My undying obsession with “The Quiet American”

My undying obsession

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Fowler and Pyle meeting for the first time (Photo from Internet)
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Whether it’s The Painted Veil or Anna and the King, I’ve always had this obsession with stories that are set in Asia. The Quiet American is one such example. Simple, well-written yet deep, this novel along with the 2002 Phillip Noyce film adaptation + soundtrack composed by Craig Armstrong will always be my favourite. I blabbered on too much in my previous posts about Saigon/HCMC and since I’m hooked, I couldn’t help but write another entry about it.

The movie starts with a haunting voice-singing in Vietnamese. You see an opium pipe being lit- beautiful women- explosion – colour then the words <Saigon Vietnam 1952>.      “Whatever you are looking for, you will find it here. They say that you understand love in a few minutes, the rest has got to be lived….You can hardly remember your name or what you have escaped from.”

This is a love story, a murder mystery and a political thriller set against the mysterious Orient.

Thomas Fowler is a British journalist and a cynical man. He is running away from England and from a deeply religious wife who refuse to divorce him thus making things hard for him and his much younger Vietnamese lover, Phuong. He is one of those individual who “offer no point of view, I take no action and I don’t get involved. I just report what I see.” Detached and hiding behind his typewriter, he is close to the war and never a part of it. However, he is forced to be more active when circumstances change. His assistant told him “Sooner or later, one has to take sides if one is to remain human” to which he did. (Journalism is about objectivity and not about misusing interviews and images to sensationalise things up. Too often, journalism is about Speed > accuracy,    ratings > ethics, sensationalisation > professionalism and short quick catchy headlines > long reports with substance. Quite a number of correspondents lack the time to properly live, study and learn about the environment that they are in. Let’s just say that journalism has changed )


Alden Pyle, an idealistic American has the best intentions in helping Vietnam but like America’s tendency to meddle in other people’s affairs, they are not often clear about the situation that they are in. Pyle first met Fowler at the Hotel Continental and finds him different- ” not like the noisy Americans…he is very serious and quiet.”


Being an American, Pyle’s response to Fowler’s non-interference is ” but you must have opinions. Even an opinion is a form of action.” After meeting Phuong that day, Pyle became infatuated with her and so the love triangle begins.  “Saving a country and saving a woman is the same thing for Pyle.”

Written by English author Graham Greene, the novel (published in 1955) used Greene’s experiences as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro in French Indochina 1951–1954.  He was inspired when an American aid worker told him about finding a “third force in Vietnam.” (1951). Aspects of Greene’s own life could be seen in the character Thomas Fowler. Greene was a correspondent and had many sexual encounters after he left his family in 1947. Due to Catholic teaching, Greene’s wife refused to grant him a divorce (just like the character: Fowler).

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 Most pictures of the movie were screenshots (taken from DVD)
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Noyce shooting the General parade scene in Hanoi



Aussie Director Phillip Noyce and Aussie Cinematographer Chris Doyle who previously worked on another one of my favourite films of all time <Rabbit Proof Fence> shot the film on location in HCM City, Hoi An, Ninh Binh, Tam Coc and Fox studios, Sydney.

I ate the novel in one go and watching + dissecting the film was even more enjoyable. FLASHBACKS TO HSC!

Some scenes:

Since Fowler (played by Michael Caine) prefers sitting behind his typewriter than to actively take part in war-time reporting, he decides to go up to Phat Diem to write a few stories so that he won’t get called back to London. Pyle follows, confessing to Fowler that he loves Phuong.


After returning to Saigon and having things hit a sour note, Pyle disappears for a few months before meeting Fowler again during another report.gdccvfg

After the failed interview with the General, they were ambushed by guerrilla fighters. Pyle saves Fowler and help him out with his injury. 678

Notice how the camera now becomes Fowler’s eyes? Most shots have been objective. Now, as Fowler lies in pain and Pyle rushes off to get help, we see the story unfolding through Fowler’s eyes.09k

I love how they tilted the camera angle in this scene. It’s much more powerful than another objective setup.

Key symbol, main setting and key scene:

Aerial shot of Saigon Theatre and Hotel Continental (roads were blocked for shooting since it would normally be heavy with traffic)

This is the place where Pyle first meets Fowler, who makes it a ritual to watch his young lover at the milkshake bar (just across the square).


In the novel, the bombing at the square was based on real events that happened on 9 January 1952. This is one of the scenes with the most continuous subjective camera shot. No music in the background, the scenes starts off natural sounds in a quiet setting. Then……

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Camera changes from objective to personal, emotional and subjective.


Audiences are shocked by the sudden violence. As Fowler race across the square looking for Phuong, the camera leads the audience to the devastation and as “Death in the Square” (Music track) slowly builds up, a state of urgency is obvious as the aftermath becomes clearer. Drum beats could be heard which lands on Pyle as he makes his way onto the square.

Death in the Square

Six different cameras were used in the square for this scene. Shutter speed were changed and hand-held were used to add intensity and horrendous realism.22Capture212

When Fowler enters the milk-bar to look for Phuong, camera speed slows down as he examines the aftermath of the bombing. This dizzy and time-just-stood-still effect, is something that we all can relate to (everything was in slow motion when i nearly fell out of my roof and that time when i bashed by the relative of MH370 at Beijing’s Lido Hotel).  Fowler escaped from a bomb blast, saw the death in the square and fears for Phuong. Time slows down when you witness something horrible.


Compare this 2002 bomb scene with the one in 1958 -Noyce and Doyle definitely captured the intensity must better than just burnt cars and smoke bellowing in the background.

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1958’s bombing scene

There are two film adaptations of the novel. The old film adaptation of “The Quiet American” started filming in Saigon on 28 January 1957. Graham Greene (still alive then) was not happy with the dilution of his anti-war story. It was not a faithful adaptation. Pyle was no longer a government representative but a private citizen and the story focused too much on the love triangle instead of the geo-politic of war. From a commercial point of view,  timing could not have been worse for both the 1958 and 2002 films. The 1958 one came during a time when Hollywood was still recovering from the effects of blacklisting of suspected Communists. Although beautifully shot and well-made,  the 2002 film came shortly after the September 11 attack.

The haunting voice of Vietnamese singer Hong Nhung who had a cameo in the film as the singing dance girl is mesmerising. She, along with Craig Armstrong and Matt Dunkley really made the “Main Theme” and “Nothing in this world” memorable. In fact the whole soundtrack, along with Rabbit Proof Fence chases away my insomnia. This is my audio drug…I would drift off to sleep just like Fowler except unlike him with an opium pipe by his side, I have my little iPod and earphones and songs that puts me to sleep

Main Theme

Nothing in this Word  (End theme)

sẽ có mot ngày tiếc nơi em sinh ra nằm vào                                                 sẽ có mot ngày  thấy nắng trong mắt em ngập tràng                           When you feel there’s no way out of here                                                       I will help you you find the way                                                               There is nothing in this world my love                                                     That can stop us being here


“They say you come to Vietnam and understand a lot in a few minutes. The rest has got to be lived. Whatever you are looking for, you will find it here. There is a ghost in every house and if you can make peace with him then they can stay quiet.”