The 1958 version of The Quiet American is set in Vietnam in the early 1950s, when it was still a French colony, and when it was the French who were fighting the communists. Thomas Fowler (Michael Redgrave) is a middle-aged British journalist stationed in Saigon. His lives with Phuong (Giorgia Moll), a much younger Vietnamese woman. Fowler doesn’t believe in anything. He has no political affiliation, he doesn’t care which side wins the ongoing war, and he doesn’t believe in God.
When the movie opens, he is brought to a police station and interrogated by Inspector Vigot regarding a young man who is referred to in the movie only as an “American,” sometimes as the “young American,” and, of course, sometimes as the “quiet American” (Audie Murphy). Even at a restaurant, where everyone is being introduced, he remains unnamed for some reason. He is an idealist. He speaks of the Third Force, in addition to the French and the communists. It represents the idea of the Vietnamese deciding for themselves how they want to live.
When Fowler, Phuong, and the American first meet, they go to a restaurant where men entering without a lady must accept a dinner and dancing companion supplied by the restaurant. The American doesn’t want to have such a companion, whom he regards as a prostitute. It is explained to him that these women are not prostitutes. In fact, Phuong used to be work in that capacity at the restaurant when Fowler first met her. When the American asks what happens to these women when they are too old for the job, which is at a rather young age, as it turns out, he is told that they end up being prostitutes.
Because prostitution is a kind of doom hanging over young women who do not marry, the fact that Phuong is only Fowler’s mistress means that she may eventually be back where she was, or worse. Fowler cannot marry her, because he is already married. He is separated from his wife, whom he no longer loves, but she will not give him a divorce on account of her religion, referred to as “High Church” and “Episcopalian.” When Phuong’s sister, Miss Hei, sees Phuong and the American dancing, she sees this as a chance to get Phuong married. Inasmuch as the American has fallen in love with Phuong at first sight and, as we later find out, wants to marry her, Fowler begins to feel threatened.
The American avoids Phuong until he has a chance to tell Fowler that he loves her, so as not to be sneaky about it. He would leave her alone if they were married, but as she is only living with Fowler, he believes that makes a difference, especially since he agrees with Phuong’s sister that Phuong needs the security of marriage. As the American puts it, “We both have her interests at heart.” To this Fowler replies: “I’m fed to the teeth with your brothers-under-the-skin dribble about cellophane-wrapped security for the atomic future. I don’t care that about Phuong’s interest. You can have her interest. I want her. I want her with me. I’d rather ruin her and be with her than worry about her interest.”
In other words, the American cares about Phuong and wants what is best for her, even saying at one point that he wishes Fowler could marry her. That is, he would be willing to give her up knowing that she would be taken care of. Fowler, on the other hand, has the exact opposite attitude. His love for her, if you can call it that, is of the most selfish kind. The remark that he would be willing to ruin her is no mere hyperbole, for that is likely to be her fate if she stays with him.
This fits with the stereotype of the atheist in the late 1950s, a stereotype not completely extinguished to this day: someone who is selfish and amoral. Also part of the stereotype at that time is that of being unpleasant. Fowler is churlish and rude, unlike the American, who is easygoing and forgiving.
Right after the confrontation, a cable arrives for Fowler telling him that the newspaper he works for is promoting him to foreign editor, which means he will be working in London. That, in turn, means the end of his relationship with Phuong. He does not tell her, however, intending to maintain their relationship right up until the time he has to leave her, even though, as we can figure out for ourselves, if he were to be honest with her and break off the relationship immediately, she might be able to marry the American. But, as noted above, he doesn’t care about that. In fact, he even remarks to the American that these Vietnamese people have no concept of the future, because they just live from day to day. In other words, if Phuong has no concept of the future, then Fowler doesn’t have to worry about her future either. It is a ridiculous rationalization.
Fowler writes to his wife, telling her of his situation, and asks for a divorce. Phuong notes that he never asked his wife for a divorce before. When he tells her he will have to return to England, she offers to return with him as his mistress, but he rebuffs the offer, saying she would be uncomfortable there not being married to him. But we know that he cares nothing about her interests. He is the one who would be uncomfortable. When he finally gets a reply from his wife saying no to a divorce, he lies to Phuong, telling her his wife has agreed. He does this merely to put off the day when he will lose her.
