The Ugly American (1963)
Movie InfoTaken from a best-selling book, this is an uneven, politically tinged drama by George Englund that does not really follow the book that closely. Marlon Brando is Harrison Carter MacWhite, an ambassador to a Southeast Asian country that goes unnamed but stands in well for Vietnam. There is a growing movement against Yankee imperialism and the current government, increasing unrest, and other signs of a complex situation getting worse. At first the ambassador relies on past training and has his own facile explanations for the unfolding events. But as time goes by, he comes to learn that a revolutionary movement is not one-dimensional. Unfortunately, the film itself never adequately clarifies the events it depicts. … More
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Critic Reviews for The Ugly American
Brando is excellent, as is Okada (notwithstanding his Japanese ethnicity) as the two old friends find themselves on opposing political sides - both right, both wrong
Audience Reviews for The Ugly American
First, it's "The Quiet American", and then it's "The Ugly American", so one has to wonder what's next in the "American Rejects Trilogy". You know that this title isn't literal, because Marlon Brando was anything but ugly, even with that funny little moustache which fit a whole lot better on Clarke Gable. He was sporting it in "Viva Zapata!", too, so I guess it can be tentatively called his "Political Debate Moustache", because as if "Viva Zapata!" wasn't too talkative of a way to deal with political unrest, well, jut wait until you see this. Hey, I am that one guy who thinks that "Viva Zapata!" is pretty good, but I'm annoyed by this film practically stretching to tone things down by focusing on political conflicts in Vietnam... during the Cold War. Well, Brando's Ambassador Harrison Carter MacWhite character and his buddies aren't particularly safe in angry Southeast Asia during the late 1950s, and at any rate, the bestselling novel upon which this film is based came out before the Vietnam War really heated up. I think that might be why the novel was a bestseller, because as the popularity of this film will tell you, people in the '60s weren't exactly eager to hear more about how bad it is in Vietnam, even if they are hearing it from Marlon Brando, through his trademark "Political Debate Moustache". Well, I guess this film was an adequate success, which is good, because it is worth seeing, flawed, though, it may be.
Just as strong as anything in this film, Stewart Stern's script is as flawed as anything in this film, with dialogue and characterization that are sharp and flavorful, arguably to a fault, incorporating some lighter lines and character actions which are improbable, perhaps supplementary to the histrionics. Any sort of contrivance in this intelligent and raw political drama is rare, and typically light when it does come into play, but there are a few theatrical angles that don't entirely convince, partly because they mark extremes in a conventionalism that plagues this film, to one extent or another, throughout its course. If this film conforms to nothing else, it's a 1960s sort of safeness, which is so aggravating because it is so firmly challenged, by impassioned storytelling and acting which bring weighty subject matter to life, until sentimentality and tap dances around the gruesome consequences of political unrest on this level betray some sense of importance. With the teeth of the storytelling filed down, it becomes impossible to ignore that superficiality also plagues the narrative concept itself, in that the progression of the plot and the unraveling of the conflicts thrive on dialogue that limits thrills and intrigue, particularly when it begins to drag. Running about two hours, this film is too long to be so talkative, and somewhat ponderous in its pace, wearing you down with repetitious chatter that comes close to monotony before some sort of action, in the form of an adventure or, say, acts of violence, jars in, breaking the style of this largely intimate drama, and begetting an uneven sense of scope. It is awkward when the film jars between its layers by incorporating and abandoning major roles and plotlines, but it is the uncertain scale - whose broader aspects stress the lack of urgency in more intimate aspects, which in turn defuse much of the weight of the broader aspects - that is most disconcerting, joining some key lapses in believability and edge in placing a very real threat on the reward value of the final product. A challenge to one's patience, the film still ought to engross plenty, with realized direction, strong performances, razor-sharp writing and, of course, engaging production value.
A sense of expansion in this film is uneven, as I said, but an instrumental component in an important sense of dynamicity in this largely talky affair is a consistent extensiveness to Alexander Golitzen's and Alfred Sweeney's art direction, which distinguishes each and every setting in this opus which spans various regions in various cultures, and whose quality production value immerses viewer into each notable scene. Production value, alone, breaks down the monotony that obscures the value of this story concept, which is occasionally contrived and frequently intimate to the point of being short on edge, yet is rich with potential, aiming to explore pressing themes regarding political, social and foreign affairs, and back it with a very human dramatic factor. With subject matter this weighty, sensitive and intimate, most storytelling factors have to be sharp in order to truly engage, and although George Englund's direction feels a little superficial in some places, and ponderous in others, it largely maintains a graceful subtlety, with enough energy to hold some degree of entertainment value, and enough delicacy to the crafting of engrossing visuals and a thoughtful atmosphere to draw you into the heart of this human affair. What locks you in is, of course, the very human performances, all of which are more convincing than certain areas in characterization, with standouts including the rather sympathetic Eiji Okada as Deong, - a well-intentioned possible communist who grows to embrace problematic methods to secure his nation's independence from American interventions - and, of course, the great Marlon Brando, whose overwhelming charm initially captures the grounded aspects of the Ambassador Harrison Carter MacWhite character, whose distinguished presence as a respectable political figure is captured by Brando's charisma, until passion and vulnerability come into play, brought to life by Brando's emotional range. As intimate as this character drama is, it is very minimalist, with simply subtle layers in characterization which is occasionally a smidge improbable in its lighter touches, but crafts a number of distinguished roles that are further distinguished by the impassioned performers who, in all fairness, have solid material to work with, through all of the thin areas in writing. Screenwriter Stewart Stern plays it a bit safe in certain areas, and typically gets a little excessive with the more theatrical touches and reliance on chatter, but it is Stern who truly secures the quality of this picture, never getting too contrived, and rarely getting too superficial, with brilliant dialogue that offers some clever comic relief, and an exhaustive flare which makes, say, heated political discussions and an absolutely devastating sequence in which MacWhite and Deong witness the demise of their friendship and trust in each other, through a confrontation about social affairs, memorable in their audacious, if somewhat excessive extensiveness, which thoroughly explores well-motivated human layers and morals, in addition to deeply thought-provoking themes. The film is both very intelligent and very dramatically complex, and although it is held back a bit by its minimalist style and distinct lapses in inspiration, the final product is so compellingly well-written, as well as thoughtful enough in its direction and penetrating enough in its humanized acting to reward the patient, maybe thoroughly.
Overall, not everything convinces in this slightly histrionic affair, whose conventions and occasions of superficiality stress the minimalism of a talky, overlong and slightly uneven story, whose dramatic and thematic potential still stand firm, made immersive by little things such as distinguished and versatile art direction, and by the thoughtful direction, excellent performances - especially by Eiji Okada and Marlon Brando - and intelligent, tasteful writing which secure George Englund's "The Quiet American" as an engrossingly intimate, thematically important and ultimately rewardingly compelling political drama.
3/5 - Good
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