The visual version. There is only one book that I have read three times, this one by Graham Greene. I reviewed the book at Amazon in March, 2009. In the review I said the following:
“It was January, 1994, and I was leaving the Hanoi War Museum, one of the first wave of Americans to return. Vietnam was just on the cusp of letting tourists wander the country freely; the War Museum had not been "sanitized" yet (which would happen in only two more years), to remove exhibits that might offend our "sensibilities." And over in the corner was an elderly Vietnamese lady, selling books from a small pile, only two of which were in English, this being one of them. Was it just chance, or did she know that this was the quintessential book about the American involvement in Vietnam, prescient beyond belief, having been written at the very, very beginning, in 1955? I had read it prior to my first, year-long trip there, and decided to purchase another copy.”
The subject quote is Greene’s description of Alden Pyle, “over schooled and under educated,” with his head stuffed full of the ideas of Ivy League Professor York Harding. Pyle is a man “on a mission,” literally, as the film reveals, working for the updated version of the OSS, the CIA. He is to develop a “third force” in Vietnam. Thomas Fowler is the “old Asian hand,” a cynical British middle-aged reporter for The Times (of London), in exile, in part, from his Catholic wife. And there is Phoung, an attractive Vietnamese woman who is trying to make the best of a bad situation, and is the lover of both men.
Philip Noyce directed this movie which was released in 2002. Michael Caine plays well the cynical Fowler, hoping to hold on to his job, in the comfortable “East.” Brendan Fraser plays Pyle. Muscular and chunky, he just needed a buzz cut. Phoung is admirably played by Do Thi Hai Yes, and the French detective who knows that Fowler is the one responsible is played by Rade Sherbedgia.
The movie gave greater weight to the rivalry of the two men for Phoung than the book. It did remain true to several critical aspects of the novel, from Pyle saving Fowler’s life, on the road back to Saigon, at the watchtower, to making the decision no longer to be a detached observer and finally taking sides, by placing the book in the window.
Terrorism. To me, there is no question that artillery shelling in designated (and populated) “free fire zones” is terroristic, as is B-52 bombing, particularly in large swaths of rural Cambodia, helping to give rise to the Khmer Rouge, but this movie provides a very graphic depiction of the type of terrorism that American leadership routinely denounces: plastic explosives in car bombs, killing civilians in a city center. And it is Pyle who is responsible – managing to overlook the blood and guts for the “higher goal” of York Harding’s vision of a third force.
At one point Fowler and Pyle complete the same poem together: “And if by chance I run over a cad…I can pay for the damage, if ever so bad.” But America never even tried, and if we had, it would still have been impossible.
Now I’ve had three reads, and one view, of the quintessential American tragedy. 5-stars.