BR: Ugly American, The (1963)

August 23, 2019 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  Mill Creek

Region: A

Released:  August 13, 2019

Genre:  Drama / Political Drama

Synopsis: An inexperienced war vet makes a mess of a fragile political situation when he’s anointed U.S. Ambassador to the Asian kingdom of Sarkhan.

Special Features:  Theatrical Trailer.




After a largely successful series of films in the second half of the 1950s, Marlon Brando’s push into the 1960s seemed a little cursed, starting with his lone directorial effort, the weird but compelling western One-Eyed Jacks (1960), and the bloated Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), which fails in large part because of changes to the story and historical facts, and Brando’s inconsistent portrayal of Fletcher Christian.

Choosing the lead role in The Ugly American (1963) seemed like a worthy venture, given its highly critical view of the American diplomatic core in Asia, and the U.S. government’s sometimes unholy alliances with dictators to keep communist insurgents and leftist governments out of power. Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s 1958 novel was a best-seller and reportedly caused a revision of an ambassador’s role in foreign lands, mandating greater respect of cultures, the use of tact, of careful language, sublime patience, and seeking common ground to bridge gaps and maintain strong ties between nations. While the screenplay by Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause, Rachel, Rachel, the mini-series Sybil) drifts from the novel’s episodic structure, the novelists reportedly found the film was generally faithful to the spirit of the book’s tone, and the authors’ goal of waking up indifferent, lazy politicians.

The allusions to Vietnam aren’t subtle, but the fictional land of Sarkhan isn’t a former colonial power but a monarchy struggling to grasp the real intentions of the U.S., fearing plans for a new highway will not lead to national economic gains but aggravate communist aggressors in the north, and enable the U.S. military to roll in tanks and reduce the Sarkhanese king to a puppet regime.

Upon its release, TUA received mixed reviews with Brando either being pegged as great, or a little shrill, the latter due the film’s first hour being meticulously devoted to a series of arguments: after a crisis erupts in Sarkhan, the U.S. Ambassador is recalled and his replacement, Harrison MacWhite (Brando) is sent to Washington where he’s grilled by congressmen on his own politics, relationship with former rebel Deong (Eiji Okada), and grasp of the culture. It’s a slow and perhaps ponderous sequence, but it’s characteristic of the filmmakers’ deliberate attempt to show the progression of circumstances as they evolve or devolve into disasters.

The Congressional hearing demonstrates the animosity percolating within hawkish, anti-communist senators, as well as MacWhite’s comportment as a polished but overconfident character who can’t grasp the subtext or greater implications of attitude, actions, and policy.

When he arrives in Sarkhan, his Cadillac is surrounded by protestors armed with battering rams, and as MacWhite later tells Deong, his wife Marion (Sandra Church) almost had her face mashed in. The couple’s arrival is terrifying because the mob has been primed for outrage, and the construction of the new highway, Freedom Road, resulted in the death of a local worker.

The airport ambush is one of a handful of scenes shot in Thailand which give the drama a documentary veneer, not to mention the less extreme 1.85:1 widescreen cinematography, and grainy film (or print) stock which ensures TUA is no exotic travelogue with intermittent mini-conflicts. (Note: the print source isn’t sub-standard, but the soft details and restrained colour palette perhaps indicate Universal-International may have opted for striking prints from less vibrant and perhaps cheap dupe negatives, or perhaps Mill Creek’s transfer comes from an older source.)

MacWhite’s first act is to assemble the embassy’s staff and demand an investigation of how the protests turned violent, and the sketchy details of the local worker’s death. Any smirking, lackadaisical staffers are quickly chastised, and in a later scene, one is sacked for being obnoxious during a bungled attempted to safeguard the Prime Minister’s re-launch of the highway and its re-direction northward into insurgent territory.

It takes nearly an hour before the political divide between Deong and MacWhite materializes, after which the script choreographs the disastrous consequences of MacWhite’s ignorance and bad decisions, and Deong’s decision to fight with weapons and expertise from ‘advising’ Soviets and the Chinese. The former friends mistakenly believe the eventual outcome of the country’s troubles will not result in permanent meddling from rival superpowers: MacWhite promises the 7th fleet will back up the Sarkhan monarchy if the highway ignites a communist retaliation, but fails to understand the impact of American boots on Sarkhanese soil; and Deong takes weapons under the guarantee his Chinese and Soviet suppliers won’t touch domestic affairs and alliances.

When Deong has his meeting with the Prime Minister for a supposed power swap, the kingdom as a whole are characterized as dictatorial when a door is slid open, and in an otherwise elegant room sits a bloodied Chinese operative and his torturers. Deong quickly realizes he’s been played by his advisors, but this humiliating moment relates back to Deon’s chastising MacWhite and the U.S. for their ongoing decision to support dictators and puppet regimes just to keep communists out of power.

