The quest for ‘The Quiet American’

Michael Caine is a big enough star to throw his weight around Hollywood, but he can’t do everything.

There is, for instance, the matter of the trailer for his movie, “The Quiet American,” which opens Friday. When informed that the trailer gives away a crucial surprise, Caine replies, “It does? Shoot. I … Oh, never mind. They won’t change the trailer now, I’m sure. But that’s really too bad.”

Too bad, indeed, but the truth is we might not even be seeing “The Quiet American” now if it hadn’t been for Caine’s efforts to get it before audiences.

A bit of backtracking: “Quiet,” based on Graham Greene’s novel about moral conflicts in colonial Vietnam, was shot more than two years ago. It was on the verge of opening when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks caused its studio, Miramax, to worry about whether audiences would respond to a movie that questions whether the United States belonged in Vietnam. So the movie was postponed a couple of times, then finally slotted to open this year, in the movie dumping ground of January.

“I knew it was going to arrive without having any chance at awards or getting any attention, and I thought the film was better than that,” says Caine, by phone from New York. “So I talked to Harvey Weinstein (head honcho of Miramax). He was worried our film would come off as anti-American, so I said, ‘Look, give us a shot. Put us in a festival and see what happens.'”

Weinstein agreed, entering “Quiet” in last year’s Toronto Film Festival, where it received rave reviews, none of which mentioned Sept. 11.

As a result, the movie opened late last year, in time to be considered for awards. In fact, more than “considered,” Philip Noyce won the best director award from the National Board of Review, and Caine was nominated for a Golden Globe and is a virtual lock for an Oscar nomination next week.

Caine, who says, “I’m the most pro-American foreigner I’ve ever met. I’m almost an honorary American,” wasn’t surprised. “It’s been nice to see other people liked the movie as much as I did. I just love the way the spy story is woven into a love story, which is woven into this political thriller.”

Caine plays Fowler, a British journalist in Vietnam in the 1950s. An observer who doesn’t get involved in colonial politics there, he has nevertheless fallen in love with a very young Vietnamese woman, a situation that grows complicated when an American doctor (Brendan Fraser) also takes to her, and when all three of them become enmeshed in a spy vs. spy situation.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the East. I had been a soldier with a British division in Korea at the same time, along with the American Marines, and I was quite shocked that the British didn’t enter into Vietnam along with the Americans,” says Caine. “But, later, when I read Greene’s book, I realized why. He had been in military intelligence, you know, and it’s almost as if the British rang him up and said, ‘Should we go in?’ and he’d have said, as we know from this book, ‘No. At all costs, stay the hell out.'”

Both the book and the movie have much to do with whether it’s possible to ignore an amoral situation or whether, by doing that, you are helping to promote the amorality. Fowler thinks of his life in Vietnam as a long, paid vacation in a heavenly paradise, but it becomes increasingly clear that heaven and hell are changing places.

“It’s semi-autobiographical,” says Caine, who sounds more like the chatty, bemused fellow he played in “California Suite” than the empty fool he plays in “The Quiet American.”

“Greene was a war correspondent. He did have a beautiful young mistress, and he did lose her to another man. And Greene himself used to say that he just reported the war, he didn’t have an opinion. But, of course, he ended up completely changing his view.”

There’s a line in the movie that beautifully sums up Fowler’s attempts to avoid getting close to trouble. His girlfriend, who would like to return to London with him, asks if he likes London and he replies, “I do, but I like it right where it is.”

“That was Greene’s thing in so many stories,” says Caine, who played a similar role in the Greene-based “Beyond the Limit.” “It’s the decadent Englishman in some foreign place, trying not get involved locally and, of course, becoming completely involved in every way.”

Sort of like Caine’s complete involvement in the marketing and distribution of “The Quiet American”?

“Maybe. I did feel like I had something specific to add to this project,” says Caine. “I felt like I understood Fowler. My own view of this type of man is that they are rather sad. They can’t relate to women of their own maturity, and they’re destined for very lonely lives, as a result. I saw so many of them when I visited Saigon for the movie. In a way, you could look at him as a kind of villain, but, mostly, he struck me as very sad, and that’s the way I played him.”

Sad, maybe, but also canny, a word that applies to Caine, as well. Because a movie he thinks is terrific is finally seeing the light of day and because he figured out a way to use his leverage, Miramax wanted him for another film, but he wouldn’t sign on until they promised to release “Quiet,” to make sure audiences get a chance to see if they agree.