Socialist Worker

War film with a loud message

by Pete Gee
Issue No. 1828

A BOMB blast rips through a market square full of people. The horrific aftermath is blamed on terrorists. More standard Hollywood fare post 11 September? In fact it is part of an excellent film, The Quiet American. This is directed by Philip Noyce (who also directed Rabbit-Proof Fence), and it stars Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser.

The film is based on Graham Greene's novel, published in 1955. It is set in Vietnam in the early 1950s, when France was fighting and losing a brutal colonial war.

The American CIA realised that the discredited French colonialists could not stop a Communist victory. They secretly started to arm and support a Vietnamese 'third force' which launched a terrorist campaign to discredit the Communists. This US-sponsored terrorism is the basis of Graham Greene's novel.

The scene of the market square bomb and the death and destruction caused is one of the most powerful in the film, and fully captures the fury at the waste of life in the book.

Michael Caine plays Fowler, a cynically detached British reporter. His comfortable world, which he shares with his Vietnamese mistress Phoung, is shattered by the arrival of a naive but seemingly innocent American, Alden Pyle. The central themes of early US involvement in the Vietnam War are played out through the rivalry of the two men for Phoung. Greene's novel is a great work, but the film updates and improves the story in two important aspects.

The Vietnamese characters, especially Phoung, are given much more independence and self awareness. In the novel Phoung is patronised, and seen as little more than an object of beauty and comfort. The film gives her more emotional and intellectual depth.

It also makes Pyle, the American, a more sinister and knowing participant. This fits our knowledge of what the US government has done since the 1950s. The film closes with Fowler's reports charting the growth of the war. He touches on the humiliation of France, and the partition of Vietnam into North and South. Then there is the arrival of more and more US troops, and the brutality of carpet-bombing and napalm.

As Bush and Blair gear up for war this film is very relevant. It has certainly caused a stir in the world of the film studios and distributors. There were fears that the film would be seen as 'un-American', and its release was held back.

It took the direct intervention of Michael Caine before the film was properly publicised and widely released.

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Sat 30 Nov 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1828
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