Truth remains quiet

Luke Slattery

Weekend Australian, March 22-23, 2003


 Movie history will one day record how The Quiet American, Phil Noyce's film of the classic Graham Greene novel, collided with 9/11. Its distributor, Miramax, felt that releasing an inherently anti-American film during a prolonged period of national mourning would be indelicate, if not unpatriotic. only a personal plea from its star, Michael Caine, guaranteed a limited US release in time to be nominated for Monday's Oscars.

Caine has an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Thomas Fowler: the performance of a lifetime, according to some critics. A world-weary London Times reporter — he eschews the grander title correspondent — Fowler locks horns in early 1950s Saigon with undercover CIA operative Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) over aq Vietnamese beauty named Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). In the struggle, Fowler is renewed; Pyle is vanquished; and Phuong, the serene and elusive oriental trophy, comes to symbolise Vietnam itself.

But the film has under-performed at the big industry awards: the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Academy Awards. Its tempting to see this as an allergeic response during a "war on terror", to a film that brands the US a terrorist state. It's a wonder that Bush's America isnt more agitated by Noyce's film because it also gives cinematic life to a lie.

Greene is a giant of 20th-century fiction; and The Quiet American is one of his finest novels, rightly celebrated as a love story and a work of prophecy. But the novel's wonderfully compressed plot springs from a misreading of history.

Greene pins the blame for the rue Catinat bombing of 1952 — eight people killed and 30 injured — on US agents in Vietnam during the waning years of French rule. Responsibility was claimed by a General Thé, from the local Caodai religious sect. Greene contends Thé was an American puppet supplied with plastic exsplosives by US intelligence.

The bombing will be familiar to anyone with a memory of that war or an interest in photojournalism, as its immediate aftermath was captured by a photographer on the scene and printed in Life magazine. In Greene's tale, the French are kept in the dark about the impending explosion, as are the Vietnamese. But American civilians are warned by their legation to stay clear. Fowler pieces this together after the event. Little wonder that when the novel was releasedin the US in 1956 (a year after its British release), Greene was howled down in The New Yorker for accusing his "best friends" — the Americans — of murder.

The charge of CIA connivance in the rue Catinat bombing is the hub around which the novel's plot turns.

Noyce is faithful to Greene's vision and perpetuates his conspiratorial reading of this shocking event. In the novel, Fowler overhears two American women talking in a shop moments before the explosion: "Warren says we mustn't stay later than 11.35." This line finds its way with slight variation — Jo for Warren — into the film.

In his autobiography, Ways of Escape, Greene defends his reading of the event. "The Life photographer at the moment of the explosion was so well placed that he was able to take an astonishing and horrifying photopgraph which showed the body of a trishaw driver still upright after his legs had been blown off," Greene writes. "The photograph was reproduced in an American prpaganda magazine published in Manila over the title The Work of Ho Chi Minh, although Thé promptly and proudly claimed the bomb as his own. Who had supplied the material to a bandit who was fighting French, Caodaists and communists?

Greene then notes a story from that time about two murdered American women, pre sumably killed by the Vietminh, whose bodies were discovered on the way to the Caodai general's mountain lair. He also recalls the story of an American consul arrested on the bridge to Dakow (where Pyle's body is found in the nivel) with plastic explosives in his car.

But these stories turn out, on examination, to be pure conjecture. Greene's biographer, Norman Sherry, forensically dismantles the author's case in the second volume of The Life of Graham Greene: 1939-55. He confirms the story of the two American women but relegates it to the status of "mystery". The story of the American consul, on the other hand, is — in Sherry's view — a piece of scuttlebutt spread by the French, with whom Greene was close.

Sherry, who is completing the third volume of Greene's biography at Trinity University, San Antonio, also reveals that the photograph printed in Life magazine was not actually taken by a Life photographer. The photographer was Vietnamese. After extensive interviews with CIA staff and their relatives stationed in '50s Saigon, he concludes that there was no CIA- The relationship at the time, and no warning to Americans about the explosion in the rue Catinat. Recently I contacted Sherry, who is English. His view remains unchanged.

As Greene's authorised biographer, he has no animus towards his subject — no axes to grind, no points to prove — and his analysis has an objective air. It suggests that Greene went out on a limb without a supporting trunk over the rue Catinat tragedy. And Noyce has dutifully followed Greene. In the film, Noyce even places an American photographer "on assigment" at the scene. This appears to have been sourced from Greene's much later self-justificatory writings, as it's not in the novel.

The novelist usually claims fictional immunity (not unlike its diplomatic counterpart) in these sorts of cases. But Greene has already defended his novel on the grounds of veracity: he believes his story to be factually correct. Noyce's film is in many ways an act of homage to Greene. But it is so implacably true to Greene's reading of the one pivotal event as to be, if Sherry is any guide, quite untrue. The Americans committed many sins in that war: the bombing on the rue Catinat, it would seem, was not one of them.




Fredrick Töben comments: I wish Luke Slattery would focus on the nonsense that the Holocaust lobby creates and sells to school children as 'literature'.





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