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QUIET AMERICAN GHOSTS

In this poignant and deeply personal response to Phillip Noyce’s film of The Quiet American, Cynthia A. Spencer sees a ghost from her own private life as well as from the pages of American foreign policy: a young man in a white tux … a bit like Alden Pyle.

You cannot build a masterwork without a solid foundation. Michael Caine's performance as Thomas Fowler, a London Times correspondent in The Quiet American is gripping, riveting and sad - of that, there is no doubt. However, there is a solid foundation that lies beneath the structure of Caine's out-front performance. This architectural underpinning is the morphing character of Alden Pyle and all that he symbolizes.

"This film's truth is stealthy"

This film's truth is stealthy. I found myself in the middle of sudden recall of certain scenes for days afterward, realizing that they were making their slow, insidious way into my bones. These flashbacks were brief but disquieting. They presaged a remembering of a time I’d buried long ago. Although clearly less intense and disturbing to me than to someone that actually experienced a bomb attack, the horrible poetry in the cinematography of the explosion’s aftermath in the film left me shaken.

The story is ostensibly a love triangle set against the backdrop of colonial Vietnam’s escalating tension between the communists, the French government, and the growing American presence. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that the beautiful 18-year old Vietnamese girl who plays Fowler’s lover, Phuong, represents the country of Vietnam itself. Fowler is the soul of weary English ennui, his personal resources as spent and depleted as Europe itself after both world wars. Phuong’s fragile, bird-in-captivity presence and the opium, which she brings to him in his pipe, are his only comforts.

Alden Pyle, the titular character and quickly, Fowler’s competition for Phuong’s affections, first appears in the film reading a book on democracy through tortoise shell glasses. He seeks out Fowler, and his engaging charm captures the jaded man’s attention. Flattery is certainly a powerful form of seduction, and Pyle insinuates himself into the weary man’s flattened ego with ease.

Yes, Fowler is the dissipated, corrupt old world, but Caine's masterful performance was built with American aid - the sturdy, steel-tough architecture of Alden Pyle's beliefs and misguided passion. Brendan Fraser as Pyle provides the unyielding physical foundation upon which Caine was able to craft his performance. 

Alden Pyle is as fresh faced and disingenuous as a high school sweetheart wearing a white jacket to a 1960s prom. Alden Pyle, as bright and cold as ice cream in his white suit offers a brilliant smile that might just also be a lie. The only moment when Pyle is not weaving careful deceptions is the first unexpected instant when he sees Phuong, played with aching perfection by a young Vietnamese actress, Do Thi Hai Yen. It is clear from his unguarded face that he falls immediately and foolishly in love with her.

Michael Caine offers the impression that Fowler’s loneliness was hidden, even from Fowler himself, until this too-easy friendship was proffered. He comes to care for Pyle, even when the awkward Alden professes his love for Phuong in Fowler’s very presence. Pyle similarly indicates that he too, truly enjoys the companionship of the older man. Pyle’s essential dilemma is narcissistic and adolescent; he actually believes he is entitled simultaneously to Fowler’s friendship, Phuong’s devotion and the right to carry out his plans for a “third force” in Vietnam. 

" a tactile, walking map of America"

The relationship between Caine and Do Hai Yen gave me much less trouble than I had anticipated. Even though Thomas Fowler is thrice her age, the attractive remnants of the rake Alfie or the rogue Peachy (The Man Who Would be King) from Caine’s formidable film history were still there, making the affection between Phuong and Fowler believable. 

However, Fraser’s role is another matter - it is neither clown nor hero, the two dominant choices of his earlier films. No echoes of other Brendan Fraser performances are evident: he is, from the first moment, only Pyle in every tight, proper ligament and rigid muscle. He is a monument to cloying earnestness with square, broad shoulders. It is striking to see the Vietnamese mass against him, whether it is the tiny, clinging prostitutes clamoring for Alden's too solid flesh or his five potential assassins pulling at his clothes, their heads barely reaching shoulder height.

Pyle is a tactile, walking map of America. From the shining, sea-blue-eyed infatuated lover to the midnight operative proficiently brandishing an automatic weapon in cricket-song swamp, his is a presence that under girds the film.

One of the most chilling images is when Pyle, after a bomb in the square left it littered with decimated bodies, bends down and blots stains from his trousers. It is not apparent what the discoloration is on the dark pants until his white handkerchief reveals the blood of dead Vietnamese citizens. Pyle’s movements are calm, methodical. It is this deliberate detachment that is so disturbing.

Near the end, the emotions telegraphed in Pyle's face as he is attacked by the communist patriots are first initial disbelief that he could have been betrayed in this way - a betrayal that results from Fowler’s inability to live without Phuong, and then a hint of a horrible epiphany: 

That despite his self-assured intentions, he might have made a terrible mistake. 

Pyle’s shocked countenance is a counterpoint to the neatness of his white suit, and Pyle’s blood is bright against that crisp fabric. Noyce’s echoing motif of red on white whispers that all blood is the same color, regardless of geography or genetics. 

"a memory prodding me - of another young man"

At that moment while watching the carnage, there was an intruding image - a memory prodding me - of another young man, sandy and freckled with affability. It was 1968. A few months after senior prom, he went off to Vietnam with an athlete’s exuberance, as if he were the quarterback on a team that was ready to kick some rival's butt. He had a gleam in his eye and a bounce in his step - all youthful muscle and energy. 

