The Quiet American

This is my contribution to The Ambitious-Failure Blog-A-Thon that runs from June 20th-24th.

The Quiet American

History is nearly always kind to films. It’s something to be thankful for when a film that doesn’t open to strong sales can be out of theatres and on its way to rentals within the same week. Many films that audiences miss the first time around gain a wider following over time, and like cream, they rise to the top.

For this essay on an ambitious failure, my initial thought was to go for a classic film, perhaps an early Howard Hawks film that went unnoticed until critics got serious about his work in the 1960s. On further thought, I decided to explore something much more recent, a film that is still building it’s audience and deserves a little boost now.

The Quiet American (Phillip Noyce, 2002) is one of the finest adaptations made from a Graham Greene novel, perhaps only surpassed by Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). The Quiet American is set amidst the political intrigue and violence of the French struggle against communism in Indo-China. Michael Caine is Fowler, a cynical foreign correspondent that goes so far to avoid taking sides, that he doesn’t even want to form opinions. Into the complicated struggle for power, comes Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an idealistic young American who wants to promote democracy in Vietnam through a mysterious “Third Force.” This is the beginning of American intervention in Vietnam and Pyle’s actions end up causing more violence and bloodshed.

If that were not enough to cause tension between the friends, Pyle also steals Fowler’s girl, a beautiful young Vietnamese woman, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). As the political situation continues to heat up, Fowler is inevitably forced to take a stand and choose a side. His actions lead to directly to the death of his friend, and allow him to get Phuong back. This version of the film beautifully maintains the moral ambivalence that ends the novel.

There was an earlier film version of The Quiet American (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1958), which made significant changes to the story, basically turning the interfering Pyle into a good guy and making a buffoon of the British correspondent. Greene was outraged by the original adaptation, calling it a treachery, and saying that “Mankiewicz…made it into a propaganda film for America in Vietnam, when it had been an attack on the American influences in Vietnam.” (The Graham Greene Film Reader, 543) If the author had lived to see this version, the former film critic would undoubtedly have been very pleased with the results.

As faithful and interesting as this adaptation is, The Quiet American very nearly vanished into obscurity becaue of the heinous events of September 2001. In Down and Dirty Pictures, Peter Biskind’s portrait of American independent cinema, the author details the film’s near demise.

Biskind writes that The Quiet American was first tested with audiences on September 10, 2001 and scored reasonably well. The unspeakable events of the following day postponed the director’s meetings with Miramax, who had won the American rights to the film. The film was tested again in October and the scores plummeted, casting the film’s fate into limbo. Test viewers did not like a film they saw as “taking a swipe at America.” Mirimax stalled on plans to release the film and it looked like it might be released straight to video.

Director Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger, 1994; The Bone Collector, 1999) pushed hard for the film’s theatrical release. Ultimately, it was under pressure from star Michael Caine, who insisted that Miramax meet their contractual obligations, that the film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Full support was still not forthcoming. Miramax didn’t even provide press kits at the press screening.

The film was sunk by lackluster marketing. It opened in 2002 and played for about two weeks, with Miramax meeting the bare minimum of their contractual obligations. The film earned $13 million in the US and another $25 million worldwide. It has been suggested by indie film publicist Mickey Cottrell, that the film would have fared much better with Miramax’s full support. Instead, they put all their weight and support behind the Oscar hopeful Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002).

The Quiet American is the film that should have gotten Michael Caine a best actor Oscar. He has already won twice for supporting roles. This was his fourth nomination in a leading role. Of films in this genre, The Quiet American ranks with The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe, 1984), and Salvador (Oliver Stone, 1986) in terms of acting, storytelling and historical significance. As an expat who has lived in Asia for nearly ten years, I feel that this is one of the few films that accurately captures the reality of overseas life.

All of the character’s motivations and the underlying subtexts of each scene are exemplary. We can credit Greene with a great story, and laud Noyce for its brilliant execution. The Quiet American was critically praised, but commercially neglected, leaving many people like myself to discover the film on DVD. It is one of my favorite films of all time; a story told with a great deal of depth and a refreshing taste of authentic atmosphere. (I am writing this post in Hanoi.) The Quiet American does what truly great art should do, not portray life as it is, but life as it should be.

The Quiet American appeared on over 20 top ten lists for 2002, including the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute.