23. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Edward Muhl, Vice President in Charge of Production, Universal International Pictures, Studio City, California
  • Turner B. Shelton, Director, Motion Picture Service, USIA

On Friday, April 14, 1961, Mr. Roger Tubby, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, telephoned Mr. Shelton at Mr. Shelton’s home in Beverly Hills, California and advised him that he had discussed within the Department the situation regarding Universal International Pictures’ effort to produce The Ugly American in Thailand and that it was the belief of the Department that every appropriate step should be taken to insure that this film was not produced unless and until the script had been changed in order to insure the film would not be harmful to U.S. interests abroad. This decision was based on two important factors: (1) the delicate situation regarding relations in the Far East at the moment; and (2) the fact that there would have to be unquestionably some implied “approval” on the part of the U.S. Gov[Page 73]ernment involved in connection with the making of this film in a foreign country, especially in view of the fact that cooperation had been requested by Universal International both from the point of view of assistance with the Government of Thailand and assistance by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Mr. Shelton said that since this was the position of the Department he felt confident that Mr. Murrow would concur in this position and that he, Mr. Shelton, would be prepared to discuss the matter fully with Mr. Muhl if the Department wished him to do so.

Mr. Tubby stated that the Department did wish such a discussion.

Mr. Shelton called Mr. Muhl and made a luncheon appointment for the following day at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Mr. Muhl was accompanied to this luncheon by a gentlemen whom he described as one of his “assistants” but who took no part in the discussion.

Mr. Shelton pointed out to Mr. Muhl the historical background of the situation regarding The Ugly American vis-à-vis the Department of State, USIA, our Embassy in Bangkok and Universal International. Mr. Shelton stated that it had appeared approximately a year ago that there had been a meeting of the minds regarding the proper handling of this script, but that now the Government had been faced up again, as it had been before on several occasions, with an unacceptable script and with an expressed urgency on the part of Universal Pictures which seemed to preclude the type of cooperative work to bring about an acceptable script that would be expected under the circumstances.

Mr. Shelton said that he wished to make it perfectly clear that nothing he said was in any way critical of Mr. John Horton, the Universal International representative in Washington but that over the past approximately ten years he, Mr. Shelton, had had occasion to work with studios on perhaps as many as 500 scripts, some just as difficult as The Ugly American and that he did not believe that the manner in which Universal International had handled the efforts of the Department and USIA to cooperate with Universal had made it easier on anyone concerned.

Mr. Muhl said he recognized the film was a difficult one but that he wished to reiterate the statement he had made to Mr. Shelton about a year and a half ago that Universal International did not wish to make a motion picture which would be harmful to the United States. He stated, however, that it was his understanding that agreement had been reached on the changes to be made in the script between State Department personnel and Mr. Englund.2

[Page 74]

Mr. Shelton said that he was of the opinion that these changes were relatively generalized in nature in some cases, and where they were specific they did not strike at the heart of the problem which involved the characterization of the Ambassador and the espousal of the philosophy that the United States uses every effort to force small foreign Governments to accept “the American way” despite their wishes.

There followed a general discussion of the story treatment as outlined in the script. Mr. Shelton made the point that he felt there was concern by the Department and USIA that there was not a serious attitude taken by either the producer or the writer toward the basic problems which existed relative to the script and that neither our Embassy or Mr. Tubby, who had been in Bangkok, were reassured after discussions with Mr. Englund. Mr. Shelton said that therefore he felt the only alternative was for Mr. Muhl, the responsible head of the studio, to take upon himself the basic responsibility for working out an acceptable script, if possible, and making alternative decisions if necessary.

Mr. Muhl said he would do this and he would assure Mr. Shelton that he would take personal responsibility and would come to Washington as soon as the present script revisions were completed and fully discuss the matter with everyone concerned in order to attempt to reach an agreement. Mr. Muhl said he would contact Mr. Horton immediately and either ask him to come to California or meet him in New York in order to thoroughly discuss the background since he, Mr. Muhl, was not completely conversant with the entire subject.

Mr. Shelton said that he had known Mr. Muhl for many years and felt confident that if Mr. Muhl would personally take on the responsibility for the problems involved some appropriate solution could be found.

Mr. Muhl said that he felt certain this was the case and he could assure Mr. Shelton and through him the Department and USIA that he would take the responsibility and would insure that nothing occurred until after full discussion had been had by him with the appropriate officials in the Department and USIA in Washington. (FYI: The principal negative note sounded by Mr. Muhl was a slight inference that the Department and USIA were attempting to prevent the production of the film no matter what changes were made. Mr. Shelton maintained a positive attitude but firmly in opposition to a film detrimental to the National interests which Mr. Muhl had stated he also opposed).

Mr. Shelton then telephoned Mr. Tubby in Washington and briefly summarized the above conversation with Mr. Muhl.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 306, Director’s Subject Files, 1961, Entry UD WW 142, Box 7, Miscellaneous #1—Motion Pictures. Confidential. Drafted by Shelton on April 21. Copies were sent to Murrow, Wilson, Neilson, Tubby, Steeves, and Unger in Bangkok. Smith initialed the top right-hand corner of the memorandum.
  2. See Document 11.