Tuesday, September 11, 2018

George Englund | The Ugly American


the heart of the matter

Stewart Stern (screenplay, based on the fiction by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick), George Englund (director) The Ugly American / 1963

It’s hard to talk about the film version of the William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick fiction of 1958 and the movie of 1963. Everybody seemed to have read the book, along with the Alan Paton novel of a decade earlier, Cry the Beloved Country, as major political texts of the time. Even a much more serious reader, such as I, read both these popular fictions. I became determined in our own time of a truly ugly American in office to revisit both the film and book, placing them in context with the kind of new “ugliness” which Trump has visited upon the office of President and with which he has involved the country.
       
     In retrospect, however, the handsome Harrison MacWhite (an endlessly pipe-smoking Marlon Brando), fighting a conservative Senate confirmation hearing to become ambassador to a non-existent southeast Asian country, Sarkan—the movie was primarily filmed in Hollywood and Thailand, trying to suggest a kind possible Viet Nam reality—hardly appears, at least on the surface as a truly “ugly” American, not only because of his still handsome physical demeanor, supported by his loving wife (the photogenic Sandra Church), but also because this man is an idealist who has spent a great deal of time in Sarkan, getting to know, at least, some of the language, and befriending a major figure in Sarkanese politics, Deong (Japanese actor Eiji Okada). The relationship between MacWhite and Deong, indeed, is so intense, that—even after an intensely threatening arrival, in which he, his wife, and assistants might have been killed—he seeks out and spends the entire night with his long-time “friend,” discovering in the process that his dear friend, what one might suspect as an almost homoerotic attraction, has ordered the protests.
      If previously, the intelligent and rather rational ambassador has appeared to be anything but visually or politically “ugly,” he now suddenly appears to sense betrayal and jumps to the conclusion that Deong is a Communist determined in the downfall of American interests.
      Unfortunately, the film, directed by George Englund does not make clear MacWhite’s sudden conservative transformation, except for Brando declaring that he had been lied to and was wrong. Moreover, we never quite comprehend why the Ambassador becomes suddenly determined to force the controversial American gift to this country, the “Freedom highway,” into new territory that moves toward its northern borders, threatening long-time racial issues and territorial disputes.
      What he, unfortunately, is not able to comprehend is that a people of another country might be simply anti-American because of our country’s blatant disrespect for their own values, language, and politics, without them necessarily having come into the sway of Soviet and Chinese dictates.
      The film hints of both alternatives, at one point showing Deong meeting with just such representatives, but at other times having his wife and others muttering that Deong is no Communist. And this is at the heart of the movie’s failure: it simply doesn’t quite show where it stands in the political spectrum. Are the US representatives simply fools who cannot perceive the actual political realities of this country or are they wild idealists who hope in investing on the inter-structure of this world that they will simply be loved and respected
       
     There are some wonderful scenes where the US has brought into the rural area small hospitals which nurse and care for Asian children, providing them, through the existence of the highway, prolonged and better lives. But at same time there is a smug vision in this, presuming that only an intrusion of another culture upon the world they have come to inhabit, can bring meaningful change. And these extremes reveal some of the major concerns of the book as well.
      Even the way Brando sucks on his pipe and swaggers his way through scenes in a world about which he is still fairly clueless gives us only vague hints on how you can be a caring man but still appear “ugly” to the culture at large. And, ultimately, it appears his deep friendship with Deong was based more on the liquor they shared that any true and deep inter-relationship, the fact of which MacWhite hints even while he is being interviewed by the truly uncaring Senate committee members.
      If we hate the Senate committee interviewees, as we might well feel even today about some similar events, MacWhite, in the end, is also quite clueless in that he cannot comprehend that hate is a far deeper passion that cannot be resolved in a few friendly rounds of homebrewed liquor.
      Despite the quite excellent performances by the major cast-members, however, Englund is never able to really put his finger on the substantial problems. Why is Deong so angry and why is the otherwise intelligent and sensitive MacWhite so ignorant of the role he has been asked to play? They seem to walk through this rather melodramatic work without quite knowing why they are behaving as they are, and with no idea why they cannot bring back the bon-vivant feelings of the old days.
      It takes the ironic and intelligent view of someone like Graham Greene in The Quiet American to truly get to the heart of the matter.

Los Angeles, November 11, 2018

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