The Quiet American (2002)






Starring:     Michael Caine (Thomas Fowler), Brendan Fraser (Alden Pyle), Do Thi Hai Yen (Phuong), Rade Serbedzija (Inspector Vigot), Tzi Ma (Hinh), Robert Stanton (Joe Tunney), Holmes Osborne (Bill Granger), Quang Hai (General Thé), Ferdinand Hoang (Mr. Muoi), Pham Thi Mai Hoa (Phuong's Sister), Mathias Mlekuz (French Captain), Kevin Tran (Watch Tower Soldier), Lap Phan (Watch Tower Soldier), Tim Bennett (American Photographer), Jeff Truman (Dancing American).

early American covert involvement in Vietnam


Spoiler Warning:

British subject Thomas Fowler says:  "I can't say what made me fall in love with Vietnam   -- that a woman's voice can drug you, that everything is so intense.  The colors, the taste, even the rain."  He goes on to say:  "You could be forgiven for thinking there was no war, that the gunshots were fireworks, that only pleasure matters. . . . And then something happens as you knew it would."  A dead body is thrown into the river.  "And nothing can ever be the same again."

Fowler comes in to speak to the French investigator into the death of the man.  He says the man is a 30 year old American who works for the Economic Aid Mission ". . . and I like him.  He's a very good chap.  Serious.  Not like those noisy bastards down at the Continental.  He's a quiet American."  The investigator has Fowler identify the body.  He says to Fowler:  "To tell you the truth, I'm not completely sorry.  These Americans are causing a lot of trouble to us."

At home Fowler sees his girlfriend Phuong, a pretty young, woman, leaning against a tree out the the city street.  He goes down and brings Phuong up to his apartment.  He tells her that Alden Pyle is dead.  Assassinated.  Phuong falls back onto the back of her chair and says:  "He was in love with me."  Fowler says yes, Pyle was in love with you.  She says she will go to her mother's to think. 

Flashback.  Fowler met Pyle like you meet everyone at the Hotel Continental.  He sits at the outdoor cafe associated with the hotel and he observes life around him.  After all, he is a reporter. And he has a lover who he likes to look for.  And there one day he sees Alden Pyle sitting at the cafe readers a book called The Dangers to Democracy as if he hadn't had a care in the world.  "The face we all had once."  Pyle notices Fowler and gets up to introduce himself.   When Fowler gives his name, Pyle immediately know that he writes good articles for The London Times.  Fowler asks him what he does and Pyle says he's with the medical side of the Economic Aid Mission.  He deals with an eye problem known as trachoma.   [Trachoma is is an infectious, tropical disease caused by the Chlamydia trachomatis bacterium which produces a characteristic roughening of the inner surface of the eyelids that can led to infectious blindness.  About 40 million people have an active infection and as many as 8 million people are visually impaired as a result of this disease.]

Pyle admires Fowler's work and refers to him as a correspondent, but Fowler corrects him saying that he is just a reporter.  "I offer no point of view, I take no action, I don't get involved.  I just report what I see."  He adds:  "Even an opinion is a form of action." 

Pyle was a go-getter and he fired question after question about Vietnam at Fowler.  The men walk over to a restaurant and Fowler taps on the window glass.  Speaking of Pyle, he says:  "Then he saw Phuong.  I should've realized how saving a country an saving a woman would be the same thing to someone like Pyle."  As they walk and talk going down the street, a loud noise is heard on the streets.  Pyle thinks it was a car backfiring, but Fowler tells him it was the sound of a grenade.  He goes on to say that in a little while Pyle will be able to recognize the differences in sounds between various loud bands in Saigon. 

The two men have to part, but Pyle says he would like to have dinner with Fowler some day.  Fowler proceeds to his work office.  His aide is Hinh, who tells Fowler of a rumor that the Communists are planning an attack at Phat Diem, located south of Hanoi.  Hinh then hands a letter from Mr. Stemins of The London Times.  He wants Fowler to be London-based again.  Fowler has not interest in going back to London.  So he decides that he will go to Phat Diem to get a good story that will justify Fowler spending more time based in Saigon.  And he knows that Hinh knows someone that can get him up into Phat Diem. 

