Power rivalry

Phillip Noyce (director) - The quiet American - Regus London Film Festival (www.rlff.co.uk) November 7, 9. UK release from November 29

Phillip Noyce is true to the spirit of personal allegory of world-historic political events that informs the 1952 Graham Greene novel upon which this film is based. Shot in Vietnam, it has lain dormant in the distribution system for over a year because of 9/1l, and was anyway a long time in the making, possibly because it follows Greene's artistic condemnation of US overseas activities so closely. Certainly immediately post-September 11 there was little chance of it getting a viewing in the highly chauvinist atmosphere that developed Stateside. The film is set 50 years ago in French colonial Saigon, where Times correspondent Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) has attained a kind of stability in the midst of war. But his world - personal and political - faces a threat in the form of the arrival of a young, quiet American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser - of The mummy and George of the jungle). As soon as he sees Fowler's mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), Pyle is immediately attracted to her. Fowler first met her in a bar dancing with customers for money as a taxi dancer, but even after all this time he cannot marry her since he has a wife in London. Pyle presents himself as working for a US aid agency dealing with trachoma, a disease endemic in Vietnam (those viewers who know the record of the Peace Corps and other ostensibly altruistic American overseas schemes will immediately have their sensors tuned). In this partial metaphor for the post-World War II situation, rivalry between the younger and the older man over a woman can easily be compared with the jostling for position by an invigorated USA against the weakened, old colonial powers - whether France in south east Asia or Britain elsewhere - for world hegemony. Rashly, Fowler seems to tolerate the younger man's fancy at first, and is even amused. However, Pyle is encouraged further by Phuong's older sister (Pham Thi Mai Hoa), who sees the young and probably rich American as a much better prospect than an ageing, dissolute English journalist. Fowler's sang-froid starts to melt away. All too clearly, Fowler cannot summon the power required to retain Phuong, who therefore starts to turn toward the thrusting, energetic Pyle. (Similarly, French rulers can no longer hold Vietnam through its old colonial compradors, so the USA seizes the role of heir-apparent.) Faced with recall by his paper due to a paucity of filed stories, Fowler forces himself to travel north to the danger zone of Phat Diem, where the French forces are fighting Ho Chi Minh's communist army. While the French vigorously deny any responsibility for the piles of civilian bodies he comes across, Fowler cannot imagine that the murders would be in the interests of the Viet Minh either. Later, still pursuing his story, Fowler treks up country to meet warlord and new political hopeful general Thé (Quang Hai), questioning him pointedly about the Phat Diem massacre and the identity of his financial backers; he gains no answers, only the general's anger. Thé stomps off and Fowler glimpses US political officer Joe Tunney (Robert Stanton) lurking in the background. It gradually dawns on him that the USA is behind the formation of Thé's third force, established apart from and opposed to both the communist and the French forces. The terrorist side of the US state becomes open when two big car bombs explode in central Saigon killing many civilians. Fowler takes sides to "remain human", as his evidently Viet Minh office manager Hinh (Tzi Ma) says. What makes Noyce's film so refreshing compared to the 1958 black and white version is precisely its faithful rendering of the novel's main premises, sticking more truthfully to the literary characterisations of Fowler and Pyle. In addition, Caine brings to the role of Fowler a certain sensitivity and plays his hard-bitten journo with a subtle vulnerability and humanity: it is one of his best. Neither the Americans, the British nor the French come out of this well, which fits entirely with the spirit Greene inculcated originally. Here we can welcome a palpably authentic rendition of a neglected area of world history, populated by believable players taking part in momentous events. Jim Gilbert