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This film is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Burdick and Lederer, but departs from the novel in some significant particulars that I won't get into here. I think it is important to view this film as a period piece. Released in 1963 before the assassination of JFK and the escalation of the war in Viet Nam, the story retains a certain degree of naiveté about the role of the United States in the world and the perceptions of the United States that existed in other countries. This film would have looked quite different had it been shot in 1968 or 1969, by which time the country had long since shed any illusions about the nation's role in the world. In some ways, this provides a kind of still photo of the United States just prior to the Kennedy assassination and the tumultuous sequence of events that unfolded afterward. For that reason, this is a fascinating period piece that survives Brando's chewing on the scenery and a screen play that departs in unfortunate ways from the outstanding novel.
"The Ugly American" was released right before the Vietnam War started
(depending on which stage of it), and now it seems more relevant than
ever. Harrison MacWhite (Marlon Brando) becomes ambassador to the
Southeast Asian nation of Sarkhan, which is on the verge of civil war
between the Communists and the pro-US government. In Sarkhan, MacWhite
begins to suspect that US intervention in this country might be
prompting people to rebel. While he refuses to accept it, the situation
becomes more and more tense, and MacWhite's officially neutral position
becomes less and less sustainable.
You can't say for certain what the movie's political message is, but we might take MacWhite's speech at the end as a good reminder. Either way, this is one of the many movies that showed how great an actor Marlon Brando was.
Southeast Asian freedom fighter is duped by communists and American bumbling into misidentifying his and his people's true enemies. Endlessly fascinating how this straightforward and beautifully told story is misinterpreted decade after decade. The film leaves the viewer with feelings of nostalgia for an America that was once confident of its own decency, while at the same time pointing out how that aspect of the American character (meaning our confidence) could lead to dangerous miscalculations. If you want to see a really disturbing segue, watch the last scene back-to-back with Colonel Kurtz's soliloquy on communists cutting off the arms of inoculated children.
It's 1963 and the United States is getting drawn into the internal
affairs of a Southeast Asian country named Sarkan. It's got a Communist
north and a western leaning south. It has a king ruling with a prime
minister with the habit of employing a lot of his relatives in
positions of authority.
What makes it a bit different from Vietnam where we were getting drawn in bit by bit is that Sarkan also has a charismatic leader who retired DeGaulle like after Sarkan won its independence from Japanese occupation. He's the key to solving the country's problems for better or worse.
Because of a past relationship with Eiji Okada who plays the Sarkanese DeGaulle, Marlon Brando has been appointed ambassador to Sarkan. Back during World War II Brando and Okada worked well together doing damage to the Japanese occupiers.
Problem now is that the Sarkanese see the Americans as occupiers and the Communists are exploiting the situation to the fullest. A road called Freedom Road that the USA is constructing has become a flash-point of resentment.
It all ends as badly here as it did for America in Vietnam though I certainly won't go into details. Brando delineates a very good interpretation of a Cold Warrior diplomat. We and the Russians fought for global primacy with competing ideologies for over 40 years. Neither superpower was particularly cognizant of the wishes of the countries that blood was spilled over.
Eiji Okada was a major star in Japanese cinema and this was his only English language film. He's an impassioned Sarkanese patriot who's exploited by some evil forces and only realizes it too late.
Smartest guy in the room and in the film is Pat Hingle who is the boss constructing the road. His wife played by Jocelyn Brando runs a hospital for the natives and is beloved. He offers the only real solution to winning the hearts and minds of the Sarkanese. Build a hospital somewhere where you want your bloody road to run and the Sarkanese will fall all over themselves building a road themselves to it. Too bad no one listens.
Brando and Okada make a fine pair of former friends and now dueling adversaries. Hopefully one day we might get an administration who is more concerned with winning hearts and minds all over the world. We might even realize some cheap oil in the bargain.
The Ugly American is still a fine film with some lessons for today's diplomats and military men.
Naiveté and simplicity are not the hallmarks of this wonderful
cinematic masterpiece, as other commentators would have you believe.
Instead, this film presents a 40 year old allegory of everything that
America is doing wrong today. One becomes 'gelé' as each morsel of film
unrolls and presents us with chilling portents of what is to become of
American foreign policy, today, in the 21st century.
I find it almost disturbing that the authors and screen-writers knew -- in 1963 -- that the United States would deteriorate into the war-mongering world-wide dictatorship that it has now become. Every single element portrayed in "The Ugly American" -- from the U.S. military/industrial complex to the quest for phoney 'freedom', to the self-righteous White pitying of the starving and wretched Coloreds, to the supposed fight for 'democracy' -- has become the cause celebré of the red-state revolution, the Republican manifesto.
God help us.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When I grabbed this film I expected it to bore me to tears, but Brando
in it is a strong enticement to watch ... so I did. This is an
absorbing and relevant political drama with some early stretches (the
Senate hearings, Brando's visit to his old friend turned Rebel leader)
that honestly are too talky, but as the story progresses there's less
talk and more action. Brando is given fine support by the Asian actors,
especially the actors playing the Prime Minister and the Rebel leader.
There are two nice plot twists in the last ten or so minutes and one
very incisive final scene that packs strong commentary about Americans
as a whole and is timely today (w/ the Neo-Con march to go to war w/
Iran after the debacle in Iraq). The large crowd scene employed tons of
Asian extras and are very well directed ... in particular the harrowing
airport arrival sequence!
