Literature: The Quiet American

The Quiet American is a novel written in 1955 by Graham Greene. It was made into a movie on two occasions, in 1958 by Joseph L Mankiewicz and in 2002 by Philip Noyce.

The story takes place in Indochina, during the last days of the French presence. The war for Vietnam's independence has been raging for years and the French are losing. Thomas Fowler is an aging and emotionally detached British journalist who treats his assignment in Saigon as a way to live in lazy self-indulgence, far from his wife and his boss; he has taken up a much younger Vietnamese girl, Phuong, as a mistress. He one day meets Alden Pyle, a young and idealistic American expatriate, ostensibly in Vietnam with a medical mission. Pyle begins to compete with Fowler for the attention of Phuong.


Contains examples of:

  • But I Read A Book About It: Fowler is irritated with Pyle in part because the latter relies entirely too much on what the "experts" say and doesn't seem to value Fowler's practical experience.
  • Eagle Land: An especially harsh mixed instance of this. Pyle is indeed a mostly-innocent idealist, but he's also ignorantly changing things in a situation he barely understands, woefully out of his depth, and ultimately starts abetting horrible crimes in the service of empty ideas of "democracy," hurting the ordinary people of Vietnam.
  • Foreign Correspondent: This is Fowler's job, to report things as they are in Vietnam.
  • Gray and Grey Morality: Fowler is far from being a paragon of virtue, but he is the good guy here.
  • Holiday in Cambodia: Indochina is depicted as a war-torn land, where even well-intentioned people make morally murky decision as the cost of taking sides.
  • How We Got Here: The story is told in flashback mode from Fowler's perspective.
  • Love at First Sight: Pyle insists his attraction to Phuong is this.
  • Love Triangle: Fowler, Pyle and Phuong.
  • May-December Romance: Fowler is past middle age while Phuong is barely out of her teens.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Fowler arranges to have Pyle killed, which both ends his involvement in Vietnam and resolves the novel's Love Triangle.
  • Neutral No Longer: Fowler is a fairly cynical reporter who doesn't choose between the Communist North and the South Vietnamese puppet dictators, wishing that common people prosper instead. But a situation does come when he must make a choice:
    "Sooner or later...one has to take sides - if one is to remain human."
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: The car bombing, orchestrated by General Thé.
  • Opium Den
  • Posthumous Character: The story begins with Fowler learning of Pyle's murder.
  • Selective Obliviousness: One of Pyle's more noticeable attributes, and one of the main contributors to his "innocence."
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Fowler's attitude towards the much younger Pyle. Even more pronounced when he discovers that Pyle's idealism has driven him to becoming a Well-Intentioned Extremist.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: On the surface, Fowler is a cynic who speaks disparagingly of all political ideologies ("isms and ocracies" as he puts it, the idea of "liberty" and so on), and "innocence" is basically a cuss word when spoken by him. Pyle, on the other hand, is a Wide-Eyed Idealist who speaks glowingly of promoting democracy only to have his arguments smashed by Fowler's logic. However, as the story progresses we find out that Fowler, for all his skepticism about the "isms and ocracies" wants to see the common people happier, and Pyle would happily kill them all for "democracy".
  • Take a Third Option: Pyle thinks that his idea of a "Third Force" is the third option in the struggle between colonialism and communism.
  • Title Drop: "He was a quiet American."
  • The Vietnam War: The story shows how Americans first began to get embroiled in Vietnam.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: What Pyle turns out to be, considering he's been helping the nationalists manufacture and plant bombs.
  • War Is Hell: One of the central themes of the novel.

Examples specific to the film adaptations:

  • Call Forward: The bit in the second adaptation where Pyle's Vietnamese allies massacre a bunch of villagers for basically no reason at all can be seen as foreshadowing the atrocities committed by both the ARVN and American forces—think My Lai—during The Vietnam War.
  • The Film of the Book:
    • The first film adaptation completely changed the message of the story, assuming that Pyle couldn't possibly be a Villain since a) he was American and b) he had good intentions. It may actually have been a deliberate Take That to Graham Greene: Edward Lansdale, who might have been the inspiration for Pyle, was involved in the script.
    • The second adaptation was much closer to the original. If anything, it goes the complete other direction; amongst other things, it adds a scene where Pyle's Vietnamese allies massacre villagers For the Evulz and changes Pyle's character to make him rather less sympathetic.
  • Ironic Echo: Pyle is ostensibly in Vietnam to cure and prevent trachoma, an illness which causes blindness. The final image in the film is of an American soldier in Vietnam blinded after battle.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: Pyle's Vietnamese lines.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Pyle is smarter than he lets on, and although he feigns not to speak Vietnamese, he is in fact fluent in it. (This scene is only in the second film. The novel suggests that Pyle was genuinely far out of his depth.)
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: The village of massacred civilians and the car bombing scene.
  • Pull the Thread: Subverted - the police commander in the 2002 film adaptation correctly notes some discrepancies in Fowler's account of the events leading to Pyle's death (even catching him out on an I Never Said It Was Poison in the opening scene, when Fowler assumes Pyle is dead before the commander had even mentioned it), but Fowler's involvement is never proven and he gets away scot free.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The epilogue displays newspaper articles written by Fowler in the years after Pyle's death, as the Americans begin to deploy troops in Vietnam and the war escalates.