Graham Greene and ‘The Quiet American’

When I first made a TV film about Vietnam, in 1969, the director asked me to quote from Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American; I did, and later one of the TV critics wrote that I saw the country with a second-hand imagination. Certainly I had read the book when it first came out in 1955, and on reading it once more in Saigon in 1990, perhaps for the sixth or seventh time, I found I admired it more than ever. Just for that reason I ask myself whether the TV critic had not been right, and I see Vietnam through Greene-tinted spectacles.

The question is hard to answer, since the principal character in the book is an English reporter, Thomas Fowler, whose working life in the 1950s is much like mine was to be in the following two decades. He is entranced by the country and to some extent by its people. He takes neither side in the war and detests ideology. He watches with fascination the different ways that France and the United States confront the advance of communism. And although Greene was writing about the early Fifties, when France alone was fighting the war, The Quiet American came to be seen as a prophecy of the US involvement. Indeed by the time of his death this month at the age of eighty-six, Greene had become a kind of Grand Old Man of the left, and The Quiet American stood as his anti-imperialist masterpiece.

The character of the title, Alden Pyle, is said to be based on the CIA agent Colonel Edward Lansdale, who wanted to save democracy with the “psychological warfare” methods that he had studied during his peacetime career as an advertising executive. He had helped to subdue a revolt in the Philippines, afterward going to South Vietnam to assist the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Two American authors, William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, glorified Lansdale in another Fifties novel, The Ugly American, where he appears as Colonel Edwin Hillandale, who wins hearts and minds by playing the mouth organ.

The Quiet American, Alden Pyle, arrives in Vietnam full of the theories of an absurd pundit, York Harding, author of The Advance of Red China. The Englishman Fowler teases Pyle and derides his hope of building a third force between communism and French colonialism. Then Pyle falls in love with Fowler’s girl, Phuong, and wins her away with the promise of marriage and life in the United States. Fowler is told by the Communists that Pyle is a secret agent engaged in importing plastic for bombs to use in a terror campaign on behalf of a “third force” general, which culminates in a vast explosion in front of the Continental Hotel. The incident is based on an actual bombing outrage which killed dozens of people. Fowler agrees to set up Pyle to be killed by the Communists. The French policeman, Inspector Vigot, thinks but cannot prove that Fowler ordered the killing from sexual jealousy.

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