The release last Friday, albeit only in New York and Los Angeles, of Philip
Noyce's rendering of The Quiet American, Graham Greene's classic novel
of 1955, was more significant than it might have seemed. Beyond the color and
intrigue of the film itself lies a story of studio intrigue and, indeed, cowardice.
This is a work that nearly never saw the light of day, at least not in America.
The film, starring Michael Caine as a world-weary correspondent in Vietnam
in 1952, when France's hold on Indo-China was coming undone, was completed more
than a year ago. But its distributor, Miramax, was afraid to put it out. Not because
it is any kind of dud; on the contrary, now that it has finally surfaced, there
is talk of an Oscar nomination for Caine. No, it was much worse than that. Miramax
was nervous that the American public would be offended by it.
It is true that the timing was uncanny. The first rough-cut of the film was
screened for Miramax on 10 September last year. The plan then was to release it
a few months later, around Christmas. If you know the book, you will know more
or less what they saw: a story that casts a highly critical light on America's
involvement in Vietnam in that brief period of internal convulsion that eventually
became the Vietnam War. America's misdeeds are embodied in Pyle, the "Quiet American"
himself, played by Brendan Fraser an economic aid worker on the surface
who turns out to be a CIA operative assisting a rebel force to counter the Communists.
The world changed for all America the following day when al-Qa'ida terrorists
ripped a hole through the country's innocence. Miramax took fright and put its
Noyce property on hold. It did not help that the film included a pivotal scene
when the agitators sponsored by Pyle wreaked bloody havoc with a series of car
bombs in a Saigon square.
Miramax was not alone among studios reconsidering release schedules in those
nervous days following 9/11. Among other victims was Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral
Damage, which was put back a couple of months. But the man in charge of Miramax,
Harvey Weinstein, waited far longer than that. A couple of screenings in front
of test audiences in the weeks after 9/11 seemed to support his instincts. They
gave it a clear thumbs-down.
More extraordinary is that the decision to ditch the film caused almost no
fuss at all. Not initially, anyway. Later, even Noyce was to admit that he considered
his work to be "dead and not quite buried". He told one paper: "I thought the
battle was over."
Thank goodness, therefore, for the persuasive powers of Caine. The actor finally
blew his top earlier this year when he received word that Weinstein had finally
decided to release The Quiet American in January 2003. "January is when
you dump all the garbage," he explained in one interview. So he got on the telephone
to Weinstein and pleaded. "I said, give me a chance; maybe I could get an Oscar."
And Weinstein, reluctantly, responded. Only after insisting that Noyce massage
a couple of sequences in the film a reference to "American adventurism"
had to go, for instance Weinstein agreed to a screening at the Toronto
Film Festival in September. It received a standing ovation and the critics wrote
adoringly of it. It was then that Weinstein agreed that while general release
would remain set for January, at least folk here in New York and in Los Angeles
would be given the chance to see the film this month (it opens in the UK today).
For those of us infuriated by the pusillanimity of Miramax, this is only half-satisfying.
We have not been given the privilege of seeing Noyce's work because of any strengthening
of the intellectual backbone inside Miramax. Nobody has said "We were wrong. Of
course Americans have a right to watch this movie" or "Because of where we are
in history now, because of the Taliban and because of Iraq, this film has total
relevance". No, it's a ploy for glory. For Caine to have a shot at an Oscar, the
film has to be released now.
It is simplistic to see Greene as "anti-American". The book is an indictment
rather of those Americans who dragged the country into the Vietnam War. What Greene
castigates is the naive manner of American intervention abroad. America is no
longer naive. But where the story remains entirely apposite is in identifying
the instinct of Americans to believe that what they are doing is for the "greater
good" of the world. Pyle, with his youthful idealism, is just that kind of American.
But his eager convictions lead to bloodshed and war. For that reason alone, of
course, it is important that Americans watch this film. It should almost be compulsory
viewing, in fact.
It would be easy to rail at Weinstein for not seeing this. But the truth is
he was probably right in withholding the movie, because Americans may indeed be
unable to stomach especially now anything that undermines its patriotic
fervor. That is a depressing, if rather obvious, statement about this country.
It points to the unsettling paradox that is at the heart of its behavior astride
the globe today. Underlying its arrogance as the world's last superpower remains
a layer of deep insecurity. An immature society that cannot tolerate art invites
© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd