Review: The Ugly American (1963)

The Ugly American (1963) 
 Dir. George Englund
 Starring: Marlon Brando, Sandra Church, Eiji Okada

'They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence  -- in 1945  -- after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination and a government that had been established not by China -- for whom the Vietnamese have no great love -- but by clearly indigenous forces that included some communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.' 

        ( -- Martin Luther King, Jr, 1967.)


Brando, his matinee idol good looks already going to seed, ably portrays a US ambassador to a fictitious nation in Southeast Asia dangerously gripped by Communist influences. Unmistakably based on the "situation" in Vietnam, Brando's patrician charisma initially wins the day, but revolutionary forces are brewing under American support of a US-friendly dictatorship. (The parallels between the real-life relations between JFK and Ngo Dinh Diem's regime must illuminate the film considerably.) In a heated discussion which dissolves into a drunken argument, Brando is faced with a more sympathetic Communist-sympathiser than perhaps yet seen so frankly in American movies. Unfortunately, however politically nuanced or liberal for its time - pleading for an end to paranoia and a diplomatic approach - it appears today to be on the wrong side of history.

Brando's foil, a local politician favoured by the leftists, accuses the U.S. of imperialistic ulterior motives in its road-building campaign, arguing that it will be used for military purposes. Later, when Brando and his wife visit the road construction site, they discover a children's hospital kindly run by American benefactors. This misleading extenuation of American involvement in Southeast Asia seems pernicious in light of the millions of civilian dead in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia only a decade later.  All at once, the film is open-minded and allows for direct critique of U.S. foreign policy, deeply unusual for its time. It also portends an ahead-of-its-time cynicism about the general public and the importance of allowing space for debate without paranoia. In Brando's final rousing monologue, espousing understanding and peaceful diplomacy, the television screen back in its suburban American home is abruptly switched off, cutting him dead in the middle of a sentence. The Ugly American is, in many ways, too little, too late - a moderate version of leftism couched in anti-Communism to the core, one that fails to condemn U.S. intervention abroad - but also all too aware that its message of diplomacy would largely be ignored. On these grounds, violence would be the only remaining response. How a film so of-its-time (1963, a year of turmoil at home and abroad -) could be so utterly wrong and so utterly right simultaneously is really quite disconcerting.


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