The Quiet American (films), 1959 and 2002

Movie posters, 1958, 2002

1959 movie directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

2002 movie directed by Philip Noyce

There’s a story behind Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1959 screen adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel. It’s a story with political overtones and it’s not entirely clear what role politics played when Mankiewicz surgically depoliticized the novel. At the center of the  artistic intervention intrigue is Edward Lansdale, the real-life Air Force major general and C.I.A. operative most prominently associated with American military and espionage intervention in Southeast Asia. It’s certain that Greene modeled the quiet American Alden Pyle on Lansdale. Both the real Lansdale and the fictional Pyle walked a small black dog on the streets of Saigon in 1952, when Greene himself served as a foreign correspondent. Both Lansdale and Pyle had a consuming interest in keeping Southeast Asia free of Communism at all costs.

Director Mankiewicz met Lansdale in Saigon and it’s known that Lansdale advised the filmmaker when he was adapting Greene’s novel for the screen, boldly flipping an essentially anti-American novel into a pro-American film. In the transformation process, the novel’s Alden Pyle lost his name (He was simply called The American in the film.) Pyle not only lost his name; he lost his savvy East Coast upbringing, his Ivy League education and his job as economic adviser (cum C.I.A. agent) in the U.S. mission.

Portrayed by the World War II hero Audie Murphy, The American of the film is a Texan who works for a foundation. He’s more of a Gomer Pyle than an Alden Pyle: a do-gooder who says ” Oh, golly.” It seems his main occupation in Saigon is to make Phuong more American. Moviegoers may wonder if the Boy Scout was secretly a cowboy James Bond but there’s no way of knowing. Curious minds also want to know if Mankiewicz defanged his movie for political purposes, or merely to sell tickets?

The 2002 version of the film astutely casts Michael Caine in the role of Thomas Fowler although there were fewer accolades for the casting of Brendan Fraser as Alden Pyle (Pyle gets his name back). Caine was nominated for Best Actor in the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA.

Critics agreed that the 2002 film was better written — without help from the C.I.A., — and better directed by the Australian Philip Noyce, who closely follows Graham Greene’s celebrated story line.

 

The Ambassador – by Morris West, 1965

Mass-market paperback cover

Like The Ugly American, The Ambassador begins with a prefatory note: “This is a work of fiction, built by the time-honored literary method of peopling an historic situation with characters construed out of the imagination of the author.”

In the novel, an embattled Prime Minister of South Vietnam, under intense political pressure from the United States to resign, grants an interview to a visiting Australian novelist. In real life, Morris West was Australia’s best-selling novelist (The Devil’s Advocate, The Shoes of the Fisherman) when he interviewed South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem in October 1963. West felt compelled to report Diem’s views to Australia’s ambassador and notes of the interview were passed along to the American ambassador. A month later, on November 2, 1963, Diem was ousted by his Army generals and assassinated after attending morning Mass. A fellow Catholic like Diem and West, President John F. Kennedy approved the CIA’s decision to support the generals over Diem.

In the year following the assassination, West plumbed his imagination to create American characters and portray inside-the-Embassy conversations and gut-wrenching rationalizations. The characters peel away layers of religious, spiritual, pragmatic and patriotic reasoning as they explore the morality, practicality and military options of dealing with a despotic but democratically elected South Vietnamese leader.

A guilt-ridden West delves into what right America and its anti-Communist allies, including Australia, had to interfere in the politics of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. What right did Westerners have to choose sides, employing massive economic and military might – and ultimately resorting to war – to stand in the way of self-determination in Southeast Asia?

Though the author has construed a dozen American characters in the Saigon embassy and the halls of power in Washington, three well-drawn, highly complex characters stand in the crux of the morality play.

The ambassador of the title, Maxwell Gordon Amberley, is the newly arrived U.S. envoy in Saigon. Modest, mature, elegantly mannered, and measured in his approach to his awesome responsibility, the erudite Amberley appears to be the embodiment of what a U.S. ambassador should be.

Like Amberley, the dapper CIA Director Harry Yaffa is a true professional. But as the top CIA agent for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Yaffa is amoral. Without moral scruples, he takes on the Agency’s most sordid chores with efficiency and a near-sexual excitement. On Amberley’s first day on the job, Yaffa hands him an automatic pistol and warns, “This is an assassin’s town.”

The embassy’s First Secretary, Melville Adams, is intended as a study in contrast, reserving to himself the right to question and even refuse his Government’s bidding when it runs counter to his own beliefs. Like Amberley, Mel Adams must make difficult decisions in a morass of multicultural and morally ambivalent situations.

