An Examination of National Self

A number of stark images from The Ugly American stand out, doubly so in retrospect. Consider The Ugly American came out in 1963, at the dawn of the United State’s involvement in Vietnam. Suddenly, an image of the American flag and that of a fictional Asian nation (Sarkhan) situated side-by-side, but with dead bodies visible in the space between is outright eerie. Foreshadowing, but for the real world and the war’s eventual quagmire.

Ugly American warned the country – not what or what not to do, rather to approach cautiously. Remembering Korea’s ferocity against totalitarianism and then recent divisiveness of McCarthyism, Marlon Brando stars as the newly elected Ambassador to Sarkhan. Fears of communism force him to take posture, rejecting friends and inciting riots over American brow-beating. It’s sensational political cinema.

Bull-headed Brando sees only the economics and capitalism, not the consequences of power

The script’s merciless honesty is an aberration, coming from a western studio. During a late night visit, Brando heatedly exchanges dialog with a Sarkhan friend, played by Japan’s great Eiji Okada in his only western role. Okada plays a rebel leader, standing for his country as America installs a “Freedom Road” on his land. Bull-headed Brando sees only the economics and capitalism, not the consequences of power. Okada laments, “Your democracy is a fraud. It’s fair to white people only,” a chilling, commanding line with enough power to transcend decades.

Credit a number of films for exposing lies when breaking free of Hollywood’s post-WWII propaganda; the ‘60s produced many, stepping into the counter-culture that came to define a tumultuous decade. Ugly American is one of them. This doesn’t come from a veteran or every man; Brando demands patriotism from a place of authority. Eventually, whittled down emotionally, Brando turns into an apologetic, empathetic figure who understands his country’s egregious mistakes.

With its final frames, Ugly American cuts from Sarkhan to an average living room in the U.S. Brando gives a speech over airwaves, critical of his own actions as much as those perpetrated by the government he represents. Before his final words, the TV is turned off; Brando was about to suggest fault for his nationalist policies and blame the U.S. for inciting war rather than stopping it. How telling to see the TV image shrink to black at that moment. Admitting fault, hearing truth – both continue to evade America, true for Vietnam, then later, the Iraq war founded on a falsehood. National ego and feelings of superiority implant at birth. Brando plays one of the few willing to admit that failing.


Mill Creek brings this Eastman color production to Blu-ray in a fair presentation, and from the looks of it, pulled an older SD master. Resolution simply isn’t here to suggest anything near HD. It’s persistently soft with meager grain washed out by the lack of clarity. Ugly American looks like a digital presentation rather than projected film. The so-so print wavers in terms of damage and dirt; both persist, if not to any distracting tier.

Minimal detail is the result, sagging in definition. Scenery lacks the potency it deserves, although the encode appears up to handling this material. A few close-ups nearly bring out facial detail. Then, it’s lost in the haze of sub-par mastering.

It’s colorful at least. Shots from Thailand locations push saturation high. Western fashion pulls superb density from pastel blues and reds, with high brightness all around. Flesh tones and primaries excel. That’s helped by contrast, perky and pure with stable (if unremarkable) shadows.


Other than a messy action scene with coarse highs and lows, the DTS-HD track keeps integrity. The score holds back, rarely used, but pure for its age.

In some wider rooms with echoes, dialog fidelity lessens. Still, the lines stay audible.


Just a trailer.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

The Ugly American
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Marlon Brando stars in an eerily predictive takedown of foreign intervention just prior to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam via The Ugly American.

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