Saturday 15 February 2003

Pyle and Bush

The US Ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer, has made a habit of ruffling Australian feathers by pointedly ignoring the accepted custom that diplomats do not comment on a host country’s internal politics. This week, in an interview published in the weekly newsmagazine, The Bulletin, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the Labor party’s policy that Australian troops not be committed to a war Iraq without UN approval—although he made no direct comment on Labor front-bencher Mark Latham’s characterization of George W. Bush as “the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory.”

I suspect that much of what Mr Schieffer describes as anti-Americanism in Australia is simply anti-Bush sentiment. As Alan Ramsay wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning:

It is Bush who appals many Australians. The man, not the country he leads.

This wee, strutting caricature of an American president, with his cowboy boots and cowboy language, his persistent appeals to God in defence of “freedom-loving people” - rhetoric the rest of us ridiculed when the Soviets and China forever spouted it during the worst of the Cold War in the ’50s and ’60s - is, without doubt, the most frightening US leader any of us have experienced. So, too, the two most influential figures in his administration: Vice-President Cheney and the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Both are wealthy Republican retreads from the Nixon White House of almost 30 years ago. Both are the real powers in George jnr’s Washington 29 years after the disgraced Nixon was driven from office.

All three scare the pants off most of us.

Even Colin (pronounced colon) Powell, Bush’s Secretary of State, previously widely considered the only restraining influence in the Bush Administration, now eats from the same table. He has, as a former Australian minister of great wit describes him, become semi-colon.

Film director Phil Noyce struck a similar note when, in a Salon interview with Jean Tang, he compared George W. Bush to Alden Pyle, the CIA operative in Grahame Greene’s The Quiet American:

Alden Pyle is a bit of a dunderhead. He’s just a complete big bumbling idiot who’s really not aware of any of the implications of what he’s doing…

George Bush is the ultimate Alden Pyle! He’s hardly been out of the country, he’s steeped in good intentions, believes he has the answer, is very naive, ultimately not that bright, and extremely dangerous.

I first encountered Phil Noyce in the early 70’s at a screening at the Filmmaker’s Cooperative, above Bob Gould’s old bookshop in Goulburn Street. Every Sunday night we’d gather to watch 16mm movies and on this occasion Phil showed ten minutes of color footage of his father burning leaves in the back garden of his house in Wahroonga, an upper-class suburb on Sydney’s North Shore.

“I don’t have a soundtrack so I’ve organized a smelltrack,” Phil told us as he emptied dead grass, twigs, and leaves onto a sheet of corrugated iron he’d laid on the floor next to the projector. He took a box of matches from his shirt pocket, used two or three to set the garden refuse alight, and signalled the projectionist to roll the film. The smell of burning leaves—intensely nostalgic for many of us—filled the cramped space above the bookshop as Phil ran up and down the aisle grasping the corrugated iron in one hand and fanning the flames with the other.

A few years later I shot stills for a feature on which Phil was second or third assistant director, then for a couple of documentaries he directed. His infectious enthusiasm and unflappable nature made him a pleasure to work with. He went on to direct one of the truly great Australian features, Newsfront, before heading off to Hollywood. Although I never much cared for the action pictures he made—such as Patriot Games or Clear and Present Dangerhis adaptation of The Quiet American is close to perfect.

Anyone who has traveled in South-East Asia will immediately recognize the precision with which Noyce and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, have captured not just the mood and character of the cities and countryside but the emotional undertone of the relationships between Vietnamese and Caucasians (British, French, and American).

No doubt assisted by Doyle’s firsthand experience, Noyce gets the tone of the liaison between Fowler (Michael Caine) and his Vietnamese mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) exactly right—a kind of world-weary acceptance of an imperfect situation that the American Pyle (Brendan Fraser) finds incomprehensible.

Though I haven’t read Greene’s novel—it’s on my list—it’s a tribute to Noyce’s direction that I only realized a couple of days after I’d seen the film how crude the central metaphor actually is: innocent young girl (Vietnam) trapped in an exploitative relationship with a corrupt and cynical journalist (France) can only be rescued by a decent, honest medical operative (America). Except that the American turns out to be a CIA agent who is directly or indirectly responsible (depending on your viewpoint) for a terrorist attack on a Saigon city square that results in the death and maiming of dozens of innocent civilians.

It’s also clear how well qualified Phil Noyce was to make The Quiet American. He, as I did, missed out on a “winning ticket” in the National Service lottery that would have sent us to fight in Vietnam. And Noyce’s father “was in the Australian equivalent of the OSS” (the precursor to the CIA):

He was a spy. He was in the Zed force doing exactly the same thing, training operatives to go behind enemy lines. He didn’t go, he just trained them on an island off the east coast of Australia. This was in 1945. And he told me the story of one guy called Minh who said to him, “I don’t care about the Japanese, I’m just here to learn how to defeat the French.” And at the time, there was no such place as Vietnam, there was just Indochina, and [my dad] realized of course that he was training a Vietnamese operative.

Similarly, all the characters in The Quiet American—Fowler, Phuong, Pyle, Hinh (Fowler’s assistant)—are pragmatic, in their own ways, but Pyle is the most dangerous because his willingness to do whatever it takes (“to destroy the village in order to save it”) is buttressed by naivety, overweening certainty, and a lack of historical awareness. Not unlike George W. Bush.

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When I first read the title I thought you were going to compare Bush and Gomer Pyle. That, too, would be apt, I think, except that Gomer meant well.

Posted by John on 16 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour