Saturday, 5 May 2007

The Quiet American(1958)

Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Graham Greene’s classic story of idealism, involvement, love and betrayal displays many of the characteristics and themes shown in his other work. There is the inclusion of the ever-present ‘Greeneland’ setting of late colonial Vietnam, an inter-generational love affair between a middle-aged man and a girl half his age as well as elements of the typical spy-story, the genre in which Greene was best known to the mainstream audience. It is not surprising therefore that there have been two film adaptations of the novel, director Joseph Mankiewicz’s in 1958 and Phillip Noyce’s in 2002.

Of these films Noyce’s is by far the more successful, and indeed Greene himself hated the earlier film dismissing it as ‘propaganda’. It is not hard to see why Greene loathed it so much, given the number of blunders it swaggers into, chief amongst which is the collapsing of the uncertainty around the motives and morality of Fowler into a trite ending in which he cathartically, but superficially, accepts his misdeeds. This brutal betrayal of Greene’s original ending in which Fowler’s actions are directed both by self-interest and a desire to prevent suffering is unforgivable, especially in light of the weak story-telling in other parts of the films.

Excessive narration, often interrupting the dialogue of a scene, as well as blatantly expositional speech rob the audience of their participation in the story whilst the misrepresentation of the characters’ fundamental nature, ensures that the likelihood of even passive enjoyment is remote. The pity that should be felt for Fowler’s loneliness is obliterated by the arrogance he demonstrates. Where as Pile’s arrogance, implicit in the novel from his actions, here destroys the sympathy we would otherwise feel for someone with his naïve, but dangerous philosophies.

When the film does try to reclaim some sympathy for Pile, by absolving him of guilt, it again betrays it’s source, by removing one of the book’s central themes – the destructive nature of American foreign policy. Also gone from the story is much of the emphasis on the source of Pile’s thinking - the theoretical idealisms of York Harding. Instead Pile is inspired in a broader way by American notions of liberty and freedom in his pursuance of a ‘Third Force’. This aborts any inquiry into the contrast between Pile’s abstractionism and Fowler’s pragmatism and substitutes it with crude Americanism and cheap sentiment. This conspicuous flaw is not committed in Noyce’s version, released as it was in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

One of the novel’s chief flaws was it’s over-reliance on male-perspective, Phuong in the book is under-developed with limited and predictable responses to the machinations of the two male sides of her love-triangle. The film however compounds these errors with 2D characterisation and a rather flat performance from Giorgia Moll. In a further departure from the novel, Phuong’s actions become contradictory and inconsistent: she leaves Fowler for pragmatic reasons, but won’t return to him as a matter of principle.

Also gone is the short poem Greene used to illustrate one of his central ideas -

"The people they stare, and ask who I am;
And if I should chance to run over a cad,
I can pay for the damage if ever so bad.
So pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!
So pleasant it is to have money.”

This is a far better piece of writing than anything on offer in the script of this tepid film.

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