uploaded : Tuesday 29th Oct 2002 at 17:14
by : Alexander Walker
(Photo: Graham Greene)
03 Oct 02
BYLINE ALEXANDER WALKER
Why a nervous Hollywood left a shocking new version of 'The Quiet American' on the shelf for over a year...
AS George W Bush tries to rally world opinion behind his "attack Iraq" policy, a mere film may cause him and the US government more embarrassment
than all the protest marches in hand. It is a new version of Graham Greene's 1955 novel, The Quiet American, which indicted US government policy of
intervention in foreign countries - specifically Vietnam - that the Pentagon hawks saw as potential threats to American interests. The book was first filmed in 1958 by Joseph L Mankiewicz. It was a well-made movie, but one that completely reversed the subtext of Greene's novel about American political naivety.
The CIA, it has been alleged, influenced the screenplay, so that the young, idealistic American played by Audie Murphy, who foolishly places his trust in a "Third Force" in Vietnam politics that is supposedly sympathetic to
America, and thus precipitates civil war, is exonerated, while the British journalist played by Michael Redgrave, who exposes Murphy's dangerous naivety in the novel, is set up as the unwitting stooge of the communists.
Unsurprisingly, Greene hated the film. He called it "an attempt to assassinate the author of the book". But he would feel well avenged if he
were alive to see the new version of his novel directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Michael Caine as the Brit and Brendan Fraser as the eponymous American.
The new film makes no bones about saying that Americans can be terrorists, too. It shows the horrific explosions in Saigon when the country was still under shaky French colonial rule and implies that they were facilitated by bombmaking materials supplied by American agents in league with the "Third Force" insurgents.
In a coda composed of dispatches sent back by Caine to his newspaper, it links the American policy of intervention in the internal affairs of foreign countries regarded as threats with the 10-year Vietnam War that brought American troops back home in their thousands - in body bags.
Fraser's character, Alden Pyle, the "quiet American", is no longer the civilian of the earlier movie. Now he is a government employee. His work with a US medical mission is simply a cover for destabilising the country. The
plastic he imports for the frames of the free spectacles he hands out to victims of trachoma blindness is also the main ingredient for the bombs of the "Third Force", which the US is covertly supporting against the country's
French rulers and the Vietnamese.
His true status is made suddenly clear in the film's most shockingset-piece --- a huge bomb explosion in the centre of Saigon. Amid the carnage, Caine's onlooker watches Pyle change in a Jekyll-into-Hyde transformation. Suddenly
the callow young idealist turns into the hardened terrorist mastermind.
It's not an unprecedented admission for a film to make - even a Hollywood film - but in the present political climate it's an explosive one. The irony
- and how Greene would have smiled - is that this new version was financed by Miramax, one of the most conservative, even Rightwing corporations in
NOYCE'S film has been kept off the screen for over a year by Miramax's chief, Harvey Weinstein. His executives first saw Noyce's final cut in
Hollywood on 10 September 2001. One can imagine the shock it must have given them. At the very moment America was shaken by the arrival of terrorism on its own shores, the film demonstrated how the US government used the same
kind of tactics, admittedly less eadline-grabbing, to advance foreign policy 50 years ago. The Twin Towers attacks gave Harvey Weinstein a plausible reason to avoid releasing it. He felt it would be "unpatriotic".
Since then such a film has become an even hotter issue, as the generalised support for a "war" against terrorism has grown into an official call by the President and White House hawks for an actual war against Iraq. Weinstein, it's said, has reedited Noyce's film. "We were not sure how the public might respond to the cynical comments made by Michael Caine's character," a Miramax
executive has been quoted as saying.
However, Christopher Hampton's screenplay credit remains on the version I saw privately and its attack on the naivety of the American Establishment's military adventurism abroad is intact and powerful. The reason for Miramax
allowing 'The Quiet American' to be seen now is said to be Michael Caine's truculent defence of it.
Caine's performance is among the best he has ever given. He incarnates not only the character Greene wrote, but Greene himself: a world-weary cynic on the last lap of life, wise to the sins of men and governments. If Weinstein was persuaded by Caine's eloquence, and that of other influential talents such as Anthony Minghella and Nicole Kidman - who are currently making a
Miramax film - then he must be given credit for the gamble he's taking with American public opinion by releasing the film.
Yet is it such a risk? Hollywood is not about patriotism. It's not even about movies. It is about money.
Opinion is building in the US against a war with Iraq.
By the time Miramax releases The Quiet American - it's been booked into several small theatres in November so as to qualify for Oscar nomination -
the film may well have been adopted by antiwar factions in the US which will carry it to Oscar nominations on a rolling wave of political empathy. A triumph for Harvey Weinstein - and cheap, too.
The film opens in the UK on 29 November, just when, if George W Bush's reported agenda is followed, we may be at war with Iraq and maybe much of the Middle East. Once again, even in his grave, Graham Greene has got his timing balefully right.
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