When Fowler comes home he dumps himself on his bed where there is a note and a rose.   He reads the note and suddenly Phuong jumps on him.  She says it is the second anniversary of their being together.  They have sex (implied).

Fowler and Phuong go to the bar of the continental where Pyle greets them.  He wants to introduce them to a bunch of his American buddies.  There is Joe Tunney from the American Legation.  Fowler asks Joe:  "Overthrown any small countries recently?"    Joe just replies:  "Fowler sees conspiracies everywhere."  Pyle asks one of his buddies, Bill Granger, is it true that there will be a battle at Phat Diem?  The guy says he has no idea.  Pyle explains he asks because one of their medical teams were denied permission to go north beyond Phat Diem.  Fowler jumps in saying that he might go to Phat Diem. 

Fowler and Phuong go eat at a nice restaurant.  Pyle drops a drunken Bill Granger off at a very busy brothel.  Fowler tells Phuong to go get them a table inside the restaurant and he will rescue Mr. Pyle.  Fowler goes to the brothel and find Pyle surrounded by a bevy of women looking for a customer.  He helps extricate Pyle from the situation.  Later in the evening, they buy tickets to dance with women taxis dancers.  Phuong tells Pyle:  "Buy a ticket, maybe I dance with you."  He buys a ticket and they dance together.  Fowler looks longingly at Phuong as she dances with Pyle. 

Phuong's older sister stops by to speak with Fowler, who doesn't seem all that happy to see her.  She asks about the man dancing with her sister and Fowler tells her it's Pyle with the American Economic Mission from Boston, USA.  Sister notes that Pyle is a very bad dancer. When the dancing couple come to the table Fowler introduces Pyle to Miss Hei.  In Vietnamese, Hei tells Phuong that Pyle is cute and has money too.  Phuong says her sister is being vulgar.  They talk with Pyle awhile and Hei says they must all have dinner together and Mr. Fowler will arrange it.  Fowler says he is traveling up north.  Hei seems very surprised at this.  So she invites Pyle to eat with her sister and she to cheer Phuong up while Fowler is away. 

At the end of the evening, Pyle asks Fowler to forgiven him for dancing so many times with Phuong.  He asks if Fowler is married and the older man says yes. 

At home, Fowler smokes some opium from an opium pipe.  He tells Phuong that his paper wants him to come back to London.  Phuong says she will go to London with him.  He replies that he would marry her if he could.  She asks him if he thinks his wife would grant him a divorce and Fowler says he doubts it. 

Fowler heads north with the French forces.  All the while he fears losing Phuong while he is away.  In Phat Diem the French officer says the Communists attacked four days ago and the French pushed them back only yesterday.  They see a Vietnamese boat coming down the river and a French soldiers fires at the pilot.  It turns out that the pilot is none other than Pyle who yells at the French not to shoot.  Fowler can't believe it and when Pyle jumps onto the pier where Fowler is, he tells Pyle that he has to be mad.  Pyle just asks Thomas if he has seen a case of Trachoma.  "It's not that easy to remain uninvolved." 

The French contingent see many dead bodies laying on the ground, the results of a massacre. 

Fowler asks Pyle about that book he is always reading.  Pyle says it's by a guy who came up with the idea that a third force should hold sway in Vietnam, not the Communists and not the French.  And not the Americans?  Pyle says no, the Americans are not colonialists.

The French commander comes over to the native English speakers and tells them to stay in the bunker.  He also gives them a pistol to shoot themselves if the unit is overrun by the enemy. 

Inside the bunker Fowler wants to know if Joe Tunney sent Pyle up here on a little intelligence work?   Pyle deflects the question by saying he came up here to talk with Fowler about Phuong.  He says he fell in love with her at the first site.  Now the shells start falling on the town. Fowler asks if Pyle has told Phuong of his feelings?  Pyle says no, because he first wanted to talk to Fowler. 

In the morning Fowler finds Pyle gone and reads the note he left.  He says he won't see Phuong until after Fowler's return home. 

Back in Saigon, Hinh picks up Fowler but then he gets into a big traffic jam because today is the day of a political rally being held for a new political party.  So Hinh decides to park the car and they can get out and walk.  While walking with the crowd, Fowler waves to Phuong who is on her second floor balcony.  In the crowd Fowler recognizes General Thé, a man who made himself a general.  He broke from the French and established his own army.  He also sees Pyle together with Tunney. 