Brando's sister plays an American who runs an orphanage hospital and those scenes w/ the malnutrition Asian children's is very troubling and touches one's heart.
I was in Viet Nam from June 1963 to March 1964. We saw "The Ugly
American" at the American movie theatre in Saigon, the Capitol Kinh Do.
There were many Americans and their dependents in Saigon and in Viet Nam at this time--most were isolated with cocktail parties, teas, and American activities. Most American children went to the American Community School outside of Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Their parents belonged to the exclusive Cercle Sportiff, hobnobbing with the Vietnamese elite who monetarily benefited from the war. There were opportunities for American civilians to teach the Vietnamese English, but I never knew of any opportunities for Americans to learn Vietnamese or national customs.
Many of the children of the diplomatic corps were instructed that if their shirt tails hung out or if they ate with their fingers when eating implements were available, they would be considered "ugly Americans." Nothing was said about the teenage boys drinking, whoring, and racing their motorcycles through the darkened Saigon streets in the early morning hours. Nothing was said about how we knew the way to "win" the war against the popular nationalist freedom fighter known as Ho Chi Minh who organized the successful campaigns against the Japanese and French occupiers.
Perhaps if we had listened a little more, learned the language and customs, and understood that the desire for national freedom is not communism, we wouldn't still be trying to "win" the Vietnam War.
I remember first seeing "The Ugly American" upon its initial release in
1963, and I equally remember immediately linking it with what was
happening in Viet Nam. I found it absorbing and timely then just as I
As the American ambassador with a total white hat/black hat mentality, Marlon Brando in my opinion gives one of his best performances. There's the shouting and the strutting, but there are also some very, eerily quiet, contrasting moments when he simply lets the frustration of his character all hang out.
As his former best friend and now rebel leader of the fictional Sarkan to which Brando's Ambassador White has been posted, Ejii Okada is every bit Brando's equal. Their sharp exchanges are riveting, as is so much of the dialogue in this film, dialogue-heavy moments that I do not personally find boring because what they are discussing strikes me as being as important today as in 1963 when this film was first released.
I do recognize that some reviewers were terribly disappointed (maybe even offended) that the film was not a recapitulation of an apparently well written, highly complex novel which I haven't read yet but intend to if I can find a copy. However, no matter how great the book, shouldn't a film be judged as a film because it is not a book? For one thing, movies don't have the luxury of an endless running time, a constraint not put upon the number of pages needed to tell a print story. Also, is not the punctuation, grammar and syntax of image quite different than that of print?
Finally, as others have said, it is too bad (a) "The Ugly American" has been mostly forgotten (if it has ever been heard of) and (b) the powerful message that ends this picture is still as relevant today as it was in 1963. Indeed, if anything it is even more (very sadly) spot-on than it was then.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Despite "The Ugly American" being filmed in a fictional Southeast Asian
nation, the parallels between this film and Vietnam in the 1960s are
quite obvious. It's obviously NOT about this fictional place but is a
commentary on the American government's reaction to nationalism and
revolution. While this nation was founded as a haven for
revolutionaries, by the time the film was made, the policies were
generally reactionary--bolstering up ANY government that was seen as
keeping the status quo so long as they weren't communists. Yet, like in
the case of this fictional land, many revolutions had nothing to do
with communism and SHOULD have been welcomed by the US but weren't.
This film begins with Marlon Brando playing a new ambassador to the tiny nation of Sarkan. Some of the senators at his confirmation hearing were not impressed--Brand's character appeared to be a political liberal and looked favorably upon the nationalistic movement growing withing Sarkan. After all, the leader was his old and dear friend. However, after assuming the post, both the friend and Brando behave quite stupidly. They should have been friends but very soon become bitter enemies. Brando brands the ex-friend a communist and the friend rushes to the communist camp for assistance.
My biggest problem with the film was its pacing. Brando goes from close friend to bitter enemy VERY quickly--too quickly. Things escalate wildly out of control in an interesting manner but it's all just too rushed to be realistic. But, aside from this, the acting is decent and the story quite compelling--especially the film's commentary on the apathetic American public. Clever and insightful, this one probably looks a lot better today in hindsight then it did back in 1963 before the Cold War in Southeast Asia really heated up significantly.
Marlon Brando gives a fair performance as the new American Ambassador elected to Sarkhan in Southeast Asia, which had been a peaceful, friendly nation fifteen years prior but is now being taken over by radical Communists distrustful of outside development. Adapted from the novel by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, the dramatic, talkative picture (filmed mostly in Thailand) is a thoughtful rabble-rouser about conflicting political views. Brando's one native confidante in Sarkhan (wonderfully portrayed by Eiji Okada) admits to working both sides of the proverbial fence, which allows for a stimulating discussion of personal values in which common sense no longer comes into play. Although beautifully photographed by Clifford Stine, the results are literate and intriguing without being intrinsically exciting (at its core, the nature of the film is a tug-of-war, with the participants often engaged in a shouting match). Moving in fits and starts, one must sit through a great deal of pontificating before arriving at the conclusion, however the film's strongest scenes remain forceful and memorable. ** from ****
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