Daily Archives: August 26, 2007

As I trust you’re all aware the late, great Graham Greene has been in the news lately, thanks to being referenced in President Low-Normal’s address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars:

“The tragedy of Vietnam is too large to be contained in one speech. So I’m going to limit myself to one argument that has particular significance today. Then as now, people argued the real problem was America’s presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end.
The argument that America’s presence in Indochina was dangerous had a long pedigree. In 1955, long before the United States had entered the war, Graham Greene wrote a novel called, The Quiet American. It was set in Saigon, and the main character was a young government agent named Alden Pyle. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism — and dangerous naivete. Another character describes Alden this way: “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”
After America entered the Vietnam War, the Graham Greene argument gathered some steam. As a matter of fact, many argued that if we pulled out there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people.”

Needless to say any number of less-perfidious parties have been quick to jump in to relate what Greene’s book actually said, and what its criticism of what’s ever-so-politely terms “American Foreign Policy” was really about.

Two films were made of The Quiet American. The first, in 1958 was by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, with soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy as “Alden Pyle” and Michael Redgrave as the dissolute Brit who observes his Southeast Asian misadventures. While greatly praised by Jean-Luc Godard (a considerable Mankiewicz enthusiast) it was greatly disliked by Greene for the simple reason that Murphy portrays his ironically-monikered “Quiet American” as a “well-meaning” innocent dupe undone by others — rather than the evil operative of the book. This mistake was rectified in Phillip Noyce’s Michael Caine-starred 2002 remake in which Brendan Frasier plays “Pyle” full out as the slick, cynical mass-murderer of Greene’s text. It’s a shame Greene wasn’t around to see this version. One detail in particular stands out: Frasier’s “Pyle” petulantly brushing a splash of blood off his pant leg — blood coming from a casualty of an explosion on a Saigon street that he himself engineered, in the hopes of blaming the Communists for it. IOW, U.S. “Foreign Policy” in action.

One can only wonder what Greene would make of Dubbya. For to say he “didn’t suffer fools gladly” is putting it mildly, as is clear from
The Greatest Piece of Film Criticism Ever Written:

Wee Willie Winkie
by Graham Greene
The owners of a child star are like leaseholders –
their property diminishes in value every year. Time’s
chariot is at their back; before them acres of
anonymity. What is Jackie Coogan now but a matrimonial
squabble? Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has
peculiar interest: infancy is her disguise, her appeal
is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago
she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think,
went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain
January
she wore trousers with the mature
suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and
well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance; her eyes
had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie
Winkie
, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy.
Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian
barrack-square; hear the gasp of excited expectation
from her antique audience when the sergeant’s palm is
raised; watch the way she measures a man with agile
studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of
love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood,
a childhood skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot
last. Her admirers – middle-aged men and clergymen –
respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her
well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with
enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of
story and dialogue drops between their intelligence
and their desire. ‘Why are you making Mummy cry?’ –
what could be purer than that? And the scene when
dressed in a white nightdress she begs grandpa to take
Mummy to a dance – what could be more virginal? On
those lines her new picture, made by John Ford, who
directed The Informer,” is horrifyingly competent. It
isn’t hard to stay to the last prattle and the last
sob. The story – about an Afghan robber converted by
Wee Willie Winkie to the British Raj – is a long way
after Kipling. But we needn’t be sour about that. Both
stories are awful, but on the whole Hollywood’s is the
better.

Wee Willie Winkie (USA, Twentieth Century Fox, I937)
Dir.: John Ford. Cast: Shirley Temple, Victor
McLaglen, C. Aubrey Smith, June Lang, Michael Whalen,
Cesar Romero, Constance Collier, Gavin Muir. From
Night and Day, 28 October 1937.”

Night and Day paid dearly for Greene’s wit and insight. 20th Century-Fox, allegedly acting on behalf of Ms. Temple, successfully sued the publication for libel. And British libel laws being what they are, it won. Night and Day was ruined and the piece you have just read was for all intents and purposes banned world-wide for decades. It was conspicuous in its absence from a volume of Greene’s collected film criticism published in the 1970’s and in fact wasn’t seen again until 1998 when it was published in John Boorman’s annual Projections 8: Filmmakers On Filmmaking.

Doubtless Dubbya didn’t read it, or anything else by Graham Greene. But spurred by him, you now — gentle reader — have done so. And seeing that Dubbya’s curious Greene-ing was engineered in order to ivoke the Vietnam war — which apparently we’re still fighting — it’s time to let loose with THIS Golden Oldie:

“Yeah, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.
And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.
Well, come on generals, let’s move fast;
Your big chance has come at last.
Gotta go out and get those reds –
The only good commie is the one who’s dead
And you know that peace can only be won
When we’ve blown ‘em all to kingdom come.
And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.
Huh!
Well, come on Wall Street, don’t move slow,
Why man, this is war au-go-go.
There’s plenty good money to be made
By supplying the Army with the tools of the trade,
Just hope and pray that if they drop the bomb,
They drop it on the Viet Cong.
And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.
Well, come on mothers throughout the land,
Pack your boys off to Vietnam.
Come on fathers, don’t hesitate,
Send ‘em off before it’s too late.
Be the first one on your block
To have your boy come home in a box.
And it’s one, two, three
What are we fighting for ?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die!”