Further Reading: Inauguration Special with The Ugly American

Kim looks at George Englund's politically-charged adaptation from 1963.

by | January 27, 2009 | Comments

Further Reading by Kim Newman

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 Ugly American

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).

The Ugly American

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.

Further Reading by Kim Newman

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.

The Ugly American

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.’

The Ugly American

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.

Tag Cloud

FOX new york Schedule Bravo series cars binge 2018 CW Seed Classic Film Sundance IFC posters target Best Actor Summer Calendar feel good spanish docuseries Animation halloween tv spain mob blaxploitation The Arrangement critic resources LGBTQ SXSW 2022 TCA 2017 dragons fast and furious Apple 20th Century Fox fresh Esquire Infographic biopic HBO Go OneApp CNN Comics on TV IFC Films streamig Black History Month psychological thriller Christmas free movies Awards hollywood Sony Pictures sag awards genre marvel cinematic universe TLC historical drama comic YouTube Prime Video book adaptation mcc screen actors guild Fantasy Disney Plus TCA Winter 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival spinoff Reality Competition NBA best Reality YA New York Comic Con Rock Tarantino Holidays Super Bowl Elton John blockbuster RT21 mission: impossible Sundance TV obituary comiccon teaser Song of Ice and Fire BET Awards Rocketman toy story 2015 crime drama tv talk Mystery TCM FXX joker animated hispanic heritage month Countdown Red Carpet Lifetime Christmas movies Quiz Lifetime 72 Emmy Awards History Film Festival scary die hard OWN Netflix Christmas movies lord of the rings sequel christmas movies diversity marvel comics Hallmark Christmas movies harry potter Election japanese 1990s Nominations Tumblr Hulu Hear Us Out Women's History Month remakes finale nbcuniversal Television Critics Association Chernobyl NYCC APB BBC America aliens comedies new zealand ABC based on movie Video Games Lionsgate San Diego Comic-Con 2020 PBS Horror CBS zero dark thirty HBO BBC Epix documentary laika Academy Awards adventure french japan Certified Fresh USA space First Reviews award winner asian-american National Geographic Focus Features hispanic game show thriller television singing competition science fiction south america Spring TV suspense stand-up comedy independent ESPN spanish language casting IMDb TV TV renewals facebook Rocky SXSW nfl ITV medical drama monster movies 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Biopics revenge international Cartoon Network kaiju australia Funimation Writers Guild of America Comedy Central vs. 21st Century Fox basketball Britbox Winners PlayStation green book Grammys Heroines Cosplay Discovery Channel Wes Anderson 93rd Oscars Character Guide parents Shudder Opinion MCU Watching Series debate Oscar serial killer 2016 SDCC olympics mutant Starz werewolf anime streaming Mary Tyler Moore Turner rotten movies we love HBO Max DirecTV biography Universal Pictures game of thrones YouTube Premium golden globe awards crossover children's TV USA Network Box Office Freeform streaming movies sports The Academy strong female leads rom-coms composers Paramount Plus live action political drama stop motion Superheroes Mary Poppins Returns SundanceTV action-comedy CBS All Access dreamworks Nat Geo Logo 45 saw broadcast Emmys GIFs ratings A24 Binge Guide cats Peacock Set visit doctor who kong transformers golden globes Fargo Food Network 2019 Masterpiece Valentine's Day king kong TCA Broadway Vudu Shondaland President slasher what to watch CMT canceled BET social media pirates of the caribbean rt labs critics edition theme song elevated horror unscripted Instagram Live Lucasfilm screenings romance TV One psycho vampires MSNBC Comedy live event Adult Swim black comedy Kids & Family Best and Worst wonder woman Black Mirror Interview Acorn TV Ellie Kemper Photos Cannes cancelled TIFF obi wan dramedy Musicals PaleyFest VH1 child's play The Witch BAFTA ABC Family NBC E3 reboot boxoffice Crackle Paramount Pictures kids Country cops spider-verse renewed TV shows canceled TV shows aapi dogs Trophy Talk Hollywood Foreign Press Association Action criterion summer TV preview stoner Star Trek Martial Arts Holiday Turner Classic Movies Sci-Fi The Purge Comic Book versus scorecard films GoT sopranos superhero comic books know your critic indie The Walt Disney Company Disney+ Disney Plus Polls and Games spider-man politics HFPA Best Actress movie Television Academy cancelled television MTV quibi Endgame Mary poppins comic book movie talk show 2021 Captain marvel Thanksgiving 2017 Chilling Adventures of Sabrina 24 frames Marvel razzies directors Warner Bros. Netflix Paramount WGN Creative Arts Emmys Arrowverse Amazon Prime Disney trailers Paramount Network GLAAD richard e. Grant a nightmare on elm street Brie Larson 4/20 Mindy Kaling WarnerMedia Musical Amazon Prime Video adaptation superman police drama rt labs Star Wars 71st Emmy Awards Ghostbusters Mudbound FX Western hidden camera Showtime scene in color Tomatazos news festivals Spike Pop TV telelvision DGA Hallmark A&E supernatural jurassic park dexter 94th Oscars scary movies gangster Legendary true crime Universal Marvel Television Syfy interviews Year in Review nature AMC zombies Disney Channel Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt young adult batman football See It Skip It Emmy Nominations Marvel Studios travel comic book movies hist Image Comics archives slashers james bond video on demand Disney streaming service Travel Channel discovery TV rt archives legend heist movie crime Apple TV+ VOD Fox Searchlight rotten 99% satire ghosts comics godzilla Nickelodeon ViacomCBS summer TV Extras witnail universal monsters book halloween worst TNT disaster Baby Yoda FX on Hulu robots Fall TV Best Director italian 007 Film Spectrum Originals VICE trophy Best Picture Pixar natural history Winter TV Pirates cults ABC Signature Anna Paquin breaking bad Apple TV Plus American Society of Cinematographers docudrama Drama MGM TCA Awards anthology black movies TV Land franchise summer preview BBC One TV movies El Rey Stephen King indiana jones The CW TruTV spy thriller deadpool zombie mockumentary Amazon Studios First Look twilight AMC Plus E! Family documentaries Sundance Now cooking dc venice Avengers period drama X-Men sitcom Dark Horse Comics Awards Tour The Walking Dead 79th Golden Globes Awards Marathons latino foreign Comic-Con@Home 2021 Pride Month Superheroe blockbusters Columbia Pictures Trailer Premiere Dates justice league jamie lee curtis Pet Sematary Crunchyroll Tags: Comedy Pacific Islander Oscars Neflix Alien 73rd Emmy Awards classics women Pop cinemax Exclusive Video popular Walt Disney Pictures war Amazon worst movies dark leaderboard toronto YouTube Red DC Comics crime thriller new star wars movies Trivia ID 90s video critics art house Teen LGBT DC streaming service romantic comedy Rom-Com all-time Ovation adenture name the review RT History king arthur Tokyo Olympics DC Universe chucky Fox News prank reviews Toys TBS Music cancelled TV shows Sneak Peek concert dceu cancelled TV series emmy awards Tubi royal family cartoon miniseries boxing technology festival Podcast high school sequels