Two books recently made into movies set forth nearly opposite views of the world. Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American should be titled The Decadent Brit since the dominant character is a debauched British journalist named Fowler. He reports from Vietnam in the dying days of French occupation, just as a few American agents are infiltrating the country—among them Pyle, the shadowy "quiet American" in whose murder the Brit conspires.
Fowler takes a Vietnamese mistress and spends his evenings puffing on an opium pipe. He has a cynical view of the French, the Vietnamese, the Americans, and especially himself. As he put it, "I envied those who could believe in a God, and I distrusted them. I felt they were keeping their courage up with a fable of the changeless and the permanent. Death was far more certain than God."
The second book was To End All Wars, the autobiographical account by Ernest Gordon, a British Army officer captured by the Japanese during World War II and assigned to the building of the Burma-Siam railway. Each day Gordon joined a work detail of prisoners to build a track bed through low-lying swampland. If a prisoner appeared to lag, a Japanese guard would beat him to death or decapitate him. Many more men simply dropped dead from exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease. Ultimately, 80,000 prisoners died.
Gordon could feel himself gradually wasting away from a combination of beriberi, worms, malaria, dysentery, typhoid, and diphtheria. Paralyzed and unable to eat, he asked to be laid in the Death House. Gordon's friends, however, had other plans. They carried his shriveled body on a stretcher from that contaminated place to a new bed of split bamboo.
Something was astir in the prison camp, something that Gordon ...