The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Movie and book review:
The Quiet American

Jan 20, 2003

The Quiet American is a movie made by Australian director Phillip Noyce, based on the 1955 novel of the same title by British author Graham Greene. The movie was to be released in the fall of 2001, but after 9/11 it was held back by the distributors under the pretext that it dealt with a "sensitive" subject, that is, terrorism – except that, the terrorist in this story is an American, working for the U.S. government.

The two main characters of The Quiet American are an aging British journalist and a young American he meets in Viet Nam in the early 1950s. The story develops around both the friendship of these two men and their rivalry over a young Vietnamese woman. The background of the story, however, quickly takes over. In those years, Viet Nam is still under French colonial rule. Vietnamese nationalists, organized under the Viet Minh (short for 'League for the Independence of Viet Nam' in Vietnamese), are waging war to kick the French colonialists out, and they are close to achieving this goal. We learn that the U.S. is also involved, supplying arms and money for the French war effort.

Alden Pyle, the American, introduces himself as an economic aid worker. But Thomas Fowler, the journalist and narrator of the story, soon notices that Pyle's involvement in Viet Nam is of a different nature. He is often seen around the associates of General The, a Vietnamese who has declared himself a "Third Force" against both the French and Viet Minh. General The is a terrorist: his preferred methods are random bombings in crowded areas of the city and massacres of civilians in the countryside. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Pyle, who is really a CIA agent, is the link between General The and the U.S. government, which finances and advises this terrorist.

The involvement of the U.S. government in other countries' affairs in the 1950s is today well-documented. In Iran in 1953 and in Guatemala in 1954, for example, the CIA played a key role in overthrowing democratically elected governments. In those years, the U.S. was also involved in a major war in Korea and, as The Quiet American shows, was getting ready to take over from the French the role of Viet Nam's imperialist master. When the French finally pulled out in 1955, the U.S. set up a dictatorship in South Viet Nam, which then paved the way for sending in U.S. troops in the 1960s.

In other words, the U.S. in the early 1950s was already deeply engaged in its new role as the main imperialist power in the world, trying to contain the mobilization of popular masses around the globe by direct intervention as well as by supporting colonialists, terrorists and repressive dictatorships.

If, after 9/11, this movie was found "too sensitive" for release by the corporations, it's because the U.S. has never quit playing this role during the half century since. In an introduction to his novel, Graham Greene says that General The, who actually existed, was assassinated in the early 1950s. Thus he remained an obscure figure in history – unlike another U.S.-sponsored terrorist, who started his career in relative obscurity in remote Afghanistan: Osama bin Laden.