Reflecting West’s fervid Catholicism and intellectual interest in Buddhist philosophy, Amberley veers between the yin and yang of Yaffa and Adams. He cannot function in Saigon without Yaffa. He cannot live in a diplomatic bubble without Adams, the cloying conscience of well-meaning Americans.

In the end, Amberley acts as he must, as the instrument of United States policy.. “…(W)hat else was left to me?” the ambassador asks himself. “My small inheritance of good manners, polite custom and traditional morality had been laid waste by the processional march of history. My action, any action, was a futile gesture against the trampling might of elephants.”

The CIA-backed coup that led to Diem’s assassination continues to haunt U.S. policy around the world and the lessons, artfully illustrated by West in a beautifully written novel, go unheeded. As I write this, The New York Times reports that the United States is being accused of plotting with Army generals who oppose embattled Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.

Deliver Us From Evil and The Edge of Tomorrrow – by Dr. Tom Dooley, 1956, 1958

Author-signed bookplate in my 1956 hardcover edition of Deliver Us From Evil

Mass-market paperbacks

Dr. Tom Dooley’s acclaimed books recount the medical and humanitarian miracles he wrought as a Navy medic in North Vietnam. His rousing descriptions of how he witnessed Communist atrocities, healed the sick, and aided legions of Catholic Vietnamese refugees, made Americans swell with patriotic pride and resolve to put an end to the evil. As the Cold War heated up, Dr. Dooley’s hair-raising anti-Communist vitriol was raising the curtain on expanding U.S. diplomatic and military involvement in Vietnam.

As a fifth grader in 1958, I was amused that there was a song on the radio called “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley” that was not about the bestselling author. But more to the point, as an impressionable young American and a Cub Scout for several months, I was horrified at how atheist Viet Minh Communists were torturing innocent Vietnamese Catholics seeking religious freedom. Dr. Dooley described in gory detail how Communists shoved chopsticks in children’s ears to keep them from hearing prayers, how they tortured priests by pounding nails into heads, and how they punished hundreds of Vietnamese women by disemboweling them for being Catholic. These indignities were akin to what we kids paid to see in the Medieval Torture Section of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in Times Square. But being that this was happening in real time, and not in the Middle Ages, the Communists’ torture of Vietnam’s Catholics seemed even more egregious.

Although Dooley’s books are found on non-fiction and history shelves, it’s now known that some of his purplest prose, including his descriptions of wholesale torture techniques, was pure fiction. There’s a body of research illustrating that a lot of what Dooley wrote was exaggerated or fictionalized. In a post-Vietnam War light, one now sees Dooley’s tales of his own awe-inspiring exploits as propaganda, a literary form in its own right. The Pentagon Papers notes that Dooley was not only a doctor; he was an intelligence operative.

In fact the author William J. Lederer was in Saigon working for the C.I,A, when he first heard about Dooley’s work with refugees from Communism in Haiphong. Lederer encouraged Dooley to popularize his experience in books and actually helped edit some chapters. It is no mere coincidence that the harmonica-playing character of Colonel Hillandale in The Ugly American is based on Air Force Lt. Col. Edwin Lansdale, the C.I.A. chief in Saigon who recruited both Lederer and Dooley as propagandists for the anti-Communist cause. In The Ugly American, Lederer fictionalized Dooley as the good-guy hero Father John Finian, further blurring the line between fact and fiction.

Dooley the author did a good job of portraying himself as a selfless hero. Imagine that a handsome Navy medic from Missouri, scarcely 30 years old, could do so much to counter the scourge of Communism! It all seemed too good to be true and in fact, U.S. diplomats in Hanoi sent an alarm to the U.S.I.S., signaling their doubts that Dooley had done in real life what his character did in his bestselling books. The diplomatic report that doused water on Dooley’s doings was kept classified for decades, until after the Vietnam War.

After leaving the Navy, Dooley remained an icon of anti-Communism and American do-goodism, raising funds for hospitals and orphanages in Laos and Vietnam, appearing on TV frequently while bound to a contract with The Reader’s Digest that made him ubiquitous in that publication celebrating American values.

Dooley died of cancer on his 33rd birthday. Despite the falsehoods in his non-fiction, he left a true legacy in the form of the Thomas A. Dooley Foundation, which set up clinics and hospitals in rural and remote parts of Laos. A New York Times article published in 1964 eulogized him in this way: “Tom Dooley continues to live in the hearts of the deprived people of Asia. His life and the continuing program of the Dooley foundation stand for the best in American traditions.” Thankfully, there is some truth to his fiction.

