Visually stunning, provocative and absorbing, Phillip Noyce’s 2002 film version of Graham Greene’s iconic cold war novel, The Quiet American is, on one level, a movie about a love triangle. But it is also a movie about power and seduction and about how the two are intertwined.
Review and recap The Quiet American
Set in Indochina (Vietnam) in 1952, it tells the story of Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), a burned-out English ex-patriot journalist who is stationed in Saigon to cover the French/Indochina war. Fowler has seen it all and admits that, for the most part, he has given up on life. His one interest is his Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong (Do Hai Yen), a former taxi dancer who is at least 30 years his junior. They have a relationship that is based on the fact that she needs his money and the protection he can provide. In his narration at the beginning of the film, Fowler explains that he loves Phuong and that Phuong loves him because he pays her to.
When Fowler becomes friends with a young, enthusiastic, and idealistic American doctor named Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) he has no way of knowing that introducing the American to Phuong will change all of their lives forever. Pyle is attracted to Fowler’s girlfriend, and much of the movie is based around that attraction. Phuong is loyal to Fowler but comes to see that the young American can give her more, both in terms of money and in terms of protection in the midst of chaos.
As the French Indochina war rages on and a series of events make it clear that Pyle is more than just a doctor, Phuong’s attraction to him grows. Fowler is helpless to stop what he knows will happen, and he, too, becomes fascinated by this quiet American who is not what he pretends to be.
As the story of the relationship between the three progresses, the story of the conflict in Indochina also unfolds, and the main characters become stand-ins for the end of French colonialism, the beginning of American involvement in Vietnam, and the civilians caught in the middle of a conflict. Phuong is held between a boyfriend who she feels a duty to stay with and a young, vigorous newcomer who can give her the safety she will need as the war escalates.
Michael Caine is at his best as the world-weary Englishman resigned to his fate and already mourning for what he knows he is about to lose. He brings a sense of longing to the character that hangs over the entire movie. Brendan Fraser’s portrayal of Pyle, the American wide-eyed optimist with dark secrets, is just as remarkable as Caine’s, in that he is able to play the character as simultaneously ordinary and sinister. Pyle, who represents America and its early involvement in Southeast Asia, knows he is a liar but genuinely believes that his lies are in the service of a great cause. Do Hai Yen gives a nuanced and affecting performance as the woman who knows that her ability to keep both men fascinated may be the only thing that will keep her alive. With cinematography by Christopher Doyle that portrays the Vietnam of 1952 as lush and verdant and infused with a sense of sadness, The Quiet American is a compelling, intricate film that illuminates the emotional complications of both love and war.
Characters and cast of The Quiet American include:
Thomas Fowler – Michael Caine (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, The Prestige, The Statement, Get Carter, The Cider House Rules, Blood and Wine, Harry Brown)
Alden Pyle – Brendan Fraser (The Mummy, Texas Rising, The Mummy Returns, Gimme Shelter, Breakout)
Phuong – Do Thi Hai Yen