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The Quiet American (2002) – DVD Review

The Quiet American DVD box art


Written by: Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan, based on the novel by Graham Greene
Directed by: Philip Noyce
Starring: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Tzi Ma, Rade Serbedzija


  • Running audio commentary by director Noyce; actors Caine, Fraser and Ma; producers Sydney Pollack, Staffan Ahrenberg, William Hoberg; co-writer Hampton, and interpreter/advisor to the director, Tran An Hua
  • Sundance Channel show: Anatomy of a Scene
  • Vietnam historical timeline
  • Original reviews of the novel

Released by: Buena Vista Home Video
Region: 1
Rating: R
Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: Own it.

[ad#longpost]The heat of the tropics has always been associated with the heat of passion. For centuries, men have come to these places to bask in that heat and make it their own. In 1952, Vietnam is the prize fought for by a decaying French empire and a new Communist regime. Covering the conflict is Thomas Fowler (Caine) of the London Times. Fowler, like many expatriates, has settled into a comfortable lifestyle with his young Vietnamese lover Phuong (Yen)–a lifestyle of dancing, smoking opium, and other pleasures. He loves his new life, but it’s all threatened when his newspaper wants him back because he has been enjoying the joys of Vietnam and Phuong a little too much.

There is further disruption when Alden Pyle (Fraser), an earnest young American aid worker, enters the scene. He is a passionate advocate of American democracy and is willing to get involved where Fowler is content simply to observe. They strike up an initial friendship, but they clash over their passion to possess young Phuong. Fowler, with his assistant Hinh (Ma), is also finding out how far Pyle is willing to go to ‘save’ Vietnam when Fowler starts to investigate a new Vietnamese general on the rise politically and a terrorist explosion in the heart of Saigon. With Fowler’s passions aroused, he will learn that passion like heat can destroy as well as bring new life?

I know some of you are thinking, “Not another Vietnam movie.” As a genre, that period of our history has been pretty much mined out. But The Quiet American is different. For one thing, we see the French military being slapped around by the Viet Cong instead of us. More than that, we see the shift from the old colonial European powers symbolized by Fowler to the new Cold War American ‘sphere of influence’ symbolized by Pyle. And Phuong is Vietnam, the ‘prize’ in this contest. While Fowler is charming and wise in the ways of the world, he really has very little to offer the young girl since his Catholic wife don’t give him a divorce. Pyle has youth, wealth and is more than willing to marry Phuong, but his attempts are artless and he is unwilling to let things be. This obviously parallels with the early history of American involvement in this country. While Greene was more critical of Pyle’s American methods, the filmmakers show that both sides have faults. Pyle is at least trying to help while Fowler is content to sit around smoking opium and having sex. But as the old cliché goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and we all know now where this road leads. Pyle is so sure his ‘third way’ is right that he can’t see the potholes along the road.

The Quiet American screen capture 2

I can’t imagine anyone else playing the roles of Fowler and Pyle. Caine is brilliant, bringing a pathos and resignation to the character that slowly gets chipped away by events in his life. Comparing this performance with Caine’s early career in films like Sleuth, you can see how he’s learned to internalize the emotions the character is feeling. Frasier is also well cast with his puppy-dog earnestness and boy-next-door looks. But Frasier shows some interesting depths when he argues with Fowler over the fate of Vietnam or Phuong. He slowly reveals that Pyle has more resources to draw on, even though he still has a tenuous grasp on the situation. Hai Yen maintains her perfect courtesan mask, never showing a preference between Fowler or Pyle or neither. She is the true enigma and this takes skill to reveal nothing and leave the audience, like the characters, guessing. The writers, in adapting the novel, found the perfect balance of knowing what to leave intact and what needed to be changed to suit the film medium. And the director gives us visuals to feast on that equal Greene’s descriptive ability. The only major problem I had with the film is days and weeks seem to go past without any reference and it leaves the viewer a little disoriented.

The extras provided are mostly good. We have a commentary with many of the film’s cast and crew, but instead of having them all in a room together, their comments were made separately. We not only get the standard observations of acting decisions and filming techniques, but each speaker gives specific information about their contributions. It was very informative and the only problem was that Brendan Fraser mumbles. I can’t understand why a working actor would mumble or why the DVD makers didn’t make him do it again. There is also an episode of Anatomy of a Scene from the Sundance Channel featuring the Saigon explosion sequence. It goes into how they chose the various camera angles, musical cues, and sound effects and how they are woven together into the pivotal scene in the movie. Also included are some reviews of the original novel when it first came out, to give some historical perspective on the story it tells. To add to understanding, there is also a historical timeline of Vietnam’s troubled past. I wish other historical dramas would include something like this to help put everything in context.

The Quiet American screen capture 1

The only dud, besides Fraser’s mumbling, is the short featurette that just goes over information already in the Anatomy of a Scene episode. As a whole, this is a worthy film with worthy special features. The Quiet American is worth getting.

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