In the nation of Sarkan, there has been a scheme implemented to build a long road known as the Freedom Road through its jungles to open it up to trade and the wider world, but not everyone is happy about this state of affairs. The local Communists regard this so-called progress as another example of Imperialist influence over their country, and are determined to sabotage it and send the Americans, who have backed the construction, packing. To set this off, they stage an accident that is apparently down to a drunken American driver on the site that kills one of the locals, but while the Sarkan population sees this as proof the visitors are not on their side, others know better...
The Ugly American was based on the political novel of the same name by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, though inevitably it was watered down so much in transition from page to screen that the book's fans were most aggrieved by what Hollywood had done to the savvy points raised by the authors. Besides, it was released almost immediately before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the Vietnam War dramatically escalated, leaving it a victim of history within months, as the political situation was moving so rapidly that the material as presented here in earnest fashion had swiftly dated to the extent that the movie, if not the source, was dismissed.
Naturally, everyone would see that Sarkan was a thinly disguised Vietnam with its split between North and South, the Communists vying for control with the Westerners, and a civil war about to explode in the pressure cooker environment, but that merely had you wondering why the filmmakers did not simply call a spade a spade and concoct a movie about Vietnam instead. The location work was shot in Thailand, necessitating a caption at the beginning informing us we were not to confuse that nation with any other South Eastern land this may or may not be about, another example of how toothless this was coming across, no matter how hard hitting it wanted to be.
Marlon Brando was the star, in the days when he was still a politically engaged celebrity, yet his good intentions were undercut by the stuffed shirt character he was asked to portray, supposedly a liberal-minded ambassador but actually having his reasonable attitude confronted as purely another instance of American expansion across the world. We know this because director George Englund saw fit to present what theories that survived from the text in long, not exactly exciting arguments, Brando's Harrison Carter MacWhite verbally sparring with the leader of the planned revolution, his old friend Deong, who was played by Japanese star Eiji Okada, personally recruited on Brando's insistence after impressing him in international hits like Hiroshima Mon Amour and Woman in the Dunes.
Interestingly, Okada was a Communist in real life, which you would think would offer an edge to proceedings, but when the arguments simply resolved into scenes of the two stars shouting at one another it was all too easy to zone out and hope for something more exciting to happen. The trouble with that being, although there was a revolution to come, nothing really did, The Ugly American moved at a snail's pace and its own sense of self-importance given the seriousness of the subject it was examining made for a dry lecture that was not even particularly certain of what it was getting at. Something about Americans not standing by the beliefs and tenets that made their country great, and allowing the high standards to slip, which aside from not being too helpful in its vagueness, seemed to exonerate American foreign policy from the deadly Tango it danced with the Soviets in places like Vietnam. The final switching off of MacWhite's speech on television is supposed to be damning; more likely you'll sympathise as this was telling you nothing useful. Music by Frank Skinner.