In Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American, the attempts of the idealistic Alden Pyle to clandestinely influence the course of the First Indochina War are viewed with increasing horror by the book’s main character, the cynical, older English journalist, Thomas Fowler. Like Fowler, Graham Greene spent time in Saigon in the early fifties reporting on the war and was similarly disturbed by US involvement in the region. The inspiration for the Pyle character is often attributed to CIA operative Edward Lansdale. However, while Lansdale’s activities in Vietnam closely parallel Pyle’s, they mostly occurred after the publication of the novel.
Whatever the inspiration for the character, it’s clear that Lansdale himself believed he was the model for Pyle. Although they never met, Greene and Lansdale knew of each other in Vietnam and seem to have developed a strong personal antipathy.
When Joseph Mankiewicz wrote the screenplay for and directed the 1958 film adaptation, he sought out Lansdale’s help to ensure plausibility. Lansdale wanted to turn it into a piece of Cold War propaganda and Mankiewicz was angered by the anti-American sentiments of the novel. The result, starring one of America’s greatest World War II heroes, Audie Murphy as Pyle, enraged Greene who wrote:
The most extreme changes I have seen in any book of mine were in The Quiet American; one could almost believe that the film was made deliberately to attack the book and the author.
Lansdale assure Ngo Dinh Diem, the US backed president of South Vietnam, that the film would “help win more friends for you and Vietnam in many places in the world where it is shown.”
Edward Lansdale was the obvious inspiration for the character Edwin Hillendale in another novel critical of US involvement in Southeast Asia, The Ugly American, which was made into a film starring Marlon Brando. Lansdale also figured in Oliver Stone’s film JFK which alleged that he was involved in Kennedy’s assassination and was present in Dealey Plaza on the day he was shot.
Audie Murphy was the most decorated US soldier of World War II. In two years of service he is credited with killing 240 enemy soldiers. He earned every US military honour including the Silver Star twice in three days. On on occasion, he single-handedly held off Germans approaching from three sides for over an hour, eventually forcing them to withdraw. He was twenty-one when the war ended.
He later had a successful acting career appearing in 44 films. His heroics during the war were the subject of the film, To Hell and Back, in which he played himself (this scenario will sound familiar to anyone who has seen Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds; the character Fredrick Zoller was intended as a German Audie Murphy).
One hour after Kennedy’s assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested in a Texas Theatre. He was watching the Korean War film, War is Hell, narrated by Audie Murphy.