Movie Review: The Quiet American.

Genre:  Drama, Thriller, War, Romance

Rating:  R (for images of violence and some language)

Actors:  Michael Caine, Brendan Frasier, Do Thi Hai Yen, Rade Serbedzija, Tzi Ma, Robert Stanton, Holmes Osborne, Nguyen Thi Hieu

Director:  Phillip Noyce

Written By: Christopher Hampton, Robert Schenkkan. Adapted from Graham Greene’s Novel.

US Box Office: $12.8M


The Quiet American is a thriller love-triangle set in the backdrop of Vietnam conflict. Graham Greene’s novel is brought to the screen for the second time in this adaptation directed by Phillip Noyce.  It’s a film that depicts the complexities of the world amidst the hundreds of shades of gray it is tinted with; a film that renders ambiguity to idealism and proclaims war to be a blend of interests.

London Times correspondent Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) who prides himself on never taking sides, never acting in anyone’s interests, just reporting what he sees or hears, is posted in Saigon in 1952. He is completely under the spell of the exotic beauty, warmth and mysteries of the city. Despite being married to a strict catholic in London, Fowler spends his days and his nights with his exotic mistress called Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). While Fowler sees her as a companion for social gatherings as well as in bed, Phuong feels a sense of financial security in his company and is very happy with this arrangement although she hopes that Fowler will eventually be granted a divorce and will marry her instead. Her sister, on the other hand, doesn’t confide in the middle-aged English man and seeks a more stable arrangement for her sister.

Brendan Fraser plays the mystic character of Alden Pyle. He is a composed medical aid officer who finds himself in the war scenario supposedly to bestow eye treatment to the nation’s ailing public. Pyle coincidentally runs into Fowler in a café and the two develop an unlikely friendship that centers around common goals but different conducts; in respect to both Phuong and Vietnam.

On being summoned back to London, Fowler goes on a field trip to the Northern part of the country for a new story. Surprisingly, Pyle appears there as well. Roving further, Fowler is baffled to witness the brutality of war and the toll it takes on the lives of scores of men, women and children that are just not accounted for. The French and the communists vehemently deny involvement while blaming each other and Fowler predicts a third possibility. He begins to suspect a “Third Force” headed by General Thé, who has gathered his own army together and is aided slyly by some American operatives. Fowler begins to dive deeper and deeper into the matter and soon, learns that Pyle is a CIA operative who is involved in a series of bombings. He is also indulged in organizing and financing this Third Force against both the French and the Communists.

Meanwhile, Pyle confesses his love for Phuong but faces rejection at her end. While both Fowler and Pyle are obsessed with an ardent in their tussle for her fondness, Phuong herself is inquisitively detached. She cares for them both and makes it certain at specific points too but not necessarily in the same way. Her overall demeanor however, reflects that there are deeper concerns in her heart than which man to be with. Throughout the film, they fight for Phuong, without actually including her and in a way that unconsciously reveals their own selfish desires.

The Positives

The Quiet American is a stirring account of colonialism in matters of the heart. It is a marvelously filmed story that is full of metaphors about the war.  Phuong represents Vietnam, the mistress of old Europe who is wooed by America trying naïvely to save and transform her.  Pyle is the American idealist with naïve and sometimes dangerous aspirations that are blinded by his desire to save the damsel in distress.  Fowler is the old-fashioned, humanitarian-minded European who wants to hold on to things the way they were.  The psychological gamesmanship between Fowler and Pyle works well on several levels especially in their battle to possess Phuong. Through a lack of understanding the culture, both men (and nations if you are referring to the war) end up damaging her life and basically leaving her in the same situation she was in before.  The love triangle becomes a war triangle and by the story’s end, you see how easily it escalated to the Vietnam War.

In addition to an atypical theme, the movie is also a thriller with Fowler investigating a right wing general and having a series of near-fatal adventures. The standard thriller elements of romance, intrigue, adventure and deception are all offered with a stylish, if somewhat left-of-center slant.

Adding to a great screenplay, are the outstanding acting and editing—the latter crucial for the movie’s flashback structure to work. Phuong (Do Hai Yen), and like all beautiful women who reveal little of their true feelings, she makes it possible for him to project his own upon her. He loves her for what he can tell himself about her. Caine delivers a performance of the caliber of an Academic Award and Fraser appears in role that is different from his usual goofy ones.

The movie poses a moral question to the audience and deliberately answers it too. When Pyle is seen wiping off the blood stains off his pants, he is morally degraded at once in the eyes of both Fowler and the audience. The incidents that follow are about having a moral judgment and living with the consequences.

The Negatives

It is a little risky to open a movie from the death of one of its main characters. Although Noyce managed this pretty well yet the movie might come as a disappointment for Fraser’s fans. For them, the movie would be more about discovering what really happens to Pyle than the other important aspects that the movie aims to convey.

Also, a little more could have been done with Phuong’s character. It seems obvious, given that she’s young and beautiful, that an old man like Fowler would be willing to possess her and a young man like Pyle would want to give her a life beyond being a mistress. But since the viewers never really get to know much about her, it becomes hard to understand why these men would be willing to give up everything they have and waste their lives for her.


The first adaptation of the film by Joseph Mankiewicz turned the story on its head, making Fowler the bad guy and Pyle the hero. Novice, however, gives a truer account that tallies with Greene’s novel. Moreover, the fact that the film was shot in Vietnam adds an intense realism and beauty to it.

While completed in the fall of 2001, The Quiet American went unreleased until late 2002. Owing to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Miramax president Harvey Weinstein felt the film’s critical view of America’s role in the Vietnam War might be considered especially offensive. Caine appealed to Weinstein, who a year later allowed the film to be shown at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was so well received by the public and critics that Miramax opened it for Oscar consideration in December.

PS. The review is so long because it was a 25-mark project. 🙂 Thought it might help a poor student. 😀