 

 

 

 

VIetnam War films: Platoon (1986) and Apocalypse Now (1979)

 

Platoon – written and directed by Oliver Stone

Apocalypse Now – directed by Francis Ford Coppola

No organized human activity is uglier than war. In Southeast Asia, Americans were fighting for an abstract political concept while Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians were defending their homeland against foreign invaders. As the conservative politician Barry Goldwater famously said: “Extremism in defense of Liberty is no vice.” But who defines Liberty and who defines Vice? Defending someone else’s definition of Liberty is not the moral equivalent of defending your city, your village or your home against foreign invaders.

There are dozens of films about what Americans call the Vietnam War and Vietnamese call the American War. I’m only looking at two that have indelibly etched the American war experience in my mind, in microcosm and macrocosm.

A friend with a connection to Hollywood slipped me a copy of Oliver Stone’s original script, which Stone called “The Platoon” and MGM called simply Platoon.

Released in 1986, the film was then, and still is, hard to sit through without wincing. It’s not just the stress of joining a patrol in a jungle battle zone, uncertain as to whether the men of the platoon are about to kill or be killed. It’s not just the violence the men of the platoon commit against fellow human beings who happen to be Vietnamese. It’s not just the futility of their every action that taxes them mentally, physically and morally.

Why, Jesus and LBJ, were these men dispatched to a place they don’t want to be, doing a job they don’t want to do, fighting against an enemy they don’t know, for a cause they don’t believe in? They’re embroiled in multiple conflicts: against an enemy with a home-field advantage, against their brethren divided into warring factions in the platoon, and against military discipline and morality itself.

As the newest member of the platoon, the Charlie Sheen character Chris Taylor observes: “Somebody once wrote, ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason.’ That’s what this place feels like. Hell.” Even watching Platoon is hell. Kudos to a gritty story and stellar performances.

Filmed years earlier, Apocalypse Now is set in 1969, two years after the events of Platoon. It’s no wonder that every character in this bizarre 147-minute drama is demoralized and the whole worn-out war effort seems out of whack with reality. Thank Joseph Conrad and filmmakers John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola for giving us the mad U.S. Army Colonel Walter Kurtz. Like his namesake ivory trader in the darkest heart of the Congo, the latter-day Kurtz has set himself up as a demigod in a godforsaken corner of Cambodia.

When the Pentagon decides to terminate Kurtz “with extreme prejudice,” which means assassinate him, the assignment falls to Marine Capt. Benjamin Willard played by Martin Sheen (Charlie’s dad). Having re-upped after failing to readjust to life back in the U.S.A. Willard is beset by his own devils, including alcohol abuse, divorce, drugs and self-loathing.

Tagging along with Willard on his Top Secret mission, we get a kaleidoscopic view of war in Vietnam. There are helicopters buzzing around ad nauseum. There’s a shocking scene where G.I.s interview a Vietnamese family on a sampan then execute them. There’s unforgettable, almost lyrical, footage of U.S. bombs and Napalm obliterating an enemy village along the mouth of the Nung River, so that G.I. surfers can catch some awesome waves. We also get an unflattering close-up of what goes on at a U.S.O. show starring a troupe of deflated Playboy bunnies. There’s an encounter with a tiger, a fearsome symbol of Nature in the wild. After all, it’s a jungle out there.

Film critics have viewed Capt. Willard’s quest to a kill as an Odyssey and a Descent into Hell. In the 2001 Redux version of the film (50 minutes longer than the original cut) we take refuge from war by dallying in the putrefying milieu of French planters. The plantation scene can be interpreted as Willard’s Purgatory, or a Conradian opportunity for an American to confront Colonialism in Indochina.

While Conrad’s Kurtz was a skeleton of a man, Coppola’s Kurtz is a bloated Marlon Brando. Once inside Kurtz’s compound, Capt, Willard is sometimes the hunter, sometimes the hunted. He becomes a prisoner and acolyte of Brando’s Kurtz, who rambles on in unscripted improvisations, and reads from TIME magazine.

The film critic Roger Ebert has suggested that Willard discovers more than a rogue American war hero. Ebert wrote,“The whole movie is a journey toward Willard’s understanding of how Kurtz, one of the Army’s best soldiers, penetrated the reality of war to such a depth that he could not look any longer without madness and despair.”

