Friday, 15 July 2011

The Ugly American - Marlon Brando's Thai Allegory

Brando's relationship with women wasn't the most beautiful of stories, but other than that he was a rare breed of beautiful American. Beautiful physically and beautiful of heart. I accidently completed his biography just days before he died, yet it is only with this movie that I start to pick up on what really separated Brando from his contemporaries.

The Ugly American is easily a 10 000 word essay begging for a PhD thesis. It's themes and characters are so much the leitmotifs of imperial history that I'm not sure I can do it justice here. Right from the opening credits it's brutally obvious that it's ALL about Thailand, Indochina and the Ugly American way of spreading like a post war global virus of capitalism through the healthy bodies of indigenous peoples not yet acquainted with the way of greed is good, greedier is better, greediest is best.

Let's dispense with the cliches. The Ugly American adumbrates Asian stereotypes with Hollywood naffness as good as The Wonderful World of Suzy Wong and Bridge Over The River Kwai. It's sprinkled with 'fucky sucky' dialogue and cultural faux pas like Brando wai-ing a child. Yet it overcomes these time and again. It's as contemporary and fresh as a post Fallujah Pentagonal rape still dripping with non menstruated blood.

This could just as easily be about the Romans or the Visigoths. I'm unclear how the script ever slipped through the Hollywood propaganda massage machine in such a raw form and with such prescient quality. Whoever wrote it knew the ritual bloodbath of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was around the corner or was acquainted with the roll out of history's relationship with power.

Put simply I've no idea how an anti-imperial film was made during the era of quintessential crew cut, patriarchal and military global killing spree that was post war United States long before Iraq or El Salvador or Panama or Libya or or or, it just goes on and fucking on doesn't it?

Unusually and somewhat sophisticatedly the movie opens on Brando's senate committee hearing approval for ambassador of a thinly disguised Thailand. Most American's can't point towards Karachi on a map and so this opening scene is a closer look at the political machinations of a process where initially Brando is portrayed as being too intimate with a local hero to perform. The message is there are plenty of better psychopaths out there willing to administrate slaughter with telephone calls and U.S. Embassy rubber stamps.

Because of the opposition to Brando we're pitched emotionally into rooting for the protagonist  complete with early warning signs of hairline mustache and pipe smoking truculence. Brando is every bit the polished and seasoned typical U.S. ambassador psychopath confident of his ability to know what's good for others.

And yet Brando is too young and too good looking and too close to revolutionary figures to sail through the hearing. Somehow he does and is quickly whizzing past a dangerous protest crowd at Don Muang airport protesting the latest real estate encroachment of U.S. hegemony before heading on to a welcome reception with none other than the King of Thailand.

Despite much of the cookie cutter dialogue that comes with the role, Brando delivers time and again by transforming the implausible into an alchemical inevitable . What makes Brando stand out for me here is his ability to squeeze some normality into the artifice of late 50's early 60's Hollywood production.

Punctuating this turmoil and fromage fondue stereotypes is a performance of greater importance than  Yul Brynner in The King and I.  Kukrit Pramoj playing the Prime Minister of Thailand above went on to be the real P.M. but delivers here possibly the finest Asian performance in English I've ever seen. It's witty, intelligent, temporally accurate and delivered with conviction and authenticity. Not only was Kukrit Pramoj dealing behind the scenes to protect Thailand but it seems he was writing the script and acting out the scenes in movies too. I urge you to steal this movie from the internet just for this confrontation. I don't have much sympathy for the ultra Royalist privy councillors or indeed the Internationalists these days but Kukrit Pramoj is outstanding here. Unless I'm mistaken his homosexuality too might explain this fascinating General who evidently could deliver with aplomb as a politician, soldier and thespian too. Remarkable.

Towards the end of the movie we're positioned betwixt a repentant Brando and stoical Siamese people's leader with Brando seeking reconciliation with quintessential 20th century lines such as 'maybe we paid too much attention to the headlines'.

It's a damming indictment of corporately controlled profit driven media's crusade against an ecologically kinder wealth creation model other than capitalism. The movie ends with Brando cornered by a hostile U.S press only ever seen in movies yet never in real life. Brando's humiliated and defeated face is beamed into U.S. TV screens with a message that is as fresh today as it was then. The caution is against indifference. I'd add ignorance to that charge leveled by Brando with most Americans completely oblivious of who pays for how fast that food is delivered.

This is how the beautiful American tried to warn the U.S.

By playing an ugly American.