At home, Pyle comes to see Fowler, who tells him that Phuong has gone over to see her sister.  He asks Pyle about watching the parade so intently.  Pyle again dodges the subject by changing the subject to Phuong.  And now Phuong enters her home.  Everyone sits down and Pyle expresses his love for Phuong.  He apologizes for being abrupt and ill-mannered about the subject.  Meanwhile, Fowler makes sarcastic remarks about Pyle's comments.  Phuong says no to Pyle.  He apologizes again and leaves the home. 

Fowler writes his wife a letter asking her for a divorce.  He writes as he sits at the outdoor cafe of the Hotel Continental.  Phuong comes over and sits down at the table.  He tells her he just wrote his wife asking for a divorce.  He asks if here sister prefers Pyle to him as a partner for here sister.  Pyle is very young.  Phuong just says that age is not so important. 

Fowler asks Hinh to set up an interview with General Thé for him.  Hinh tells Fowler that the real problem will be getting Fowler from here to the Cambodian border and back again before dark.  The Communists control the road at night.   

Fowler gets the interview and he drives out in a car to the general's camp.  He muses that it's been three months since the time that Pyle asked Phuong to marry him.  And, wouldn't you know it, as Fowler drives into the base camp there is Pyle yelling out his name.  He asks what's Thomas doing out here?  He said he didn't get his interview with the general, but he decided to come out and see the camp anyway.  Pyle, of course, has a lot of contacts too.  So he runs over to Mr. Muoi and tells him that his fiend Fowler wants an interview with the general. 

Fowler gets his interview with the general.  When Fowler asks who is supply the general with supplies and weapons, the general gets angry.   He gets up and starts yelling at Fowler.  Then he just walks away.  Mr. Muoi says the general just remembered he has another urgent appointment.  As Fowler prepares to leave, he sees Joe Tunney behind the scenes.  When Fowler sees Pyle he tells him to watch himself with Joe Tunney because he thinks Joe is up to something with General Thé.  Pyle doesn't say anything.  Approaching Fowler's car, Pyle says there is something wrong with his car and asks Fowler if can he have a ride back home with him?  Yes.

After driving for awhile it gets dark and then the car runs out of gas.  He thinks that someone must have siphoned off the gas.  They stop by a watch tower and decide to go see if the men in the tower have any petrol.   Fowlers gets his gas can and yells at the top of the tower if anyone is there because they need some petrol.  No response.  He goes inside the tower and starts climbing up the tower steps.  He open the hatch door to see someone in a uniform waiting for him with an automatic weapon in his hands.  He continues up through the hatch and sees another person with an automatic weapon.  They say they have no petrol. 

Fowler tells Pyle to come on up and then he explains to the two men that he and his friend have to stay here until morning.  The two soldiers are so jumpy and scared.  The native English speakers move very slowly with great caution.  They don't want to spook the soldiers.  They put their backs against a wall.  Pyle stars softly speaking to his friend about Phuong  Fowler tells the younger man that if he were to lose Phuong "it would be the beginning of death" for him. 

They hear the sound of weapons fire. Fowler says there are 30 or 40 of these watch towers between here and Saigon.  Looking out the window out into the water, Fowlers says he saw something moving.  "Christ, they're here!"  A female soldier speaks Vietnamese telling the guards to give up their guests or else.  Pyle grabs one of the automatic weapons and virtually jumps down to the bottom floor of the tower.  Fowler tries the same maneuver and sprains or breaks his ankle.  The run for the water and stop at the end of the ground slope to the marsh.  They stay there quietly.  The Vietnamese set their car on fire. 

Pyle says for Fowler to wait for him.  He is going to head for the next watch tower and find a French patrol to help him.  He will return.  While Pyle is gone, Fowler thinks of the first time he met Phuong and her sister.  They were taxi dancing and one fellow keeps grabbing at Phuong's body.  He has been staring at Phuong and sees the problem.  The sister also sees the problem.  He blocks the angry man from the getting to the retreating Phuong who is now sitting alone with a wall behind her.  At the same time he starts introducing himself to Phuong's sister while continuing to block old glad-hands. 

