The Ugly American
|The Ugly American|
original movie poster
|Directed by||George Englund|
|Produced by||George Englund|
|Written by||Stewart Stern|
|Editing by||Ted J. Kent|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Running time||115 minute|
|Box office||est. $3,500,000 (US/ Canada)|
The Ugly American is a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer upon which a 1963 movie starring Marlon Brando was based. The novel became a bestseller, was influential at the time, and is still in print. The book is a quasi-roman à clef; that is, it presents, in a fictionalized guise, the experience of Americans in Southeast Asia (Vietnam) and allegedly portrays several real people who are represented by pseudonyms.
The novel takes place in a fictional nation called Sarkhan (an imaginary country in Southeast Asia that somewhat resembles Burma or Thailand, but which is meant to allude to Vietnam) and includes several real people, most of whose names have been changed. The book describes the United States's losing struggle against Communism—what was later to be called the battle for hearts and minds in Southeast Asia—because of innate arrogance and the failure to understand the local culture. The title is actually a double entendre, referring both to the physically unattractive hero, Homer Atkins, and to the ugly behavior of the American government employees.
In the novel, a Burmese journalist says "For some reason, the [American] people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They're loud and ostentatious."
The "ugly American" of the book title fundamentally refers to the plain-looking engineer Atkins, who lives with the local people, who comes to understand their needs, and who offers genuinely useful assistance with small-scale projects such as the development of a simple bicycle-powered water pump. It is argued in the book that the Communists are successful because they practice tactics similar to those of Atkins.
According to an article published in Newsweek in May 1959, the "real" "Ugly American" was identified as an International Cooperation Agency technician named Otto Hunerwadel, who, with his wife Helen, served in Burma from 1949 until his death in 1952. They lived in the villages, where they taught farming techniques and helped start home canning industries.
After the book had gained wide readership, the term "Ugly American" came to be used to refer to the "loud and ostentatious" type of visitor in another country, rather than the "plain looking folks, who are not afraid to 'get their hands dirty' like Homer Atkins" to whom the book itself referred.
According to British documentary film maker Adam Curtis, "John Kennedy was gripped by The Ugly American. In 1960 he and five other opinion leaders bought a large advertisement in the New York Times saying that they had sent copies of the novel to every US senator because its message was so important."
The story of this novel was made into a film in 1963 starring Marlon Brando as Ambassador Harrison Carter MacWhite. Its screenplay was written by Stewart Stern, and the film was produced and directed by George Englund. The film was shot mainly in Hollywood, with Thailand serving as the inspiration for the background sceneries. Parts of the film were also shot on locations in Bangkok, Thailand, including at Chulalongkorn University, one of the leading institutes of higher learning of the country. Upon release, the film garnered generally positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 80% of critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 6.1/10.
Kukrit Pramoj, a Thai politician and scholar, was hired as a cultural expert/advisor to the film and later played the role of Sarkhan's Prime Minister "Kwen Sai". Later on, in 1975, he really did become the 13th Prime Minister of Thailand. Probably because of this, the word "Sarkhan" has entered the Thai language as a nickname of Thailand itself, often with a slight self-deprecating or mocking tone.
- Marlon Brando as Ambassador Harrison Carter MacWhite
- Eiji Okada as Deong
- Sandra Church as Marion MacWhite
- Pat Hingle as Homer Atkins
- Arthur Hill as Grainger
- Jocelyn Brando as Emma Atkins
- Mom Rajawongse Kukrit Pramoj as Prime Minister Kwen Sai
- Judson Pratt as Joe Bing
- Reiko Sato as Rachani, Deong's Wife
- George Shibata as Munsang
- Judson Laire as Senator Brenner
- Philip Ober as Ambassador Sears
- Yee Tak Yip as Sawad, Deong's Assistant
- Carl Benton Reid as Senator at Confirmation Hearing
- "Top Rental Films of 1963", Variety, 8 January 1964 p 37. Please note this figure is film rentals accruing to distributors, not gross takings.
- Clifford, Robert L.; Hunerwadel, Helen B. (1996) . "Chapter 1: Burma Beginnings and Point Four". In Arndt, Richard T.; David Lee, Rubin. The Fulbright Difference. Fulbright Association series. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. pp. 20–24. ISBN 1-56000-085-6. Retrieved 18 July 2011.
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