Paying for the Damage: The Quiet American Revisited
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Paying for the damage:
The Quiet American Revisited

Graham Greene's The Quiet American, published in 1955, has twice caught the interest of respected filmmakers. Joseph Mankiewicz directed his adaptation of the novel in 1958, while Phillip Noyce returned to the text nearly a half century later. These radically different presentations reflect the different historical contexts in which they were filmed and show how the Vietnam War continues to be revisited and reshaped. Mankiewicz transposes what he called a "cheap melodrama in which the American was the most idiotic kind of villain" (qtd. in Geist 269) into an anti-Communist dramatization of America's fledgling foreign policy in Indochina. By returning to The Quiet American of the late fifties with four decades of hindsight, Noyce is able to treat his film with full awareness of America's pending escalation and defeat in Vietnam, something that Greene and Mankiewicz could only imagine.

Greene's controversial and popular novel provides attractive adaptation possibilities. It is part political thriller, part romance, and part detective story set in exotic Indochina in 1952. A washed-up reporter for the London Times, Thomas Fowler pits his fatalistic experience against the newly arrived American's youthful innocence in an effort to hold onto Phuong, his Vietnamese mistress, in a contest that symbolizes old and new world attitudes towards Indochina. In the novel, Fowler underscores the danger of Alden Pyle's lethal innocence:

he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair's about, and you gave him money and York Harding's books on the East and said, "Go ahead. Win the East for Democracy."

(31-32)

In the 1950s, Joseph Mankiewicz ennobles Pyle's idealism while simultaneously emptying Fowler of political significance. Noyce's 2002 departure from the novel also centers on the characterization of the American; this time, however, Pyle is less ignorant and more menacing in his idealism. Mankiewicz privileges the murder investigation and Fowler's jealousy of Pyle as a motive, while Noyce favors the self-reflective intimacy and pathos of Greene's work. The 1958 screenplay written by Mankiewicz and the 2002 script by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan both adhere closely to the novel. What separates the two films, principally the reimagining of the character of Pyle, does not occur until late in the story when Pyle responds to the terrorist attack he helped organize at the Place Garnier.

Joseph Mankiewicz bought the movie rights to The Quiet American just a few months after it was published in the United States in 1956. Though the director/producer claimed he was not pressured by United Artists to put a pro-American spin on the novel, Robert Lantz, executive vice-president of Figaro Productions (the film's production company), claimed the filmmaker boasted about the change: "I will tell the whole story anti-Communist and pro-American" (qtd. in Geist 268). According to Mankiewicz' biographer, Kenneth Geist, the director denied ever making the boast; however, Mankiewicz was quoted in the Saturday Review on January 25, 1958, saying that he "often wanted to do a picture about one of those ice-blooded intellectuals whose intellectualism is really just a mask for completely irrational passion" (27). As director and screenwriter, Mankiewicz reversed the anti-Americanism of Greene's novel into a decidedly patriotic film. In an interview to promote it, Mankiewicz said, "Greene's book made me so mad, I was determined to make a picture of it" (qtd. in Weales 492-93).1 Some time in early 1956 he contacted Colonel Edward Lansdale, USAF, for advice on the plausibility of his intended revision. Lansdale was a legendary CIA operative and staunch Diem supporter—sort of the Ollie North of his day and the model for Marlon Brando's character in The Ugly American (1963). To his credit, through his numerous State Department and Vietnamese contacts, Lansdale knew more than any American about a "third force"—i.e., a third alternative to Communist or French rule in Vietnam.

His alliance with this notorious spy makes clear the...