Ugly American, The (1963)

Ugly American, The (1963)

“You always make dictators strong, then wonder why you are not loved!”

An American ambassador (Marlon Brando) in the troubled southeast Asian nation of Sarkhan is surprised to learn that his former war buddy (Eiji Okada) is now a Communist, though Okada professes he is simply longing for national self-determination on behalf of his people.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cold War
  • Marlon Brando Films
  • Pat Hingle Films
  • Political Corruption

This unusual entry in Marlon Brando’s oeuvre — directed by his friend George Englund — is loosely based on a 1958 political novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, about “the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia.” Indeed, the fictional country where this film takes place (shot largely in Thailand) is a thinly veiled depiction of Vietnam, and the tale aptly showcases the complexity of politics in such a nation, which is far from as black-and-white (i.e., Communism vs. Democracy) as Ambassador MacWhite (Brando) naively believes. Some of the initial sequences are quite effectively done — as when an American foreman overseeing construction of “Freedom Road” is murdered while giving a patronizing lesson to a local about the difference between a wrench and a “lench”:

… and the scene when Brando’s arriving car at the airport is seriously mobbed by a crowd of violent anti-American agitators.

Brando’s friendly reunion with an old war buddy (Okada) is less convincing, and quickly turns melodramatically sour, as we get to the gist of the narrative: Brando becomes convinced Okada has “turned Commie”, while Okada tries to explain that the construction of Freedom Road simply represents additional power for the prime minister, Kwen Sai (Kukrit Pramoj), courtesy of “the tanks that Wall Street sells.”

Meanwhile, we see do-gooding Americans like Pat Hingle’s Homer Atkins and his wife Emma (Jocelyn Brando) attempting to bring Western medical practices to the poverty-ridden nation:

… and Brando’s loyal wife (Sandra Church) ready and willing to provide him whatever support he needs.

DVD Savant describes this Universal Studios-produced film as “a noble stab at reality”, and that just about sums it up. It’s not must-see viewing but will likely be of interest to Brando fans.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Marlon Brando as Ambassador MacWhite
  • The impressively filmed riot sequence

Must See?
No, though Brando fans will likely want to check it out.


One thought on “Ugly American, The (1963)

  1. First viewing (6/12/22). A once-must for its subject matter.

    This is a film which deserves more attention among ffs. It’s an illustrative example of how larger nations move in on smaller ones for ideological or financial gain. It has a somewhat complex script made accessible in its main points. It seems to me a brave move to produce this kind of film in mainstream cinema.

    My understanding is that the original novel is better (not an uncommon reality, of course) and even more complex, which suggests that the film is too watered-down. Even so, the film makes a strong-enough stand to make it worth a look and raise audience awareness of these kinds of dynamics (and maybe lead viewers to the source material).

    Brando has one of his more interesting roles as a man who finds out too late that his pride and ego steered him wrong.

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