Through Kurtz, Willard comes to understand that civilization is a veneer laid upon the natural inclinations of man. According to Ebert, Kurtz has found “that all of our days and ways are a fragile structure perched uneasily atop the hungry jaws of nature that will thoughtlessly devour us. A happy life is a daily reprieve from this knowledge.

 Here’s how I view the dualism behind the film’s apocalyptic vision: Man is an intellectual ape who can put on a military uniform, surf a wave or dance to a disco beat, and yet, man is still an ape.

The Ugly American – by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, 1958

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Mass-market paperback, 1962

The Ugly American is paramount in my pantheon of novels about Americans bungling about in Southeast Asia. As literature, The Ugly American is not a great novel or even a good novel. A New York Times book reviewer opined that it was “neither subtle as art nor altogether convincing as fiction.” But it touched a nerve, and half a century after its publication, the book’s title remains a catch-phrase for incompetent and insensitive U.S. diplomats, arrogant entrepreneurs, and even travelers and tourists from the States who act badly abroad.

The novel is clumsily episodic, consisting of loosely intertwined sketches. On the plus side, the authors serve up engaging descriptions of what it’s like to live and work as an American in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, some of the sketches read like a CV.

What stands out most about the American miscreants Lederer and Burdick found mucking about in Southeast Asia is their ineptitude — but that’s the whole point of the exercise.

The authors set their story in Sarkhan, a fictional Southeast Asian country “out toward Burma and Thailand.” The trouble brewing in Sarkhan serves as a snapshot of the mid-1950s when America was wading into the quagmire the French left behind in Indochina.

Perhaps the ugliest American in the book is “Lucky” Lou Sears, a three-term U.S. Senator. When Lucky Lou loses his bid for re-election, he appeals to the White House for a post-Senate sinecure. Alas there are no federal judgeships available so they offer him an ambassadorship in Sarkhan. “Where the hell’s Sarkhan?” the future envoy asks. When Lucky Lou learns that the ambassador’s mansion comes rent-free with an entertainment allowance, and diplomats can buy alcohol tax-free, he agrees to represent the United States in Sarkhan.

In stark contrast to Lucky Lou Sears, we meet another Lucky Lou, the Soviet ambassador to Sarkhan, Louis Krupitsyn. Unlike his American opposite number, Lucky Lou 2 can read and write Sarkhanese. Moscow’s man in Sarkhan spent months preparing for the assignment with conscious efforts to appeal to the local people; he lost 40 pounds; he took ballet and nose-flute lessons to better appreciate Sarkhanese music and dance; he read Sarkhanese literature and attended lessons on Buddhism. Upon his arrival in the country, he humbly presents himself, bowing low, to the Prime Minister and the Chief Abbot of Sarkhanese Buddhism. While the American ambassador gleans information from lavish cocktail parties where Asians are not invited, the Soviet ambassador gets his information from Sarkhanese drivers and translators working for the Americans.

Nearly halfway through the book, Lou Sears gets his judgeship. He is succeeded in Sarkhan by Ambassador Gilbert MacWhite, a professional Foreign Service officer. MacWhite has taken the trouble to learn a lot about the country and learn a little of the language. MacWhite considers his appointment a capstone to his career, and readily accepts the mantle of crusader against creeping Communism. He travels to the Philippines, Vietnam and Burma to learn about Communist atrocities and counter-insurgency tactics to quell the tide. Though well intentioned MacWhite makes mistakes that will cost him dearly. Meanwhile the chapters of his fact-finding tour provide entrée for the authors to fictionalize a several Americans who were well-known in Southeast Asia, among them a Cold War warrior who closely resembles the C.I.A. operative Edward Lansdale, a pioneer in psychological warfare and counter-terrorism.

A few of the heroes are unselfish technical specialists who chose to live among the people they’re there to help. In Cambodia, we meet Tom Knox, a poultry expert from Iowa, who strives to improve food security among impoverished farmers. Knox suggests to the U.S. aid mission that for very little money, he could import hens and roosters from America to strengthen the local breeding stock, and increase Cambodian annual egg production from 30 eggs per hen to 200. But enamored of big military-industrial type development projects, Uncle Sam turns him down.

In Vietnam, we meet Homer Atkins, the Ugly American of the title. The irony is that Atkins, who describes himself as ugly, is the antipathy of the ugly actors who give Americans a bad name. Atkins prefers to live outside the capital without the creature comforts so crucial to top American officials. Atkins is a doer. He’s not comfortable taking meetings with misguided U.S. officials. Rather than look them in the eye, he looks down at his thick-veined, liver spot-freckled, grease-stained hands. His hands remind him he’s an ugly man but Atkins takes courage knowing he can always earn a good living with his ugly hands.

