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The Quiet American - Feature



Feature by: Jack Foley

AUSTRALIAN director, Phillip Noyce, describes his latest film, The Quiet American, as ‘the great Vietnam War movie that hadn’t been made’.

He says it is ‘a film not about the experiences of fighting the American war against the Vietnamese, but a film that explains why the fighting occurred, why the Americans prosecuted that war over such a long period with such vehemence’.

His association with Graham Greene’s novel began at an early age when, like countless other university students, he read it, then cast it aside.

It wasn’t until 1995, when Noyce was back in Vietnam on a research holiday - accompanying the former US military intelligence officers back to their former 1945 training ground, that he accidentially became re-acquainted with it.

"Greene’s novel was one of two books sold at the Ho Chi Minh Museum," he explained. "The second was Ho Chi Minh’s Prison Poetry, the book I intended to buy.

"A few days later, I was travelling by train across Vietnam and discovered they had put the wrong book in the bag. So I ended up re-reading The Quiet American."

On this occasion, Greene’s novel - encapsulating a love triangle set against the backdrop of US involvement in Vietnam before the outbreak of fighting - struck a chord.

"I had spent time with these (US) veterans who were full of remorse about the way things had turned out subsequent to their adventures in Vietnam," he continued. "They were training the Vietnamese to fight the Japanese, although eventually they trained them to fight themselves - the Americans.

"Everyone was full of regret, so reading The Quiet American again, I thought, ‘Wow, this is the novel that answers the questions that these 70 and 80-year-old men have been perplexed by all these years - Why? Why did this war happen?

"Writing between 1952 and 1954, Greene answered the question that no one had yet asked: How did it all happen? And he does this through his portrait of Alden Pyle, the ‘Quiet American’."

Having undertaken to direct the project, the lengthy process of researching the history of the conflict, of scouting out locations and of negotiating with the relevant Vietnamese authorities began.

Sir Michael Caine came on board at an early stage (opting to base his character around Greene, whom he had met on several occasions), while Fraser signed up pretty much soon after he heard that Caine was on board (he had read the actor’s book on acting and film and admits to wanting to work with him from an early age).

But throughout the film-making process, Noyce sought (and benefited from) the advice and assistance of the Vietnamese people.

Of particular note was the film’s Vietnamese 2nd Unit Director, Dang Nhat Minh, who proved crucial in providing local knowledge, from the smallest cultural detail to casting the best extras.

Says Noyce: "Dang Nhat Minh has a personal history that expresses, in many ways, the suffering that was experienced by the whole of Vietnam during those years.

"His father was a doctor working for the north, against the Americans, and was killed by a bomb that came silently from the sky from a B52 bomber. So when you ask him what The Quiet American is to him, he says "I think it was that guy, flying up in the sky, who so quietly pressed the button that let loose that bomb’.

"Having a person who was touched in that way by the agony of the French and American wars against Vietnam contributed to the texture and the vision of the film. It was an important addition."

Likewise, the filming of the explosion in Saigon Square in Ho Chi Minh City and its aftermath was equally key, as the co-operation of city officials and the enthusiasm and talent of the local extras was essential.

Producer William Horberg likened the shoot o shutting down Times Square in New York for a week, putting it back into a period and setting off some major explosives.

But the fearless attitude of the extras helped Noyce’s crew to re-create the aftermath of the explosion with astounding realism. Limbless victims of Agent Orange or mine explosions re-created what may have been a trauma very similar to the circumstances of their own injury.

Many lay on the ground for days on end, in sweltering conditions and covered in fake blood and raw meat.

Fraser was especially touched by their dedication, recalling: "There were people aged 70 and over who said ‘I remember that day’. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t have an uncle or brother or a family member or someone affected or killed by the war.

"There’s a certain gravity attached to this project and I think we owe a responsibility to it. You can’t make a film about the Vietnam War without expecting to affect so many people in so many ways."

It was during the filming of this scene that Noyce decided on one of the biggest changes from the book, that of making Fowler’s assistant a Vietnamese character, rather than an Indian.

He adds: "The change was inspired by an intriguing story that I heard of a very famous Vietnamese patriot, General An.

"As a Special Agent, he spent 35 years working for the French as a censor, for the Americans in intelligence, and finally working for Reuters and Time magazine, while all the time he was working for the Vietnamese people as a spy.

"I thought this was a wonderful character - this Triple Agent, so we developed the character of Mr Hinh around General An."

However, Noyce remains indebted to everyone in Vietnam for helping to turn his vision into a reality. He concludes: "The Quiet American has been a part of Vietnamese culture, ever since it was published, because it answers important questions for them as well - why did 3,500,000 Vietnamese have to die fighting that war? They identified with the novel… so they bent over backwards to try and assist us, and we thank them for that."

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