Pyle returns with help.  Still laying where he was, Fowler says if he had died, Pyle could have had Phuong.  Pyle looks like he is saying to himself:  what an odd thing to say at this moment.  

Back home Fowler tells Hinh that General Thé has a lot more men than from the last reported number.  And he thinks that Joe Tunney and the USA are plotting with Thé to do something big. 

Phuong welcomes Fowler home warmly.  And she gives him a letter for him from London.  Pyle comes in shortly and says he came to check on his health.  He asks Phuong how is her sister doing?  Phuong explains to Fowler that Pyle got her sister a job with the Americans and sister is very happy with the job.  And this is the moment that he blurts out the new that his wife is willing to grant him a divorce.  Phuong hugs him in her happiness. 

Next day at the office, Pyle, Phuong and her sister barge into Fowler's office.  The sister read the letter from Fowler's wife and the letter said that the wife refused to give him a divorce.  So now they are all mad at Fowler for lying.  Pyle asks his rival why did he lie?  Because Fowler obviously wanted to keep her.  Sister says the man doesn't even deny he's a liar.  On the way out of his office, sister tells Fowler to get lost.

Hinh reports to Fowler that crates from overseas have been moving through Mr. Muoi's bicycle factory bypassing French customs.   Hinh absolutely insists that Fowler go down with him to the bicycle shop to see the new shipment that just did come in this afternoon.  The finds containers of diolacton in the boxes with Joe Tunney's name on them.  The two men are run out of the factory by two managers. 

When Fowler returns home he sees that Phuong has taken all her belongings out of his house.  He gets really mad.  The next day he goes down to Pyle's office to confront him about Phuong.  He really causes a ruckus as the American office is filled with secretaries and Joe Tunney and many men just like Tunney.  After blowing up, Fowler goes to the bathroom and cries.

Now Phuong is with Pyle at his office.  From outside on the street Fowler tries to get a glimpse of her.  She looks through some old American postcards looking for scenes of Boston.  Pyle tells her he can't wait to show America to Phuong.

Fowler and Pyle meet again.  Fowler asks who's the fellow watching them and Pyle tells him that he's his bodyguard:  "We all have to have them now."  They go over to Fowler's place and Fowler asks what is diolacton?  Pyle is a little surprised that his rival knows about that already.  He says diolacton is a milk-based plastic used for the frames of eyeglasses.  [He doesn't mention that diolacton is used in explosives.]  Fowler gives him some advice:  forget whatever he's doing here in Vietnam and take Phuong with him and go back to Boston. 

Fowler sits at the Hotel Continental street cafe and he hears an American woman tell another woman that Joe Tunney told her that she should be away from the cafe before 11 am.  She doesn't know why.  It's 5 minutes to 11 now.  The women leave.  All of a sudden a car bomb explodes leaving a lot of injured and dead people on the streets.  Fowler sees that the place where Phuong and her sister work has been badly damaged by the car bomb. Looking very worried he rushes over to see about Phuong, but she is not there.  He sees terrible sights of blood and destruction.  Very quickly Pyle arrives on the scene.  There are 30 dead and more will dies of their wounds. 

Fowler goes home and is very disturbed and upset.  He tells Hinh about some of the terrible things that he says.  He also says that Pyle was on the street spoke Vietnamese like a native.  So now, thinking that Pyle is involved in the bombing, looks up information on diolacton and reads:  "Also used as a plasticizer in explosive compounds."  Fowler concludes that the Americans have been supplying a Vietnamese third source with material to make bombs.  Hink tells him that he has come "contacts" who would like very much to speak with this Pyle person.  Fowler asks:  "You're saying Pyle is OSS?"  Hinh says the new name is CIA.  He then suggests his boss tell Pyle to meet him somewhere alone.  Fowler asks if these contacts he speaks of are Communists?  Unofficially, yes.  Fowler says he's not sure.  So Hinh suggests a scenario and time and says that all Fowler need do is go the window and open a book. 

Fowler thinks about it for awhile.  He is next seen at his desk writing a note to Pyle asking to meet him at Place Garnier. 

