The Ugly American (1963)

The Ugly American
Directed by George Englund
Written by Stewart Stern from a novel by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick
Universal International Pictures
First viewing/Netflix rental


“The bureaucrat has become a self-styled sacred person; and the common man is blocked from finding out what the bureaucrats are doing, let alone controlling them.” ― William J. Lederer, A Nation of Sheep

Good, frustrating film about how clueless diplomats can be.

Anyone with a name like Harrison Carter MacWhite would seem to be born to be an Ambassador.  As the film begins, MacWhite is being questioned during Senate confirmation hearings as Ambassador to Sarkan, a fictitious Southeast Asian nation that clearly is a stand-in for Vietnam.  He is proud of his friendship with Deong, whom he met when both were resistance fighters during the Japanese occupation of that country. Deong went on to become a revered figure in the country’s battle for independence.  Those opposed to MacWhite’s nomination believe Deong is now a Communist.  At any rate, MacWhite is confirmed and travels to the country.

He is greeted at the airport by an anti-American demonstration that disintegrates into a riot in which the Ambassador’s car is attacked.  When MacWhite arrives at the Embassy he gives the entire staff a dressing down and lets them know that anyone who does not toe his mark will be on the first plane out.  Obviously, he is not about to listen to what any of them has to say.

That evening, he goes to meet with his old buddy Deong who admits to having organized the demonstration but having no idea how it went out of control.  As the conversation continues, Deong and MacWhite practically come to blowsover Deong’s belief that American imperialism, “war-mongering” and support for the dictatorial Prime Minister are destroying his country and that the Americans must go.  MacWhite concludes that Deong is in fact a Communist.

Against the advise of every single person that has been in country longer than he, MacWhite believes the solution to the problem is to expand the American-constructed “Freedom Road” that Deong opposes.  How many people must be killed before he learns the error of his ways?  With Pat Hingle as the altruistic American in charge of construction of the Road.

I thought this got the dynamic of some Embassies pretty darned right, unfortunately. Brando is perfect cast against type as a man who is often wrong but never in doubt.  I liked the film a lot and would recommend it to anyone drawn to the story line.

Trailer – the color on the DVD is much better

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