An intelligent, articulate scholar, Harrison MacWhite, survives a hostile Senate confirmation hearing at the hands of conservatives to become ambassador to Sarkan, a southeast Asian country where civil war threatens a tense peace. Despite his knowledge, once he's there, MacWhite sees only a dichotomy between the U.S. and Communism. He can't accept that anti-American sentiment might be a longing for self-determination and nationalism. So, he breaks from his friend Deong, a local opposition leader, ignores a foreman's advice about slowing the building of a road, and tries to muscle ahead. What price must the country and his friends pay for him to get some sense?Written by
Two months after the film's release, a syndicated story appeared, entitled "Why Can't the Movie Be More Like the Book," written by one of the source novel's two co-authors, Eugene Burdick. Notwithstanding the article's title and the general critical consensus regarding the film's lack of fidelity to his book, Burdick's own assessment was surprisingly positive. While acknowledging that the film bears "only the most passing resemblance" to his novel, he views this as a plus, seeing 'the picture [a]s better than the book; more integrated, more skillful, and more dramatic," noting that director George Englund and screenwriter Stewart Stern had "crept inside the characters" that he himself "knew only as deeply as ink prints on paper." Moreover, Burdick commends Englund and Stern for "work[ing] much harder than had Lederer and [he]" to flesh out the fictional nation of Sarkhan, while marveling at actor Marlon Brando's ability to inconspicuously "slide into one's mind," then seamlessly integrate the information obtained thereby. Finally, despite noting the myriad changes made to his tale in its journey from printed page to projected image, Burdick can mount only the faintest show of reluctance before conceding that his novel's "political impact is still there." See more »
Look closely. Brando's mustache changes with every scene. See more »
Ambassador Harrison Carter MacWhite:
I'd like to interrupt, eh, gentlemen, to point out that the only thing that is clear so far is that there's no clarity at all. So if you don't mind, we'll stop this squabbling and I'll present you with some facts. About three hours ago, there were several people trampled to death, a policeman was pistol-whipped until his face looked like raspberry jam, and the man who represents the person of the president of United States was almost killed, along with his wife, and other members of his party. ...
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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.
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