Pyle shows up at Fowler's place.  He admits that they are working with General Thé and say that this time the general stepped out of line and they told him so.  Fowler says General Thé tried to kill Pyle on the road to Saigon.  Pyle says definitely:  "No.  He tried to kill you."  That's why Pyle got a ride with Fowler coming back from near the Cambodian border.  He soon launches into a defense of American plans to take over from the French to stop the Communists from taking over in Vietnam.  Fowler strongly condemns American undercover actions in Vietnam saying it's getting innocent people killed on the streets of Saigon.  Pyle is a true-believer who says that they are doing what Americans always do:  fight communism wherever it is.  He believes he is saving Vietnam. 

And now it is clearly obvious that it is Pyle himself who is the boss of all theses actors of the third force.  Pyle tells him that he is not seeing the "big picture".  And Fowler decides to do something about this.  He walks over to the window with a book in his hand and stands there holding the book open.  Hinh is down on the street and sees Fowler open with an open book.   After seeing Hinh start on his way, he says to they can have dinner together at the Vieux Moulin at 9 pm. 

Before 9 pm Fowler arrives at the restaurants which is down by the riverside.  He watches as Pyle approaches the restaurant.  He sees four men box-in Pyle between them.  They put a pistol to his back and tell him to walk.  They walk him into a back alley and they tells him that they just want to ask him some questions.  Fowler has his dog with him and the dog starts attacking one of the kidnappers.  This causes confusion and Pyle, a large man, gets away from his captors.  He runs for his life.  He doesn't really know where he's going in this back alley place and he runs right into Hinh who with a knife stabs him.  His colleagues arrive and Hinh tells the men to throw the body into the river. 

Fowler heads toward the crimes scene area and Hinh rides a bike passed and him and gives him a prolonged stoned-face reaction.  The Englishman knows the dirty deed has been done. 

Back to the present.  The French police investigator Vigot knocks on Fowler's door.  The policeman asks Fowler to come with him for a moment because there is something he wants to show Fowler.  He says that the night he died, Pyle had come to see Fowler.  So what?, asks Fowler.  Vigot replies:  "You said he did not."  Furthermore, the policeman knows that when Fowler went to the restaurant on the night of the murder, he asked for a table for one, not for two. 

Fowler shows up at the place where Phuong and her sister work.  He buys a dance ticket and asks Phuong for a dance.  She tells him to ask another girl, but he doesn't want another girl.  They dance together.  He asks her:  "Will you come back now, Phuong?"  She asks if he will take her to London and his answer is that he can't take her to London, because he is staying here.  "I'm not leaving you."   She slowly pouts her arms around him to indicate that she will come back to her.  The sister looks on with a hard look of disgust on her face.

Phuong, at home with Fowler, has settled back down into their regular routine.  She does admit that she misses Pyle, but says Fowler need not feel bad about that.  And he need not apologize to her.  "Not to me.  Never to me."  They kiss. 

The headline in the paper for May 7, 1954 is:  "French defeat signals withdrawal from Vietnam. Cease-fire at Dien Bien Phu means end to conflict between France and Vietnam is near."

The headline for March 20, 1959 is that Ho Chi Minh changes tactics from political to military struggle.  U.S. increase its military support to South Vietnam Army.  Green Berets will act as advisors to combat increased attacks by communist North.  The articles are by Thomas Fowler. 

December 23, 1966.  495,000 U.S. forces now in Vietnam. 


My wife and I really enjoyed the film.  There is a triangle love affair going on between a Brit and a Yank over a pretty Vietnamese taxi dancer that becomes very intense indeed.  The Brit is a newspaper reporter and the Yank is an eye doctor treating eye problems for eye-infected Vietnamese.  But is this American just a doctor, or is he something more than this?  The French are losing in Vietnam and the Americans are becoming far more prominent in Saigon these days.  The Americans seem determined to take another stand against the communists to prevent a communist take-over in Vietnam. 

Michael Caine (as Thomas Fowler), Brendan Fraser (as Alden Pyle) and Do Thi Hai Yen (as Phuong) are all great in their roles.  Love, murder, suspense set in Vietnam.  Good movie.

Little did the Americans know that this would all lead to a big shooting war that would cost the nation a war that was the fourth highest of its wars in terms of deaths.  It turned out that not all communists were alike.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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