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Literature / The Quiet American

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The Quiet American is a 1955 novel written by Graham Greene. It has twice been adapted to film: in 1958 by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, starring Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy, and in 2002 by Phillip Noyce, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser.

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.
  • Karma Houdini: Fowler gets away with conspiring to murder, and even gets Phuong back, but he has his own conscience to deal with at the end.
  • Last-Name Basis: Fowler always calls Pyle by his last name. Pyle repeatedly asks him to call him Alden, but Fowler can't bring himself to do it.
  • Love at First Sight: Pyle insists his attraction to Phuong is this.
  • Love Triangle: Fowler, Pyle and Phuong.
  • Manly Tears: After Phuong leaves him for Pyle, Fowler breaks down and cries in a wash room.
  • 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 has to take sides - if one is to remain human."
  • 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."
  • 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 1958 film adaptation:

  • Adaptational Heroism: Pyle is a genuine aid worker and is not involved in supplying plastics for bomb manufacturing.
    • Fowler does not have an opium addiction, unlike in the novel.
  • Alone in a Crowd: The film ends with a distraught Fowler rejecting Vigot's offer to drive past the church for solace and instead walking away through the festive crowd, where he is soon lost from view.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Contrary to the original novel and the 2002 film adaptation, Fowler does not get Phuong at the end.
  • The Film of the Book: This 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.
  • Heroic BSoD: Fowler falls into this mode from the moment Phuong leaves him, and it only gets worse and worse. Michael Redgrave portrays the growing lifelessness in Fowler's eyes to perfection.
  • Karma Houdini: Averted in this adaptation. Fowler's path to happiness might be clear after Pyle's death, but Phuong won't come back to him and he is left wishing there was someone to whom he could say sorry.
  • One Head Taller: A non-romantic variation: there is a scene in the middle of the movie where Fowler walks through a crowded Vietnamese street. Fowler, played by the 6' 3'' Redgrave, is conspicuously head and shoulders above all the local extras used in the shot.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Fowler at the end.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Audie Murphy plays the character of Pyle with a fixed, unblinking stare.
    • During the filming, Michael Redgrave was discomfited by Murphy's stare and asked Mankiewicz if he could suggest to Murphy to blink more often. Mankiewicz didn't comply.

Examples specific to the 2002 film adaptation:

  • Adaptational Badass: Unlike the novel and the 1958 film, in the 2002 version Alden Pyle isn't way out of his league, but rather his humanitarian mission is actually an elaborate front and Pyle's really an American intelligence secret agent deliberately placed there by his employers to fight and hinder the communists.
  • 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.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: A variant; Phoung's parents are dead, so her sister, several years older than her, is her de facto guardian. She is very aware of what Phoung's relationship with Fowler means for Phoung's prospects for the future, and is barely civil to Fowler as a result.
  • False Flag Operation: The bombings Pyle orchestrates are blamed on Communists to justify further American involvement. The same may also be true of the village massacre earlier.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Fowler asks Hinh if he thinks Pyle might be part of the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services). Hinh responds that the new name is the C.I.A.
  • The Film of the Book: This second adaptation was much closer to the original. If anything, it goes the complete other direction to the 1958 film; 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.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: Pyle's Vietnamese lines.
  • How We Got Here: The movie opens with Pyle having been murdered, then flashes back to the beginning of the story to show how things got to that point.
  • I Have This Friend: Hinh tells Fowler he has a "contact" who wants to speak with Pyle, and that this contact will be as gentle as he can. Hinh ends up being the one who stabs Pyle to death.
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • One Head Taller: In this one, it's the 6'3" Brendan Fraser who towers above most of the Vietnamese characters. At one point, he's surrounded by young women who almost seem like children compared to him.
  • 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 in the 2002 film 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.
  • White Shirt of Death: Pyle is wearing a white suit when he is stabbed to death.