As a drama for 1963 audiences, the film shares a similar degree of cynicism as John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Both films close with characters caught in cyclical futility: MacWhite’s televised speech to the media is shut off  by an unseen but bored U.S. citizen; and in Manchurian, Bennett Marco’s quasi-eulogy of assassin Raymond Shaw is read aloud with palpable disgust. Both films deal with secretive manipulation to force a specific destiny, but where Manchurian is still a thriller with a kinetic action scene, TUA spends half of its running time tracing MacWhite’s increasingly bad decisions which result in bad policies and bring Sarkhan to near civil war; 1963 and present day audiences, as well as the character of MacWhite are denied closure via the most cynical maneuver: being turned off by an apathetic couch potato.

The cynicism and satirical tone crystallize in that finale because MacWhite’s words are so pedantic that their dullness would make anyone change the channel, or hit the mute button and take an extended pee break.

Brando’s performance is as variable as the film – sometimes brilliantly intense, other times steady and just slightly engaging – but in fixating exclusively on the relationship between the two WWII colleagues, secondary roles have little room to add depth to the drama.

MacWhite’s wife Marion (Sandra Church) is devoted, wry, and a little provocative, but her scenes are restricted to the bedroom and the children’s hospital run by Homer (Hingle) and Emma Atkins (Jocelyn Brando). When the hospital is threatened by Deong’s more militant supporters, the Americans join hands with their Sarkhanese colleagues in protest, but rather than suffer the rage of the militants, the mob just drive on.

Veteran character actor Hingle is always fine in any role, but the best performance actually comes from Kukrit Pramoj, a Thai publisher, writer, and professor who made his only film appearance as the Sarkhanese Prime Minister. It’s a marvelous natural performance offering the right balance of cynicism and pragmatism, and it’s ironic that Pramoj would become Speaker of the House of Representatives of Thailand, and later Prime Minister.

Not unlike the opening firefight in Manchurian, TUA opens with an act of sabotage that’s especially disturbing because a performer was nearly killed. The fracas that sends the first U.S. Ambassador packing stems from the murder and setup of a truck crash meant to show American disregard for poorly paid Sarkhanese workers. Believing the highway will be used to send U.S. troops into the country, the murdered driver’s doused with booze, the truck veers down a road, launches itself from a cliff and almost scrapes a stunt performer with its deadly undercarriage.

Mill Creek’s release may lack any contextual extras, but one can argue the film stands on its own as a prescient, sharply critical drama of American foreign policy in which support was given to despotic regimes to keep any grain of communism out of country and Asia as a whole. The Soviets were neither saints in their own meddling, and MacWhite’s efforts to clean up a disaster, institute a rigid discipline, and his poor grasp of foreign culture and sovereign powers have unusual resonance in a Trumpian era. MacWhite thinks his lack of diplomatic experience is refreshing, but it’s only in the end that he seems to understand the near-disastrous consequences of his ignorance.


U.S. poster for THE UGLY AMERICAN (1963).


Italian poster for THE UGLY AMERICAN (1963) with a better-tempered rendition of Marlon Brando character and some generic angry dude in the background.


In his first feature film, former producer director George Englund (The Eddie Fisher Show, The World, the Flesh and the Devil) handles the material with a decent straightforwardness, but his directorial career yielded just three more films – Signpost to Murder (1964), cult film Zachariash (1971), and Snow Job (1972) – plus a quartet of TV movies. His remaining feature film productions include the grisly robbery thriller Dark of the Sun (1968) and the deadly dull drama The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968).

Marlon Brando’s remaining early sixties projects were very uneven, starting with the unfunny Bedtime Story (1964), the grim WWII drama Morituri (1965), the bloated all-star vehicle The Chase (1966), and the meandering arty western The Appaloosa (1966).

In his American film debut, Japan’s Eiji Okada’s performance lacks full gravitas, perhaps because extra concentration was spent either learning his dialogue phonetically or speaking in careful measured beats; his work in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959) is more concentrated, but after a few wobbly scenes Okada found his groove to portray Deong.

The film’s supporting cast is uniformly strong, including Brando’s sister Jocelyn (The Big Heat), Arthur Hill (The Chairman, The Andromeda Strain) as a diplomatic operative, and I swear standing among the grim-faced diplomatic corps is Bruce Dern, wearing a stiff suit and slight gray on the temples. (The actor also appeared unbilled in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie a year later, as well as Robert Aldrich’s gothic chiller Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.)



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





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