a “promote America as the virtuous” campaign. Let’s not hear any criticism of our wonderful way of life. Long Live Disneyland and the Super Bowl! Shop, fellow Americans, and show those Al Qaeda nasties what we really stand for.
Abroad, we took it to them. No more Mr. Nice Guy. It’s time we showed a knuckle to those ungrateful foreigners. So, instead of learning meaningful lessons as a result of the fiendish attack of 9/11, like why they did it and how can we deal with the causes of this terrorism, Bush and his ideologues opportunistically embarked on the next chapter of The Quiet American or The Quiet American Returns. In the next film Sylvester Stallone can show us how assassinating large numbers of suspected Al Qaeda operatives can earn the love of an Arab beauty and the gratitude of the western world and he can be quiet, i.e., not speak much during the film.
The sequel could suggest an implicit answer, Hollywood style, to the question “why do they hate us” or “how come anti-Americanism runs rampant in the Arab world?” Stallone, able to take on hundreds of armed killers and dispatch all of them, virtually shows them that we’re superior certainly at killing and hamming for the camera. Since we’re Americans, as Hollywood films imply, everyone knows we’re inherently virtuous. We saved Afghanistan, suffered a few casualties from friendly fire, killed only a few thousand innocent civilians and took a major step toward confronting the axis of evil. We shall become missionaries again and destroy nations in order to save them.
Perhaps, future historians will label this era the Noisy American Period. They may even conclude that Osama bin Laden wrote the outline for the script in this latest saga of US imperial history. With Vietnam almost three decades behind us out of memory for most Americans we see characters similar to those who told us that our holy mission was to fight communism in Vietnam and bring democracy to that far off land. Indeed, some of those very people now do lucrative business with the communist government of Vietnam. In the new era of bullying, boasting, cocky and self-righteousness, the horrible results of our decade plus military involvement in Vietnam has faded from historical memory. That conflict occurred some time after the Greco-Roman era, my students assure me, but what does it have to do with today and terrorism?
Graham Greene warned us in the early 1950s when he wrote his insightful novel. In 1953, despite US military aid, the French were losing the war to retain control of Vietnam. As the communist government of the North won battle after battle, US officials began to plan their intervention. This is the setting for Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) as Graham Greene’s London Times reporter covering this one of several anti-colonial revolts as adopted for cinema by Australian director Philip Noyce. Fowler, in full middle age lives with his young Vietnamese lover Phuong (Hai Yen Do). He meets a recently arrived US official attached to the Economic Aid Mission. Fowler senses that this overly sincere young man Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) will disturb his established order. It happens rapidly as Pyle falls instantly in love with the Vietnamese paramour. She symbolizes innocence because he does not know better and of course she represents a challenge.
Fowler realizes that his apparent political or philosophical differences with the young zealot always reading about making democracy go beyond the world of ideas. The Quiet American turns out to be not just a killer, but the quintessential terrorist. He makes his big bang in Saigon by planting bombs (the means) to bring democracy (the ends) and thus stave off the communist menace and transform Vietnam into a US-style democracy. If one doubts the reality about Americans having this intensity of belief in our ability to export our order everywhere, read our more passionate op ed writers today who have recently discovered the cause of the Iraqi people and extol our government to go to war to “liberate” them.
Ironically, Greene’s book, written in the early 1950s, eerily predicted what the United States would do in Vietnam. The fictional quiet American multiplied and became real protagonists in one of the bloodiest wars of the late 20th Century. Always in the name of spreading democracy to Vietnam, the quiet Americans advocated ever more mass bombing of Vietnamese cities, dropping of napalm on its villages and people and the destruction of its vegetation through the application of Agent Orange. The Quiet American epitomized the young US officer in the late 1960s who lamented to a reporter in all innocence that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
Those men, like Greene’s Alden Pyle, get their espirt d’corps from the intellectuals whom we read in the newspaper and magazine columns, like the octogenarian William Safire and the know-it-all- but-doesn’t-like-to-fight-personally Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. These chicken hawks eschew the lesson that Graham taught fifty years ago. The failure in Vietnam taught them nothing about the impossibility of exporting our order to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea or, well, you pick it. These missionary writers do not, of course, do the fighting. They also glide over some of the issues that make the constant repetition of the word democracy ring hollow. A country where the majority doesn’t vote? A country where the majority of federal offices are uncontested? We want to spread this abroad? What we don’t want to spread at home or abroad, however, is the distinguishing fact that makes us special: immense wealth.
Fowler, Greene’s protagonist, is the antithesis of those Americans who try to “win the hearts and minds” of the natives. He goes native, smoking opium in the colonial tradition and also taking his pleasures from the young Vietnamese woman on whom he has become dependent emotionally. She prepares his pipe and gives him pleasures. She demands little. He loves her. What she feels for him remains in the realm of the enigmatic. Her money-grubbing sister plays a large role in the younger woman’s affairs, but Phuong herself never stops to such vulgarity. She maintains a facade of innocence, which makes her so attractive to both men. Ah, to be above the struggle, delicate and sensual, dignified and mysterious!
The Quiet American, intent on changing Vietnam, must also change relationships. But he has rules for both processes: taking the Vietnamese beauty from Fowler and forging his democratic third way between European colonialism and communism. Greene, the observer, asks implicitly in the book, what winning means in such a context. The American’s less than superficial understanding of Vietnamese culture and history can only lead him and his nation to disaster. Is this why the film seems threatening now, when we’re about to embark on yet another crusade in Iraq, to change the destiny of yet another country whose 5,000 year old history and culture we do not understand?
Since the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony, missionary zeal has led some Americans to spread “our way of life.” But the angry Puritan God has been replaced by the Baal of shopping. The modesty and humility our ancestors assumed before the power of God, has changed into bragging about how great we are — while we pop pills for stress of various kinds to those who have yet to hear or see the revealed word or image. The new quiet Americans perpetrate the myth that we can export our almost perfect order. The misdeeds of the 2000 election they attribute to an aberration, the fact that A type millionaires vie for the few political offices that are actually contested nasty television spots. We’ve exported the American ideal in movies and TV shows, where the undernourished models don’t have children or stressful jobs, where no street and homeless people or even poor people exist and emaciated actors drive convertibles in perpetual summer time. We sell foreigners on our excellent police force, which has yet to find the anthrax killer, our wonderful doctors, who don’t worry about HMOs that exclude about 42 million people from health care, or clever lawyers who assure a fair trial for all their clients. How come the rich white killers and thieves almost always get off or short sentences and the poor felons of color get life or death sentences?
Greene’s Alden Pyle, a CIA heavy using a humanitarian cover, set out to liberate Vietnam by all means necessary. Liberation meant “Rolling Thunder” the carpet bombing of cities. Indeed, by 1973, US planes had dropped three times as many bombs on Vietnam as all the protagonists had used in World War II. Liberation meant destruction of Vietnamese cities and the deaths of a million or more civilians. To free Vietnam from the yoke of communism means destroying their rice fields with poisons and bombing their dikes. To save Vietnam, not just one village, we set out to destroy it. Why else pour millions of gallons of deadly, Dioxin laden Agent Orange on the countryside? The long-term effects of these “saving” devices used during war continue to haunt present generations. The United States destroyed infrastructure as it did in Iraq in 1991 — and massacring civilians. These were war objectives, not “collateral damage.”
The American in the film radiates sincerity, but his feelings for the young Vietnamese woman border on compulsive. Fowler notes this, but Pyle’s very intensity makes him compelling. He is the moderate Fowler’s antithesis. Then, he saves Fowler’s life. Later, Fowler discovers that the killers were Pyle’s charges, the very third force he bragged about. Under a facade of innocence and certainty, Pyle contains all the seeds of a modern war criminal killer, one who “knows” that the future he helps usher in will more than atone for the deaths and damage he causes in the present. Fowler finally understands that Pyle is a terrorist, a man unable to see past his anti-Communist ardor. He will destroy in the name of his cause. How is he different than the arch fiends who did the 9/11 deeds?
Is this why the government doesn’t want people to see The Quiet American? In 1947, Washington leaned on Hollywood executives to change their standards on hiring stars, directors, writers and changing movie themes that might conceivably have connections with “reds.” This taboo included material that smacked of anti-Americanism. Having finished with the war against fascism, we were entering a new war against communism. In 2002, having long finished with the commy menace, we’ve turned out attention to terrorism, the buzz word of our era. Terrorism means violence done to or planned against our country, not violence done by us or our allies to their enemies. For example, James Bond can blow to smithereens any number of bad North Koreans, because he is good and thus can practice pre-emptive violence. The applauding audience revels in his virtual pyrogenics.
The Quiet American goes beyond Vietnam. It describes American imperialism on the ground and portrays a modern imperialist. The quiet but overconfident Americans like Alden Pyle have pushed their “democracy” or “anti-Communism” into killing fields in Chile, Colombia, Indonesia the list grows long. They had no interest in understanding Vietnamese nationalism albeit they read a few books about its culture and history. Today, they have no better understanding of similar forces in the Arab world. They make moral judgments about our systemic superiority and then reaffirm them by reciting Christian and democratic cliches.
Watch the texture of the film and the movement of the Vietnamese actors and learn lessons about Vietnam’s aesthetics. Listen to Fowler’s lines and understand true conservatism. Responding to Pyle’s rationalization for war, Fowler says: “Isms and ocracies. Give me the facts.” Thus statement should reverberate through the political chambers. Bush and Blair have yet to offer us facts on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or links to Al Qaeda. Like Pyle in The Quiet American. Bush has mastered the unsupported allegations!
Yet, our very American aesthetic links truth with virtue. We should also consider Aristotle’s other linkage, between the beautiful and the good, before we roar into Iraq with our current mission. There, the exotic tropical humidity does not dictate the ways of life, but the desert does. Hopefully, Miramax will soon re-release the film and make a contribution toward the cause of understanding through cinematic beauty — and thus virtue.
SAUL LANDAU is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences California State Polytechnic University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org