Pico Iyer Journeys

The Unquiet Englishman

Now, in very different times, The Quiet American comes to our screens again, the American Century behind us, and the world’s lone superpower looking more wounded and nervous than it has done in many years. It’s been often noted in recent times that the Australian Philip Noyce had the bad fortune of screening his investigation of American folly abroad before its patrons, Miramax, on September 10th, 2001, and the film was delayed and delayed thereafter as being much too close to the bone as America began sending its troops out to Afghanistan, and who knows where. Yet if the studio were to wait until a time when there were no Pyles in the world, it would have to wait, of course, forever; the country seems just as keen to foist democracy and freedom on the world now as it was in 1955, even on cultures that found their own very different systems centuries before America was born. I have seen Alden Pyle, in recent months, in Bolivia and Oman and even ostensibly peaceful Hanoi.

Besides, the distinguishing feature of Greene is that he was not writing merely political novels that caught the temper of the times. He is often cited as a prophet for having been in Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti or Argentina just before they came into the news; but in every case the beauty of his works derives from the fact that they were not addressing only the coming problems of Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti or Argentina. The Quiet American is, incidentally, a political film that measures one empire, the British, disengaged and trying to protect itself by claiming not to care, against a coming power, American, that is eager to reform the world with the theories of Harvard Square. But much more deeply, and more plangently, it is a parable about different kinds of self-delusion, and the dialogue between middle age and youth, or fearfulness and incaution, with the something that lies between them just happening to be called Vietnam. Greene’s enduring theme is that politics, theology, every system by which we might hope to lead a better life (and actually lead a worse one) is always complicated by the human factor.

The new Quiet American has any number of things in its favor. The first American-made production to be shot in Vietnam since the war, it revels, bewitchingly, in the streets and atmospheric spaces of Hanoi (where, to this day, the visitor is often surrounded by streetkids waving their prize commodity, a pirated edition of The Quiet American). The film is directed by a man who has clearly steeped himself in the misdoings of the C.I.A. in the Fifties and is determined to reverse the revisionism of Mankiewicz. It is co-written by Christopher Hampton, the British playwright who brought Greene memorably to the screen in his 1983 adaptation of The Honorary Consul (released, perhaps on the assumption that many modern viewers might not understand either word of the title, under the more anodyne name, Beyond the Limit). And the film’s trump card is that for Fowler, the English narrator, it has Michael Caine, whose watery eyes and air of weathered kindness–the miles so evident in his face and voice–seems made for the hardened sadness of a Greene protagonist (and who, for good measure, played the same part before, to perfection, in Hampton’s Beyond the Limit).

And yet, to my surprise, something here goes wrong; and to my deeper surprise, it seems to have to do with Caine. Even in the earliest chronological scenes in the movie he seems vulnerable, a little broken, and when we see him with his 20 year-old mistress Phuong, he looks more incongruous and lost, I think, than the book intended (at 68, Caine is a full generation older than the Fowler one imagines, created by a Greene who was 48 when he began writing the book, and 51 when it was published). Part of the poignancy of Greene’s protagonists is that they keep up appearances, Edward Foxes to the end, even as their emotions are beginning to rise up against them {even as everything inside them is crying out against it ?} (“Feelings,” says Dr. Plaar in Hampton’s Beyond the Limit. “I’m an Englishman”). Their urbanity and worldly wisdom keeps them away from acknowledging the softer feelings that are here apparent even to the guileless Pyle (“Fowler,” a literary critic might here note, is an anagram of “Flower,” where “Pyle,” is only “Yelp” rearranged). The educated Englishman always leads with his strength, Greene knows very well, and only slowly, often invisibly, begins to disclose his weaknesses; the archetypal American–like Pyle here–is so open with his follies and confusions tht you only slowly recognize his strength.

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