The president of the United States beats a righteous tattoo on the drums of war. The U.S. Congress supports him with resolutions authorizing an air and land assault in Asia. Europeans voice their skepticism from the sidelines, while little is heard from - or about - the civilians most likely to be on the receiving end of American artillery. As the world's most powerful nation girds for a moral and military crusade, history whispers a precedent. Now the larger atrocity in U.S. sight lines is terrorism; 40 years ago it was communism. Today the enemy is Iraq. But it seems like only yesterday it was Vietnam.
So the story of the first major American-backed movie made in Vietnam since the war may offer instruction. Phillip Noyce's version of the 1955 Graham Greene novel The Quiet American deals with that time in the '50s when French colonialists were stumbling out of Vietnam and U.S. "advisers" were tiptoeing in. Despite the mounting carnage, Americans held fast to what they considered their ideals. As Alden Pyle, Greene's title character, says of one fatal explosion on a Saigon street: "What happened in the Square today makes me sick. But in the long run I'm gonna save lives."
Movies can't save lives. But they can dramatize moral and political dilemmas. Noyce believes that, in the enigmatic figure of Pyle, "Greene pinpointed something in the post-World War II American personality: an obsession to do good. The Vietnam War was prosecuted by people who believed that the end justified the means and that they were fighting a holy war."
Noyce has had his own war to fight. A while back, he got a positive reaction when he showed a rough cut of the film to his sponsors at Miramax Films in New York. The date of that screening was Sept. 10, 2001. Events in New York the following day changed many things; one was the studio's response to The Quiet American. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein says he was told, "You can't release this now: it's unpatriotic." The company shelved this "movie about bad Americans" for more than a year. It opens in Australia and New Zealand this month.
The filmmakers say they're not finger pointing. "The movie isn't anti-American," says Michael Caine, whose career-capping performance guarantees him an aisle seat on Oscar Night. "It's anti the people who took America into the Vietnam War." The Quiet American dares to pose questions with no easy answers - perhaps no answers at all. That alone makes this one of the past year's most thoughtful films. It happens also to be a poignant, visually ravishing parable of lust and rancor set in a paradise lost.
The three people at the story's center - Pyle (Brendan Fraser), the older English reporter Thomas Fowler (Caine) and local lovely Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), whom the two men covet, conquer and betray - can be seen as representing the Americans, Europeans and Vietnamese of the early '50s, dancing on a slippery geopolitical slope that leads straight into the Big Muddy. They are also familiar figures in the Greene canon. The Quiet American is very nearly Greene's remake of The Third Man, his 1949 tale of political and sexual intrigue set in postwar Vienna, with the same cast of characters: a world-weary Englishman; an exotic woman bound to an unscrupulous lover; and an American who could be naive or a killer.
The watchful, wary Fowler is closer to Greene, for whom cynicism was just a dirty word for realism. He is beguiled by Pyle because of the American's very blandness; a man so open must be hiding something. Even Pyle's declaration of love for Phuong has to be the cover story for a more nefarious agenda. When the movie had a special showing at the Toronto Film Festival in September, Caine called the film "a cautionary tale. And the caution is: Don't try to take a 20-year-old girl away from a 68-year-old man."
Fowler and Pyle are two prickly points on the oldest triangle. Each man truly loves Phuong; it is the one selfless emotion they share. In Greene's world, love revs the heart rate and clouds the vision. So does political idealism. Both feelings can compel sporting chaps to commit indecent acts - like stealing a friend's woman, or conniving in a man's murder - with the justification that the worst thing to do was somehow the only right thing. "Sooner or later," a canny Vietnamese tells Fowler, "one has to take sides if one is to remain human." It sounds like a hero's rallying cry; in fact, it is a goad for Fowler to collude in assassination as a way of taking revenge on a sexual interloper. Bedfellows make strange politics.