At the time, though, he told me with a gap-toothed grin that he was only going to the Philippines. I suppose he thought it was a gentle lie. His frequent letters, postmarked APO San Francisco, finally revealed the truth that he was in Da Nang. He asked me to marry him in those letters, written in a loopy, open script. I said yes. My parents said no. I was eighteen.

His letters became darker and infrequent. He returned eighteen months later, and I barely recognized him. The dark circles under his empty eyes and the hollow, gunmetal ring in his laugh indicated that he'd died a surrogate death over there - the war had absorbed his soul. Fowler had his opium - my first love had Jack Daniels and pot. His freckles had faded, his skin seemed rougher and even his teeth looked gray. He was not there - only his smiling corpse remained. 

He sat at our family table, telling us a story he found hilarious about a "gook" that got his head blown off and the body was still running in circles, arms and legs pumping wildly. "The US Army kicked Viet Cong ass!" he giggled.

He laughed so hard tears were flowing. When his chuckling subsided, he wiped his eyes, and then saw us staring at him. His reaction told us that he realized that his humor was our horror, and that he had made a terrible mistake, too. There was no redemption after that. He knew. 

I gave back his ring that night, wishing he'd actually died a final, biological death over there instead of returning as this spectral reminder of someone I once loved. 

He went back to Vietnam a few days later, and I never saw him again.

Two years ago, I felt a nagging pull to go visit his mother. Marge lives only blocks from me, but in the 10 years since I'd returned to my hometown, I'd never had the desire to see her. On this day, though, I was compelled to go the house. I drove down Costilla Street, bordered on the north by the ancient cottonwoods lining the Highline Canal. I drove up, got out in front of a house I hadn’t visited for thirty years and rang the bell, but no one answered. Later, I left a message on her phone.

Later that night, Marge called me. "You came by! We are so sorry we missed you. We were at Fort Logan, at the cemetery."

"like a ghost trying to find something"

The freckle-faced cowboy from Queen City, Texas who had sent me a cheap engagement ring from Da Nang was gone. Died of a heart attack in his sleep at 50. They buried him with full military honors. Marge said that the alcohol was "what done it. You know, he just had a very hard time.” It seemed that he had wandered for years, like a ghost trying to find something.

James Elton… the boyish Texan.

Alden Pyle… the quiet American.

Bright and shining faces. Belief and right and passion are all that matters, right? 

No.

Just because you believe you are right doesn't make it true.

”The Quiet American” is a hard film to watch, but a film that demands our attention. It teaches us that often the object of our passion gets lost in the zeal of rescue. Sometimes we destroy the object itself in trying to save it, and we turn that which we loved into a ghost-memory, bitter with the metallic taste of failure. Eventually, we turn the bitterness inward and self-destruct if we don’t let go.

Sometimes the thing or person we desire doesn't need our rescuing, and that's the hardest thing with which we must come to grips. Because it means that we aren't that important, and that the person, or lover, or even country, may simply be exactly where it needs to be in its journey, and its journey is not ours.

Thomas Fowler’s journey from non-involvement to necessary betrayal ends as he claims his prize - his impassive, beautiful lover. Phuong is timeless in her complacency, like a flickering, eternal lantern on a small boat at night. She behaves as if Pyle had never declared his upright love for her, as if he never existed at all. Fowler begs for her forgiveness for his collusion in Pyle’s fate, but she brushes away his apology. As though nothing has changed, she kisses Fowler in a gesture of ancient, inevitable devotion.

It has been said about this film that nothing is as it seems. The real CIA operatives in 1950s Vietnam, represented by Alden Pyle’s dogged, derivative patriotism changed everything, so that nothing was ever the same again. However, the pace of the cataclysmic change that they initiated was as imperceptible as the movement of smoke over a Vietnamese lake. Change rarely lets us know it has entered our lives until we can see it in retrospect, and a final, haunting newspaper montage in the film brings us forward into the 1960’s, the Vietnam War of Lyndon Johnson and the death of American innocence. 

I wondered which military cemetery became the final resting place for the bandaged soldier in that last news photo.

"this film may awaken ghosts"

The recent tragedies in the United States may have prevented an earlier release of this film, but the dialogue about this older wound in the corpus of America was never really finished. Thus, for many of us, this film may awaken ghosts. Like squatters in a condemned building, these ghosts reside in the ailing architecture that hides the unhealed damage of the not-so-innocent sixties. The faces of the talking dead may morph and change, but the essential wounds remain unhealed until their source of shame is revealed - even if it is a quiet revelation. 

"They say you come to Vietnam and understand a lot in a few minutes. The rest must be lived. They say there is a ghost in every house, and if you can make peace with him, he'll stay quiet."
- Thomas Fowler, voice over in The Quiet American

Published January 16, 2003


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Cynthia Spencer

Cynthia Spencer came of age in the turbulent 60s. She is a poet and a writer of both non-fiction works and short stories, and graduated with a master's degree in psychology. A member of the University of Colorado's Conference on World Affairs, she lives in Littleton, Colorado - one mile from Columbine High School.

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