The Ugly American (1963)

6b1c9d11b122b63998460c5887646884Directed by George Englund

Written by Stewart Stern (based on the novel by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick)

Starring: Marlon Brando, Eiji Okada, Sandra Church, Jocelyn Brando

Tagline: The Most Explosive Adventure of Our Time!

Trivia: Kukrit Pramog who plays the fictional Prime Minister of Sarkhan in the film, actually went to serve as Prime Minister of Thailand from 1975-76.  

Companion Film: The Quiet American

Released at the height of the Cold War, The Ugly American offered a timely and prophetic critique of America’s flawed foreign policy. With the Domino Theory guiding policymakers, the theory that if one Asian country was “lost” to Communism the rest of the region would follow, Presidents Kennedy (1961-63) and Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) saw Vietnam as the pivot point of their containment strategy in Asia.

Marlon Brando stars Harrison Carter MacWhite, the newly appointed Ambassador to the fictional state of Sarkhan, an Asian country with a Pro-American (but repressive) government being ripped apart by factions that resent the Western intrusion into their culture.  A liberal academic, MacWhite believes America should champion democracy through public works projects and agricultural programs while fighting the communists, even through military means if possible.

In a further twist, MacWhite’s old friend Deong leads the resistance movement against the pro-American government. Deong resents American and Chinese influence on the internal affairs of his homeland.  A key plot point involves the building of a “Freedom Road”, a project designed to improve the infrastructure of Sarkhan.  Deong suspects the road is being built to further American strategic and economic interests in the region, in other words a Cold War ploy to thwart the Chinese.

Brando delivers a solid performance. I suspect he based his character on East Coast Establishment figures like Dean Acheson who laid the foundation of American post-war foreign policy.  Like Acheson, MacWhite is a fervent liberal who believes American intentions were benevolent in Vietnam, while making little attempt to understand the history or culture.

In that sense, The Ugly American serves as a critique and eventual vindication of liberalism. Liberals viewed the Cold War as an idealistic struggle for democracy – with Asia as the key battleground. At the same time liberals developed a complex about looking weak in the eyes of conservatives.  MacWhite cannot understand why Asians would resent the “white” cultural values being forced on them.  In time MacWhite comes to understand his own preconceptions of Asia are misguided and undergoes a change of heart.

The film argues for an America acting as a wiser, more peaceful world power, leading by example instead of force.

Despite the tagline, The Ugly American feels more like a play instead of a movie.  Excellent issues are raised and thought out by reasonable people.  The politics of the film would come to dominate the public debate in the coming decades and rip the culture apart.

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