In the new film version of The Quiet American, a photographer races into a plaza in downtown Saigon, rather puzzling jaded British reporter Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine). Moments later, a car bomb strews shattered bodies and vehicles around the plaza. We hear another bomb explode nearby. Then we see the supposedly innocent American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), ordering the photographer to focus on dead bodies and the most hideously wounded survivors.
Moviegoers familiar with Graham Greene’s novel may wonder why director Phillip Noyce is taking such liberties with this crucial scene. Why insert a photographer? Isn’t adding a second bomb a bit of cinematic overkill? And where’s the novel’s dazed, confused Alden Pyle, stumbling with his impenetrable American innocence through the carnage he didn’t really intend to cause?
But this scene, like other twists in the film, actually moves deeper into what Greene discovered in the early 1950s about the figure he called the Quiet American–charmingly boyish, impregnably armored in ignorance, righteousness and good intentions, dedicated to replicating America around the world, preaching democracy and spewing bombs in Vietnam. It also moves The Quiet American into the twenty-first century, with piercing relevance to the “War on Terror.”
“Reds’ Time Bombs Rip Saigon Center” blared a headline in the New York Times of January 10, 1952. Written by Tillman Durdin, a Times reporter in Saigon working in tight collaboration with the CIA, the story called the bombing “one of the most spectacular and destructive single incidents in the long history of revolutionary terrorism,” carried out by “agents here of the Vietminh.” A blood-chilling photo of the devastation appeared as “Picture of the Week” in the January 28 Life magazine, with a caption that asked people to focus on the most gruesome results of this terrorism by the “Viet Minh Communists”: “The bomb blew the legs from under the man in the foreground and left him bloody and dazed, propped up on the tile sidewalk.” The bombing certainly came at a convenient time for the war hawks, including Life, whose previous week’s lead editorial, “Indo-China Is in Danger,” was a near panicky call for major US participation in the Vietnam War (which the French were still fighting, with US assistance), because “it’s all one war, and our war, whether the front be in Europe, Korea, or Indo-China.”
Greene, who was then wintering in Saigon, wondered how Life happened to have a photographer on the scene, as he explained in his 1980 memoir Ways of Escape: “The Life photographer at the moment of the explosion was so well placed that he was able to take an astonishing and horrifying photograph which showed the body of a trishaw driver still upright after his legs had been blown off.” This photograph “was reproduced in an American propaganda magazine published in Manila over the caption ‘The work of Ho Chi Minh,'” Greene continued, despite the fact that Gen. Trinh Minh Thé, a warlord masquerading as Vietnam’s savior from colonialism and Communism, “had promptly and proudly claimed the bomb as his own.” “Who,” Greene pondered, “had supplied the material” to this “bandit”?