The Quiet American

“I like to have a secret love affair, a hidden life,” said Graham Greene, “something to lie about.” Partly, that hidden life was espionage, but mostly it was adultery. Greene was married and he had a special liking for clandestine liaisons with the wives of his friends. Constancy or faith versus betrayal—religious, sexual, personal, political—his best works pivot around these dichotomies, intensifying the tension between them without trying to resolve it. Greene’s protagonists must somehow live with their bad consciences, as Greene evidently managed to live with his. I imagine he justified the betrayals by telling himself that his friends brought it upon themselves.

Quiet American, The (1958)
Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy in Mankiewicz’s 1958 film. Redgrave is wonderful, but nobody can save a picture singlehandedly.

Innocence, to Greene’s mind, at any rate, was blameworthy. The quiet American, Pyle, was naive, idealistic, and dangerous: “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” The cynical journalist who narrates the novel, Fowler, is prepared to lie and cheat to keep Phuong, his Vietnamese mistress, from running off with Pyle.

Ultimately, Fowler betrays Pyle but like Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, he faces himself squarely. “Was I so different from Pyle, I wondered? Must I too have my foot thrust in the mess of life before I saw the pain?” He doesn’t like himself much, but he’s not asking us to like him either. Rather, he forces us to face uncomfortable truths about the West’s imperial blunders. No heroes, no victims, no illusions, just an open-eyed appraisal of the mess of life, and love, and geopolitics, mistakes played out endlessly for the most venal of motives.

And that’s what’s wrong with both film versions of The Quiet American. Neither Joseph Mankiewicz nor Philip Noyce could leave well enough alone. Mankiewicz reworked key elements of the story to counter what he saw as Greene’s anti-Americanism, turning Pyle into a cartoonish good guy, a boy scout. Absent is Greene’s irony, his disparagement of the American as a simple-minded meddler, blind (notwithstanding his Harvard education — or perhaps because of it) to the complex reality of the country he has come to save. Fowler’s the fool here. Othello-like, he is blinded by jealousy and allows himself to be played by the Communists. Mankiewicz even has him read Othello’s speech as he sets the American up for assassination, to make sure the audience gets the point.

Caine’s pretty wonderful too, and the 2002 film is well worth watching.

The 2002 version directed by Philip Noyce from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan is more true to Greene’s novel, but the ending turns Fowler into a hero, the crusader-journalist beloved of audiences at least since The Pentagon Papers. “Noyce’s finale montage recycles the myth that the press somehow saved the United States from itself,” William Bushnell wrote in his contribution to Why We Fought: America’s Wars in Film and History. “Mankiewicz’s 1958 film remains an artifact of Cold War ideology, frozen in history. Likewise, Noyce’s 2002 film is wedded to a post-Vietnam subjectivity and is no less a product of an era.”

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a brilliant film. It just isn’t Greene.


Okay, so the story wasn’t 100% historically accurate.  Maybe it wasn’t even 50% accurate.  The regiment was not Welsh, their so-called regimental song (led by the stalwart Welsh baritone, Private Owen) was not “Men of Harlech” but “The Warwickshire Lad,” and they did not sing it at the crucial moment of the battle.  Nor did the Zulu warriors retreat out of respect for the bravery of the outnumbered British soldiers.  They were driven off by a British relief column.

Who cares?  “Zulu” is a wonderful film.  It feels like a western, the way it poses moral questions while pitting the British forces against a host of Zulu warriors.  The stock characters display their mettle in stock ways—I particularly like how the malingering ne’er do well, Hook, almost single-handedly rescues the entire hospital unit after the Zulus set it on fire—and the ending is completely satisfying.

The story behind the story is also satisfying.  “Zulu’s” director, Cy Endfield, was a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter living in London, getting no credit for the projects he worked on until this one came along.  So here’s a guy who was forced to flee his country because he refused to sign a loyalty oath, who disobeyed the authorities, making a film all about loyalty to one’s country, and obedience to one’s commanding officers.

But maybe it’s not so strange after all because Endfield’s version of the story shows the British army as an honorable and courageous unit, worthy of loyalty.140819-zulu-post  Lieutenant Chard, the besieged unit’s commanding officer, even tells the Afrikaner officer not to worry, that this is his country, after all.  The British are just there to help out.  And the Zulu are depicted with dignity, not simply as “the enemy.”  After the real battle, the British soldiers killed the wounded Zulu warriors, and it wouldn’t be long before the British were at war with the Afrikaners.  Needless to say, the film does not go there.