“The Ugly American” (1963)

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Co-stars: Sandra Church, Eiji Okada, Pat Hingle, Judson Pratt, Arthur Hill, Jocelyn Brando

Awards: Nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama

Character: Ambassador Harrison Carter MacWhite

Well here goes: my first post in quite some time. I watched this film for the first time the evening before I embarked on my vacation, but didn’t have time to write a post that night. I re-watched it last night in order to refresh my memory, and have been struggling to find the words to describe the film since. I find myself struggling with films like these, but I’ll get into that further at a later point.

The film follows the US ambassador to the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan, Harrison Carter MacWhite (clearly a man with three last names- so confused he is that he goes by “Mac” to his friends). He is an accomplished journalist who’s only real qualification for the job is being in Sarkhan during the war and befriending a man who would become a leader of the people, Deong. He is a well mannered scholar and democratic idealist, who is shaken by the senate hearing he goes through before arriving in Sarkhan. One senator tries to claim that Deong is a communist, something which MacWhite denies, and something that isn’t true.

"What do you mean there's no 24 hour McDonald's in Sarkhan?"

When he arrives at the airport with his wife, a large scale but peaceful protest had been attempted, but a riot had broken out amongst the Sarkhanese. They had been sent there by his friend Deong, who had implored them to be quiet and peaceful. After scolding the laziness of the American diplomats at the Embassy, he heads to Deong’s house for a night of catching up and whiskey. The night starts out good, with talks of life, women, and Deong rowing a drunken Mac down his moat, as Mac pesters a turtle (wat). Of course, Deong tells Mac about his involvement in the incident earlier that day, and well, a drunken ideological argument ensues. It later turns into a drunken ideological battle, with Mac convinced that Deong is a communist (he’s not).

The focus of the film is the building of “Freedom Road”, a large highway built by the Americans to help improve infrastructure and the economy in the tiny country. However, the local Sarkhanese people don’t want it to be built, as they see it as a sign of American imperialism and a power grab in the Cold War, of which they rightfully want no part of. After Mac becomes convinced that Deong is a communist, he boldly, and stupidly, pushes the building of the highway forward, showing no regard for the calls from the people.

The country of Sarkhan and the story of The Ugly American are an obvious metaphor for Vietnam and US policy in the country at the time. It puts the blame on the ignorance and lack of understanding by the American government and the people representing it in the region, as well as the poor and boorish manners of those living there. It makes many broad and generally accurate statements about American people in foreign countries, and this caused some people to denounce the film as being anti-American (it’s not). It does however fall short at delivering its message boldly and effectively.

And not a single fuck was given that day...

This is not Brando’s best performance ever, and one of his blandest by this point in his career. Of course, it wouldn’t win him a Razzie… it’s just, average. It’s uninspired. It’s not the Brando we think of when we think of Brando. For me, there are moments of inspired clarity that remind me of the Brando we know and love. One in particular: when he comes home after a long first day at the embassy, he comes home to find his wife sleeping with her foot out of the covers. After trying to cover it, she tells him not to. He sits down on the bed as he simultaneously swings her foot onto his laps and then proceeds to massage her foot and leg. It’s intimate, it’s real, it’s nice. If you watch the film, I guarantee you will smile at the simplistic naturalism of it all.

As Brando moves through the film, he comes across as incredibly tired. It works usually within the context of the film, but it’s not really an act. His personal life was more or less a bloody disaster. He was having career troubles, island troubles, and lady troubles- incredible amounts of lady troubles. He was in and out of court with his first wife Anna Kashfi, his first wife, fighting for custody for his first son Christian. His second marriage to Movita Castenada had all but crumbled, and his divorce to her was pending. Their son together had turned into a little monster.  As well, he had taken up with Tarita Teriipia, and she was still in Tahiti, taking care of the child he had conceived with her. It should be noted that Trojan’s started being sold in 1927, Brando obviously just didn’t know how to use them, and never did figure them out, as brother had a lot of children. So many, in fact, that I like to play a little guessing game with people, called “Who had more children: Marlon Brando or Ol’ Dirty Bastard?” Try and guess, I’ll reveal it at the end.

"You play ridiculous games, sir."

This is by no means a bad movie. It’s just not a really good film either. If I were a legitimate film reviewer, I’d be giving it 2 and 1/2 or 3 stars at most, depending on if I use a 4 or 5 star rating system. It’s not torturous, but it’s not memorable. I probably couldn’t give the details of this film in a month, whereas with many of his early films, I could. It has good and bad elements. It needs to be pointed out, that to me, Brando’s characterization comes across as bizarro mash up of Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine in Inglorious Basterds, and former Canadian politician Jack Layton (RIP). This is probably because it’s a good looking Hollywood actor wearing a ridiculous mustache and playing an idealistic government worker. This mustache is absolutely hilarious too- watch it throughout the film- for it is a wonderfully subtle continuity fail. It changes thickness throughout the film, sometimes within the same day. The score of the film is also really great- carrying the majority of the emotional weight of the film. It’s really good actually. Anyways, to wrap up, I’d rate this film a chin on a fist- huh.

Answer to “Who had more children: Marlon Brando or Ol’ Dirty Bastard?”: Confirmed- Brando. He had 11. However, it is unclear just how many Ol’ Dirty Bastard had- it is thought he had up to 13. As well, some sources claim Brando fathered 13 children, but they’re most likely wrong. The numbers are confusing though, as he never discussed his family with the public, and rightfully so.

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