This story could have been filmed in any of the usual countries that double for Vietnam. It just wouldn't have been Vietnam, and that sense of the immediate and historical setting - the scene of the crime, if you will - was essential to the film's emotional veracity. (The first, 1958 version of The Quiet American, with Michael Redgrave as Fowler and war hero Audie Murphy as Pyle, was also shot partly in Vietnam.) "I've seen Vietnam pictures shot in Thailand and the Philippines," says Caine, "but you never get those incredible mountains and mists. In our film, you see those and you are immediately in Vietnam."
Getting the movie made there - made at all - was a battle in itself. From near and far, the filmmakers met with armed resistance: armed, that is, with papers in triplicate and stern shakes of the head. The producers had to meet with the local People's Committees and let Vietnamese censors pore over the script by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan. "Everything was an obstacle," says executive producer Sydney Pollack, who bought the rights to the novel in 1988 and thought of directing it himself before Noyce got the itch in 1995. "The permits were a nightmare. Moving equipment was a nightmare. The censors were a nightmare. You just had to be patient."
Even before Sept. 11, Pollack and Noyce also had to suffer an unenthusiastic Hollywood. As Pollack recalls, "The first reaction anyone in America had was, 'We've done Vietnam.'" But they hadn't done the war of wills, the '50s debate of idealism and intervention, that led to the deaths of three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans. "We've had a lot of combat movies," Pollack notes. "We've had a lot of movies that have talked about how horrible and heartbreaking the war was. But we haven't had anything that looked at the attitude with which we drifted into it."
To make the movie, Pollack the American - and Noyce the Australian, Caine the Englishman, Fraser the Canadian and an international army of technicians led by Aussie picture-poet Christopher Doyle behind the camera - had to drift back to Vietnam. Again there were white men giving orders to yellow men, car bombs in a Saigon square, dangerous assignations in the jungle. The crew shut down Ho Chi Minh City's busiest square for a week, transforming it into the cyclo-filled Saigon of colonial days. They did the same a month later in Hanoi's Old Quarter, and then the 1,000-year-old city of Hoi An. This time, no one was killed, but all that heavy machinery threatened to sabotage a complex vision. In cinema as in war, size is no match for cunning, determination and stealth.
"This is the rich man's way of making films," says Dang Nhat Minh, the distinguished Vietnamese auteur who, as a favor to Noyce, shot second unit on the first major U.S.-financed film made in Vietnam since the war. The budget for The Quiet American was $30 million - 100 times what Dang spent for his award-winning The Season of Guavas. "Basically, it's the same. Here, they just have a lot more equipment."
And a lot more onlookers. One day a heavy mist draped the mountains of Binh Dinh and sank into the rice paddies in the valleys below. An ancient Citro'n spun its wheels on the muddy track, in a scene that would bring Fowler to a rebel leader's camp in the Vietnam of 1953. Suddenly Noyce shouted and pointed at a tree line: "Somebody do something about those kids!"
Two boys had climbed some bamboo trees and were swaying at the top, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style. Very cute, but it ruined the shot. A translator pleaded for the children to come down. Noyce folded his hands on top of his bowed head. Then he looked up and pointed again. "There's another one behind them, in that banana tree." At least the kids weren't snipers.
Actually, the locals couldn't have been more welcoming to the moviemaking invaders. "I had many preconceived notions about Vietnam," says Caine, "and every one of them was wrong. I thought it would be a war-torn country, very bitter people. Instead, I found a very beautiful country with few signs of war. I never encountered any animosity, just people who seemed genuinely pleased to see us."
Caine must have been inspired by the people and the land. He embodies Fowler's subtleties and contradictions so expertly that he seems to disappear into Fowler: it is the vanishing act of an artist-magician. "When we were done, I couldn't see any Michael Caine there at all," he recalls. "At the end I was an empty shell. I had nothing left. I came home and I just sat there for a week."
Like the U.S. advisers before them, The Quiet American crew had a mission. Theirs was to unearth hints about how America's involvement in Vietnam was conceived and born. Agree or disagree with their take on the war before the war; then make a wish that the hope and hypocrisy the movie shows is ancient history, not modern prophesy.
- Reported by Kay Johnson/Ho Chi Minh City