Retro Film Review: Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983)
In 1980s (and, to a lesser degree, 1970s) Hollywood used to make a lot of films about Vietnam War. But the last chapter of that sad saga was mostly ignored by American filmmakers, and it isn't hard to explain why - it didn't feature emotional, political, military and other levels of American involvement as the previous phases. So, someone else had to tell that tale and in 1983 British television produced Saigon: Year of the Cat, directed by Stephen Frears.
The plot begins in Saigon 1974. A year earlier, Paris Peace Accords temporarily ended armed conflict between government of South Vietnam and Viet Cong guerrillas aided by Communist North Vietnam, thus allowing US government to pull its armed forces out of increasingly unpopular war and reduce its presence to handful of advisors and CIA agents. British national Barbara Dean (played by Judi Dench) is an employee in a Western bank and she is blissfully unaware of the approaching storm. She starts romantic relationship with CIA agent Bob Chesneau (played by Frederic Forrest) who has somewhat more realistic appraisal of the situation – the economy of South Vietnam, which used to be dependent on the large presence of US military, is in shambles, while the corrupt and inefficient regime of President Thieu is getting weaker by the day. Chesneau desperately tries to warn his superiors about upcoming Communist offensive and set up mass evacuation of his informants and other Vietnamese nationals who helped American war effort. But the Ambassador (played by E.G. Marshall) thinks that the Communists would stop short of military solution and doesn't want to listen to Chesneau. In Spring of 1975 Communists start major offensive and South Vietnam starts to fall like a house of cards. By the time Ambassador is ready to contemplate evacuation, it is too late - Communist troops are on the gates of Saigon and remaining Americans must leave the city which is engulfed by the panic and chaos.
Intriguing and exotic historical setting, director with outstanding reputation and very good character actors in main roles - because of that Saigon: Year of the Cat was supposed to be very good film. But the result of Frears' efforts was very disappointing for two main reasons. First of all is the bad structure of the film, which is divided into two halves - first one looks like a melodrama with a lot of homage to Casablanca (including opening titles scene); the second is straight and very realistic depictions of last days of American presence in Vietnam, including memorable scenes of panic and chaos in US Embassy. Those two halves are mismatched, and decision to use British character as narrator and heroine was a poor one; Judi Dench lacks chemistry in her scenes with Forrest and it is even harder to picture her as someone who could break the heart of her Scottish colleague, played by Roger Rees. Forrest as CIA agent who wants to save his informants is much better, bringing a lot of cynicism and world-weariness to his role. E.G. Marshall is also very good as self-deluded government official. Because of their roles and George Fenton's music (which is tragically underused in the film), as well as the scenes that vividly portray the very last hours of the Vietnam War, Saigon: Year of the Cat is a TV-film that deserves more than passing grade, but it nevertheless leaves a bitter impression of a film that should have been much better.
RATING: 5/10 (++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on January 9th 2002)
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Movie URL: https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/219951-saigon-year-of-the-cat?language=en-US