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The Ugly American
USA 1963
Directed by George Englund
Running time 115 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars


Loosely based on the novel by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer with a script by Stewart Stern, The Ugly American is set in 1960 in a fictional Southeast Asian country that looks like Thailand but recalls Vietnam with its monarchy and an unstable infant democracy that's supported by American aid and arms in order to stem Communist influence.
 
Harrison Carter MacWhite (Marlon Brando) is appointed the new US Ambassador to the strife-torn country in which he had been a POW in WW2. MacWhite's friend from those days, Deong (Eiji Okada, who starred in Hiroshima, Mon Amour 1959), is now a high-profile political activist who wants the Yankees to go home and is suspected by many in Washington of being a Red. Although initially happily reunited they quickly fall out (in fact on their first meeting) due to their now-divergent roles and MacWhite's arrogance pushes Deong into a disastrous alliance with the Communists.

Although a minor entry on Brando’s C.V, and weighed down by unremarkable direction (the opening stunt is almost enough to bury the film) and generally suffering from the technically-dated look that characterises films of the time, particularly those set in foreign locations, The Ugly American is of interest as a remarkably accurate critique of American foreign policy. With its broad message about the betrayal of America's own constitutional values, born out of a desire for independence,  of political expediency and unreflective adherence to a militaristic ideology one might be dismayed that the American executive system has learnt so little since then but as the last scene of the film with its succinct indictment of grassroots self0interest complacency indicates, this would be a naïve thought.

Whilst apparently it toned down the criticism of American foreign policy found in Burdick's novel The Ugly American was presumably nevertheless a relatively provocative movie for its day (the disaster that was Vietnam was but a rumble on the horizon) and one which deserves to be better recognized for that.

FYI: Kukrit Pramoj, who plays the premier of Sarkhan and served as the film's technical consultant, later went on to become Thailand's real-life premier.

DVD Extras: Original theatrical trailer.

Available from: Umbrella Entertainment

 

 

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