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Using The Quiet American in the Classroom

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A relatively painless way to encourage students to embrace a new and unfamiliar viewpoint is via film and fiction. In Asian-related courses this task is made easy by the ready availability of high quality engaging fiction, autobiography, and film offering sympathetic portrayals of Asian characters. Many of us have encouraged our students to make important leaps to new and unfamiliar points of view by using materials on China like Ha Jin’s Waiting, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, and Zhang Yimou’s To Live. A variation on this technique is to present two stories that contradict each other as a way to encourage student discussion, analysis, and further investigation. A set I’ve used in the past for this purpose includes the heroic World War II film from the Philippine theatre Back to Bataan followed by Ichikawa Kon’s heartrending depiction of the same theatre in Fires on the Plain. These two views portray essentially the same battle, but through drastically different evaluative lenses, and the effect, particularly on those inclined to fall for John Wayne heroics in the American film, can be dramatic.

The American war with Vietnam was a fulcrum for cultural change in the 1960s and 70s, a time when America was challenging and reinventing its understanding of itself. Debates about this war continue to this day and no consensus on its significance has been reached. To some, the noble American effort to fight Communist aggression was undermined by a vacillating or disloyal press corps. To others it was an arrogant attempt to reshape Vietnam according to American interests, thinly veiled by talk of democracy and nation building. This level of controversy offers fertile ground for discussion.


Greene, Graham. The Quiet American: Text and Criticism, edited by John Clark Pratt. New York: Penguin Books, The Viking Critical Library, 1996.

Russo, William. A Thinker’s Damn: Audie Murphy, Vietnam, and the Making of The Quiet American. Philadelphia: Xlibris Corporation, 2001.