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THE QUIET AMERICAN

About a Girl

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Years before most Americans ever heard of Vietnam -- a decade even before JFK fatefully escalated the rolls of U.S. "advisers" in that South China Sea nation -- British writer Graham Greene spent some months there as a journalist. Greene, already an accomplished novelist, served as a correspondent in what was then called Indo-China. Soon after, in 1955, Greene published a novel about a British reporter in Indo-China that highlighted America's little-noted but key early role in what became a signal conflict of the next half-century.

I haven't read The Quiet American, but Philip Noyce's film adaptation makes it seem a prescient novel indeed. The protagonist is Fowler (Michael Caine), an intelligent but dissolute sort seduced by the heat, the languor, the opium and the women of Saigon (not necessarily in that order). It's 1952, and the French are failing in attempts to retake their former colony after the upheavals of World War II. They're being beaten by native Communist forces, but Fowler's main concern is to prolong his assignment and remain away from his wife and England, and in the arms of his lissome mistress Fong (Hai Yen), a well-born woman he plucked from the ranks of taxi-dancers.

Suddenly arrives Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a well-scrubbed, earnest and soft-spoken American who introduces himself as a medical aide worker and instantly falls for Fong. She gradually returns the compliment, sparking Fowler's jealousy -- and his curiosity about the cryptic yet increasingly noticeable part played by Pyle and other Americans in the geopolitical tumult.

The script, by Robert Schenkkan and Christopher Hampton, is a pungent allegorical romance deftly handled by Noyce. In Fowler there is the resignation of Old World powers whose sway is ending; in Pyle, the brashness of a country tossing around its newfound weight, sometimes bluntly but often in secret. And in Fong there is the prize fought for between the two (though not any particular sense of her countrymen's fight for independence). "I can't wait to take you to my country," Pyle tells Fong.

The Quiet American was filmed once before, in a 1958 version that from all accounts absurdly inverted the novel's politics, making Pyle an idealistic hero and Fowler a Commie dupe. In Noyce's hands, the film's historical key is once again this: that the U.S. heavily backed France in its colonial ambitions, with dollars and guns, and even in those early days of the Cold War began to take charge when the French faltered. Noyce shows Pyle setting the stage for U.S. efforts to create a "Third Force" in Vietnam, one opposed to both communism and colonialism and designed to evolve into U.S.-backed democracy. Instead those efforts paved the way for Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S.-propped dictator whose path to power was cleared by CIA-backed terrorism -- and who, when he became too unpopular, was executed in 1963 following a CIA-backed coup.

The film's distributor, Miramax, regarded its critique of U.S. foreign policy as subversive enough that post-9/11 it nearly scuttled its release. (It was reportedly Caine's efforts that got it into theaters.) But The Quiet American is hardly a tract; its politics are woven into a somber tale of romantic intrigue, tautly told. Hai Yen, as Fong, is unselfconsciously riveting. Fraser, an underrated actor, is nicely cast as Pyle. Even better cast is Caine, who as Fowler radiates cynicism, regret and a mournful grasp of his own mortality. It's one of his best roles in years. * * *

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