Feature by: Jack Foley
AUSTRALIAN director, Phillip Noyce, describes his latest film,
The Quiet American, as the great Vietnam War movie that
hadnt 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 Greenes novel began at an early
age when, like countless other university students, he read it,
then cast it aside.
It wasnt 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.
"Greenes novel was one of two books sold at the Ho
Chi Minh Museum," he explained. "The second was Ho Chi
Minhs 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, Greenes 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 actors 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 films 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
"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
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 Noyces 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 isnt anyone who doesnt have
an uncle or brother or a family member or someone affected or
killed by the war.
"Theres a certain gravity attached to this project
and I think we owe a responsibility to it. You cant 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 Fowlers
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
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."