It’s inauguration season in the United States, which always gives rise to editorial about how — no matter who is in the White House — the country keeps making the same foreign policy mistakes. Outside a few war films with explosions and martyred movie stars, this has never been a ‘sexy’ subject for Hollywood, though there has always been a trickle of ambitious, underperforming-at-the-box-office, political essay cinema. Here, we look back a generation to an era of diplomats in cutaway suits and neatly-trimmed moustaches, third-world mobs waving ‘Yankee Go Home’ placards and the beginnings of a battle for ‘hearts and minds’ that the West tends to lose because the whole concept of such a campaign sounds hideously patronising to the owners of said hearts and minds.
The Ugly American, a 1958 novel by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, sold so well that Hollywood was obliged to buy the rights and make a big-release movie out of it — though the book is as much a fictionalised essay on the failings of US foreign policy in the late Eisenhower era as it is an actual story. Several key real-world factors (eg: Castro’s takeover in Cuba) had changed by the time the film came out in 1963. The book is primarily set in the representative but fictional South East Asian country of Sarkhan, but has chapters about real places like Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia, and sets out to show how the Cold War with the communist bloc was being lost by glad-handing, insular pork barrel American diplomats with no idea about or real interest in the lives of the foreigners they are ostensibly helping, while also giving examples of smaller-scale, mostly private enterprise projects run by American altruists that have a chance of succeeding. The film simplifies things, concentrates the action in strife-torn Sarkhan where a corrupt regime is building ‘Freedom Road’ through the jungle with American aid (of course, only government officials and Americans have motor vehicles) and the opposition movement, rallying against the ‘military road’, is being infiltrated by Soviet-backed communists.
The film ramps up the book’s underlying message that communists are awfully sneaky, making its Americans well-intentioned naifs rather than greedy clods. While offering an acute analysis of trends which would lead to fiascos like Vietnam (not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan), it doesn’t acknowledge that by 1963 America was as ready as the reds to get hands dirty — whether by backing counter-revolutionaries or bluntly sending in the troops to oppose revolutionary movements like the one headed in the film by Sarkhanese liberation hero Deong (Eiji Okada).
Directed lumpily by George Englund — producer of oddities like The World, the Flesh and the Devil and Terrorist on Trial and director also of the ‘acid Western’ Zachariah — The Ugly American has a lot of solid, interesting content, but is dramatically lopsided. A few sequences, mostly those shot in Thailand, are remarkable: an opening coup as communists murder an American engineer working on the Freedom Road project, then make it seem as if he has drunkenly driven a heavy lorry over an incline and ploughed into a local workman who becomes a martyr; a mass demonstration at the airport which gets out of hand as an angry mob besieges and batters a car containing the new US ambassador Harrison MacWhite (Marlon Brando) and his wife (Sandra Church) as he arrives in the country (something similar happened to Vice President Nixon in South America). However, these are outweighed by long scenes in which people talk exaggeratedly at each other — at the end of one exchange between former wartime friends Deong and MacWhite, the Ambassador regrets that they have both turned into ‘political cartoons’ spouting slogans at each other. This moment of clarity that doesn’t excuse the fact that two world-class actors have just been absolutely terrible in an exchange of unspeakable lines.
The ugly American of the novel is an honest, homely engineer, here a minor figure (Pat Hingle, Commissioner Gordon in the Burton-Schumacher Batman films) who runs a rural clinic with his wife (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s sister). In an unlikely scene, villagers form a human chain around the clinic to protect the couple from the murderous communists who have infiltrated and commandeered Deong’s revolution. Of course, the term ‘ugly American’ has come to be identified with an ugliness of attitude rather than person, exemplified by jovial, know-nothing dolt Joe Bing (Judson Pratt) who replaces MacWilliams as Ambassador after the ‘failure’ of his mission. Kukrit Pramoj, later the actual Prime Minister of Thailand, plays the Prime Minister of Sarkhan, a pro-American with his hand out who comes on like the unpopular tinpots successive US regimes have supported in all corners of the globe.
A key theme of the book is that Soviet diplomats and agitators have a major advantage because they all learn the local language, while Anglophone Americans abroad live in wealthy enclaves and hire servants — this, of course, is dropped in a movie which requires almost everyone to talk English all the time. Okuda, a hot name after Hiroshima, Mon Amour, is crippled by having to perform in an uncongenial tongue, though Brando — in a role which might contextualise his reading of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now — see-saws between toffee-nosed twittery and powerhouse speech-making.
It ends with another cartoonish moment, which is admittedly effective — cutting away to a bland, affluent American living room as MacWhite delivers an impassioned speech about why America is losing the war of ideas and a bored representative Yank switching the television off. Made before the Kennedy assassination (prefigured by a climax in which Deong’s supposed best disciple murders him so the communists can completely co-opt his nationalist movement) and US escalation in Vietnam (the Sarkhanese PM cannily ensnares MacWilliams into committing the US fleet lying off his country), this is for all its awkwardnesses a brave film. A few years later, it would have been impossible to make: in 1965, Lederer and Burdick published a sequel, Sarkhan, in which the country slides further into a Vietnam-like war; Lederer reports Hollywood bidding for the rights ‘stopped abruptly when Washington hinted that if this novel were made into a motion picture, the industry might find it difficult to obtain export licenses.’
Of course, such measures weren’t necessary — like the modern audiences who preferred to see Transformers or Iron Man over In the Valley of Elah or Charlie Wilson’s War, 1963 crowds followed that middle-American TV viewer by not making The Ugly American a hit. Even if it had outgrossed The Great Escape or Move Over, Darling, it probably wouldn’t have influenced Washington or affected the outcome of the Vietnam War — but the movie still earns a few plaudits for seeing the way the wind was blowing.