A communist leader convinces Fowler that the plastics that the American has brought into the country are being used for explosives on the part of an independent general and his army who are not on either side, giving the expression “Third Way” an ominous meaning. Fowler never cared about the war before, but now the thought that the American is contributing to the carnage in some way changes everything. Now he becomes conveniently outraged and willingly enters into a conspiracy against him. He seems completely unaware that it is his own selfish motives that makes him willing to act against the American. He sort of convinces himself that this conspiracy might not end in the American’s death, but we know that deep down he knows better. This is ironic, because earlier in the movie, the American saved his life instead of leaving him to die.
Fowler agrees to get the American to meet him for dinner at a certain time so that the communists will know when they can find him on the street. Fowler gives the American the opportunity of not meeting him for dinner, but the American says he will be there. This allows Fowler to tell himself he gave the American his chance, and that it is all in God’s hands now.
God? That’s right. Just as Fowler conveniently started caring about all the people dying in the war when he was told that the American was involved in it, so too does this atheist now allow himself to suppose that there is a God, who will intervene if that is his will: “There was no harm in giving him that one chance. But what was I hoping for? Did I, of all people, hope for some kind of miracle? A method of discussion arranged by Mr. Heng which would not be simply death. It was no longer my decision. I had handed it over to that somebody in whom I didn’t believe. You can intervene if you want to. In so many ways, a telegram on his desk, his dog can become ill. The minister can want to see him. His work, whatever it is, can take up the time.”
This is a new one. By the late 1950s, we were used to seeing atheists in the movies finally admit that there is a God after all, usually because they were in the equivalent of a foxhole, but seeing an atheist somewhat disingenuously say to himself that God can save the American if he wants, thereby absolving himself of any guilt, is not exactly the kind of capitulation that movies up to that time commonly depicted.
Anyway, God does not intervene. The communists abduct the American and kill him. Furthermore, it turns out that the communists have played on Fowler’s ignorance, getting him to confuse ordinary plastic material, which the American was bringing into the country to make noisemakers for the coming Chinese New Year, with plastic explosives, which the American has nothing to do with. And they played on his fear of losing Phuong to the American. The reason the communists kill the American is to kill the idea of a Third Force that he brought with him, the simple idea that the Vietnamese people should be able to decide how they want to live.
Inspector Vigot arrests everyone who was involved in the murder except Fowler, even though he has figured out Fowler’s complicity and his motives. He hands Fowler a cable, in which his wife says she agrees to a divorce. Elated, he rushes to the restaurant where Phuong works once more as a dinner and dance companion to tell her they can now get married. But she knows what he did and what kind of man he is, not anything like the American who truly loved her. She refuses to have anything to do with him, preferring instead to accept the fate that awaits the women who work at that restaurant.
Now that Fowler no longer needs to pretend to himself that God might intervene to prevent the American from being killed, his atheism returns. He says, “I wish someone existed to whom I could say I’m sorry.” Vigot offers to drive him to the cathedral, but Fowler just turns and walks away.
As noted above, Fowler’s acknowledgement that there might be a God was disingenuous and self-serving. And it was dropped as soon as it no longer served that function. In other words, this may be the first movie in which the protagonist is still an atheist at the end of the movie. There had been movies before where the atheist was still an atheist by the end of the movie, provided he was a minor character. In Angel and the Badman (1947), the doctor remains an atheist, although his dogmatic certainty has been replaced by doubt and bewilderment at what he cannot explain. And in Strange Cargo (1940), the atheist is a villain who seems headed for eternal damnation.
In short, this movie is transitional. Whereas before 1958, if the protagonist was an atheist when the movie started, he had to acknowledge the existence of God by the movie’s end. Beginning with this movie and lasting for about a decade, he could merely suffer the fate previously reserved for minor characters who were atheists: beset by doubts or meeting a bad end. We are not sure if Fowler’s doubts were genuine, but he definitely is unhappy right up to the end.
The 2002 version of this movie is set in the same place and in the same year, but it was made decades after the end of the Vietnam War that was fought by the United States, whereas the original was produced before that war started. As a result, a twenty-first century perspective naturally finds its way into the story. In the 2002 version, the quiet American has a name, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser). No longer a man who just wants to help the Vietnamese find a way to govern themselves, free of the French and the communists, the quiet American is now a CIA agent. And his plastics are not harmless, but are actually used to make the bombs that kill and maim dozens of innocent civilians.
As for Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), he is still a little on the selfish side, but in the end, he and Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) are together and will live happily ever after. This may be a speculative stretch on my part, but I cannot help but think that in order for this version to make Fowler the good guy and for it to end happily for him, all that stuff about his being an atheist had to be omitted.