Written by Alice Arlen, and directed by Louis Malle, Alamo Bay is a dramatisation of the conflicts that emerged between local fishermen and Vietnamese immigrants in the Gulf of Texas in the early 1980s – specifically, a series of Ku Klux Klan sponsored initiatives to frighten the Vietnamese away from the area. The film revolves around Shang Pierce, a local shrimp fisherman, played by Ed Harris, his mistress Glory Scheer, played by Amy Madigan, and Dinh, one of the immigrants, played by Ho Nguyen, although the narrative is quite loose and often subordinated to mood, making for a peculiarly meditative study in post-Nam angst and rage.
Unlike many other films from the time about returned veterans, Alamo Bay charts a broader shift in perception around Vietnam – from a national war to a capitalist war, targeted at cementing a world system that doesn’t necessarily benefit veterans or everyday Americans. The whole point of the war was to wrest capitalism back from the communism of Southeast Asia, and yet it seems a bridge too far for Shang and the other veterans in the film to see Vietnamese people actually working in Texas. There’s a terror here that the Vietnamese might actually turn out to have a greater aptitude for capitalism that Americans, and that Americans might end up working for them. As much as Nam might also have aimed at Americanising the Vietnamese, there’s a real horror in Alamo Bay when the immigrants adopt Americanisms. When Dinh greets Shang with a simple “howdy,” he freezes in place with the dissonance of it.
In other words, Alamo Bay brims with the fear that Vietnam implicated Americans more deeply in a global economy, rather than shoring up American borders, in the same way that Shang’s name already seems to contain a trace of Asia. These anxieties drive the first act of the film, which largely refrains from interpersonal depth to instead present a kind of lyrical docudrama from the coal front of race relations. The local fisherman unfold a series of grievances at how the Vietnamese go about their work – by latching onto the Americans when they hit a good shoal of shrimp, by continuing to work between sunset and sunrise, and by playing fast and loose with federal fishing regulations. Yet for all the moral panic about these practices, the Vietnamese are just following the basic principles of competition – initially by identifying and cornering a market, and then by attempting to entirely deregulate it. The Vietnamese are becoming more American than American themselves, and in an attempt to sidestep this contradiction, while also acknowledging the globalised trauma of it all, Chang and the fishermen try to criticise the immigrants for environmental destruction – for overfishing the Gulf, for decimating local shrimp stock, and for disrupting the balance between man and nature. But the Vietnamese are fleeing the effects of Agent Orange as much as impacting the environment themselves, so this second wave of criticisms also feels inert.
This inability to mount a clear case against the Vietnamese speaks to the central preoccupation of Alamo Bay – the incoherence of the working-class’ self-image in the wake of Nam. Like many of the classic action film protagonists, Shang realises to his horror that the defence of capitalism abroad doesn’t guarantee a basic wage back in the United States: “We defend people all over the world but don’t look after our home.” The town supermarket, where Chang’s wife works, becomes a particularly volatile nexus between local and global forces, as the American townsfolk find their shopping increasingly interrupted by Vietnamese consumers asking for a new range of products, or speaking in such broken English that they can’t make their requests for American products understood. Despite these traces of the classic action film, however, Chang is not an emphatic personality or charismatic body in the manner of most post-Nam protagonists. Instead, he’s an emptiness, evacuated out by the contradictions that are claustrophobically closing in on him: “It’s a damn shame the Russians can borrow money for their wheat but an American veteran can’t borrow money for his boat.”
Much as Arlen’s screenplay refrains from making these points too directly or glibly, Malle deflects much of the film’s message into his depiction of the Gulf of Texas as a dissonant and incoherent space, both the core of the American heartland and its vantage point onto a liminal other. From the opening tracking-shot, which sees Dinh walking the long road into town, Vietnamese textures continually percolate into the Gulf, which is already an ultra-porous landscape to begin with. Sea, land and sky are fused here into a fluorescent heat haze, collapsing everyone and everything into a sticky humid continuum. Most of the action takes place right at the water’s edge, making Chang’s claim to the American mainland feel especially tendentious. With only a caravan to call his own, he spends most of his time on his fishing boat, and yet he never quite hits the epic horizons of the open ocean either. Shrimp fishing requires that he remains close enough to shore that the land is always visible as a thin strip in the distance, and the ocean retains the murky runoff from the coastline, precluding even the most residual buoyancy of open waters. No horizon here ever congeals quite enough to turn into an American frontier, leaving Chang to wander in an undifferentiated spatial murk.
Since we virtually never see Chang at home, and never once enter his caravan, his sense of home ownership is turned inside out, and redirected into the confidence with which he traverses this porous zone between land and sea. These trajectories grow more stutteringly aborted as the film proceeds, culminating with the traumatic moment at which his boat is seized, and lifted out of the harbour in front of a crowd of Vietnamese onlookers. From here, the coastline becomes an even more contested space, as a KKK contingent starts to approach by land, and Chang is tortured by the spectacle of ultra-rich pleasure boats cruising the Gulf, populated by Americans wealthy enough to avoid fighting in Nam. These twin pressures find their surreal yet logical conclusion in a kind of KKK coast guard that temporarily patrols the precarious threshold between land and sea, veteran and immigrant, America and the world. The veterans in town reprise the war in Vietnam, fighting once again for their idea of capitalism, but this time against democracy. In doing so, they clarify where they see the immigrants sitting in a globalised world – not as participants in capitalism, and certainly not as rivals in capitalism, but as capitalist products themselves. In the final chase scene, Dinh finds himself propelled onto a shrimp conveyor belt, much as the veterans revert to treating all the local Vietnamese women as sex workers to be purchased and consumed for pleasure.
While this second spectral version of the Vietnam war is the climactic tableau of Alamo Bay, the most resonant moment is considerably quieter. Alongside the broader unrest of the veterans, Shang is troubled by the fact that his mistress Glory has become an advocate for Dinh and for the Vietnamese population generally, no small decision given that she is involved in managing the main shrimp distributor in the area. All Shang’s decelerating wandering finally comes to a halt in the third act when Glory escapes him and gets a ride with Dinh instead. Having exhausted the last burst of his post-Nam rage by calling her a “communist c—t”, Shang comes to a halt, inchoately walking round and round in the middle of the road, as if all destinations, trajectories and mobilities have been robbed from him. It’s a haunting vision of the disenfranchised vet, in all his trauma, disorientation and contradictions, and in its own way a tacit commentary on the action genre that tried to congeal all this inchoate wandering into ever more cathartic spectacles. Malle and Arden pull back from that spectacle, ending the film in the moodily atmospheric way that it begins – with Glory mirroring Dinh’s opening walk into town by striding away from the Gulf, and turning back for one last look to register what has changed, at which point the camera freezes, leaving us suspended in transition too.