Atkins is a self-made millionaire who felt a calling to help people in developing Asia. He travels around Vietnam, talking to all kinds of people, and assessing the need for the dams and military roads the Americans are advocating. In his final report, Atkins tells the American aid apparatus that the Vietnamese people don’t need roads designed for tanks; they need the building blocks of development, like quarries and brick factories. Scorned in Saigon, the Ugly American is invited to Sarkhan, where Ambassador MacWhite challenges him to build sustainable water systems in the boonies, an assignment Atkins relishes. (Atkins plays a major role as a highway engineer in the movie version of “The Ugly American” as discussed below.)

 

Air America – book and film, 1979, 1990

 

Air America by Christopher Robbins nonfiction, 1979

Air America (film) directed by Roger Spottiswoode, 1990

Here’s one for the books: a serious, well written work of nonfiction about heroic American pilots you can respect is turned into an unfunny comedy action movie about Americans acting like idiots in Laos, a country few Americans cared about.

Christopher Robbin’s Air America chronicles how the O.S.S. and its successor the C.I.A. secretly set up airlines to move men and materiel around areas of strategic interest, e.g. declared or undeclared war zones. The C.I.A.-chartered airline operated in support of U.S. government operations in Vietnam and Laos, from 1959 to 1975. At the height of its activity, Air America operated 80 aircraft, making it one of the world’s largest airlines.

While the book is a valuable resource, the movie of the same name is a worthless exercise. Although author Robbins fought for a screenwriting credit, he later tried to disassociate himself from the cinematic disaster.

The movie is about two Americans who fly for the C.I.A. airline during the so-called Secret War in Laos, which was no secret to the people of Laos. On one level, it’s a buddy movie about two wacky pilots. An old hand played by Mel Gibson, and a neophyte, played by Robert Downey, Jr., take on the challenges of flying the unfriendly skies between U.S.-backed Lao forces and Vietnam-backed Laotian Communists insurgents. Even if you liked Mel Gibson in one or more of his many roles, you probably won’t like him here.

You can view the movie on YouTube with Spanish subtitles:

https://gloria.tv/video/cSkzSxikfMZo6ZDuZvCDiwP73

We’re supposed to take interest in the sophomoric freshman pilot’s initiation into the ranks of the vaunted flying fraternity. We’re supposed to turn a blind eye to the veteran pilot’s sideline business of selling U.S. weapons on the black market to finance his retirement. We’re supposed to root for the pair to escape being framed as fall guys for higher-level Americans involved in the heroin trade.

We know that America’s warriors were disillusioned over our nation’s catastrophic failure in Southeast Asia. This post-Vietnam version of the Vietnam-era turns cynicism into silliness. After a few minutes in the cockpit with Gibson and Downey, we don’t care much about what they think or do, or what happens to them, even after they’re shot down behind enemy lines.

Central to the movie’s plot is the unscrupulous General Lu Soong, a fictionalized version of the real-life Hmong hero General Vang Pao. There’s a scene where General Soong’s aircraft arrives at a crash site to recover a drug shipment without bothering to rescue Downey’s downed pilot character. The Hollywood types who made this movie seem to have delighted in vilifying Vang Pao, who was living in exile in California at the time.

The movie also lampoons a fact-finding mission of U.S. senators who get the runaround when they come to investigate Air America’s involvement in trafficking drugs. A key scene takes us into a Laotian heroin factory but for a more compelling look, follow Denzel Washington as drug dealer Frank Lucas on a buying trip to the Golden Triangle in “American Hustler” directed by Ridley Scott.

Before the movie “Air America” is done with frat-boy antics in a deadly serious war, the two buddies deign to help an attractive USAID worker rescue raggedy refugees. Even in their saving grace, when Gibson and Downey swing into action we are unmoved.

The New York Times panned Air America as a film that “fails on every possible level.” Writing in The Times, investigative journalist Robbins said the movie distorted his book and falsely implied that Air America was in the business of helping the United States get heroin money to finance the Secret War – something he himself hinted at – and moreover, the comedy dishonored the courageous men who flew dangerous missions. One of the film’s directors responded, saying that the Gibson and Downey characters were “complex, sympathetic and ultimately heroic.” I found them inane, pathetic and ultimately idiotic.