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There's a frequently repeated belief that foreign directors making movies about American social issues see our problems more clearly than we do. This isn't always the case. Brit director Alan Parker's Missisippi Burning turned out to be a travesty: the segregationist crimes of the early '60s are dramatized as a White problem, with dauntless F.B.I. agents coming to the rescue. Costa-Gavras made some of the best political movies ever ("Z" and Missing), but his story of militant separatists in the heartland Betrayed is overwrought and unconvincing.
When Frenchman Louis Malle came to America, he didn't fall prey to studio committees. His first hit Pretty Baby (made in collaboration with Polly Platt) dared to show life a New Orleans brothel in naturalistic detail, and successfully overcame rumors of child pornography with 13 year-old teen model Brooke Shields. Atlantic City gave viewers an entirely fresh take on an old fashioned gangster story.
In 1985's Alamo Bay Malle directly addresses a hot political topic. Its theme may seem specific to the Galveston, Texas shoreline but is shared by post-colonial countries like France and England, where immigration from the Third World has brought about racial and ethnic conflicts. Alice Arlen's script outlines a clash that's basically economic in nature, a situation where white Texans decide that Vietnamese immigrants are a plague blocking their access to the American Dream.
Alamo Bay is a shrimp-fishing town that harbors a growing resentment against new arrivals -- hardy, hard-working new citizens that emigrated when Vietnam fell. The whites grumble about new boats cluttering the offshore shrimping grounds and not following the rules. Dinh (Ho Nguyen) arrives, is welcomed by the growing group of Catholic Viet fishermen, and starts working for Wally (Donald Moffat), who has a boat and also packs and supplies fresh shrimp for restaurants in Baton Rouge. As Wally has a heart condition, the business is actually run by his feisty daughter Glory (Amy Madigan), who takes heat from the white fishermen because she employs the Viets. Glory's married lover is Shang Pierce (Ed Harris), whose own boat is due to be repossessed. The price of shrimp has fallen, and the established fishermen feel the squeeze. When they blame the new arrivals for the situation, all manner of racist hatreds emerge. The Viets are called Gooks, Communists, and Roman Catholic papists. Newcomer Dinh only wants to follow the rules, get his own boat and become rich too. When Glory can't loan Shang money to save his boat, he takes his anger out on the immigrants. A Klu Klux Klan organizer (William Frankfather) surfaces, and the redneck fishermen begin a campaign of harassment -- wrecking shrimp traps, chasing the Viets away with guns and blocking Glory's delivery trucks. The "loner" Shang is a natural leader, and goes beyond the advice of the Klan. It can only end one way.
There's no beating around the bush here ... Alamo Bay pretty much tells it like it was and is. Glory knows that real security and happiness could be found with some educated man in the city, but she's hooked on her old High School flame Shang, a defiantly ignorant fellow convinced that if he plays the game fairly, America owes him a good living. When things get tough he becomes a classic redneck -- bitter about everything, abusive of those around him and ripe and ready to look for a scapegoat.
Shang doesn't believe in America as a land of opportunity for all -- the "Gooks" are to him and his friends an invasive species to be eradicated. He's a Vietnam veteran, so when he calls the immigrants "Viet Cong" it shows that he certainly wasn't fighting to liberate anybody. The Viet newcomers communicate poorly and probably use that to slip past some of the rules as established by the Anglos, but they are also willing to work harder under much worse conditions, and to swallow their pride. Shang and his cohorts get nowhere complaining that over-fishing is depleting the shrimp beds. He's quick to 'go to war' against change, progressive ideas and in particular people who are different. The slimy Klan representative is in some ways an agent of restraint. His job is to organize and get political results. He urges "nonviolent pressure" -- the application of threats without actual bloodshed. He cites the lessons that can be learned from... Martin Luther King. However one chooses to look at it, it's American Fascism.
I can see Alamo Bay being a pill that a lot of Americans don't want to swallow. Shang and his buddies represent millions of guys that ignored their educations but still demand the quality jobs that existed back when America dominated the world economy and unskilled labor could buy houses and cars and put kids through college. To Shang, everyone that gives him bad news is an enemy. In the back of his mind, he may be sleeping with Glory in hopes that she will give him money.
Alamo Bay sets the situation up in a way that audiences can understand, and finds an acceptable resolution that delivers some action but doesn't become an action film. The confrontations are laid out as if the film were a western. Dinh comes into a bar for a beer, and the 'good old boys' behave like Nazi thugs. Shang storms into a Viet church meeting, insults the priest, and tosses a string of flotation bottles onto the altar as if they were severed heads. Director Malle has a good handle on these scenes, having experienced a Nazi occupation first-hand. We also get the spectacle of a boatload of gunmen and their women drinking beer and wearing sweatshirts decorated with White Power mottos, flying the American flag upside-down in distress mode as they close in on a Viet fishing boat. The intervention of a Coast Guard helicopter is required to avert a conflict. But the Klan prefers firebombs at midnight, anyway.
Married stars Amy Madigan and Ed Harris are very good together, with Harris particularly skilled at conveying barely-contained rage. Ms. Madigan's Glory is a tough Texan woman with a strong sense of fair play. Ho Nguyen makes Dinh a very particularized nice guy. Dinh eagerly buys his first cowboy hat but doesn't know how to wear it. He also figures in several scenes in which basically benign storekeepers, etc., end up having trouble with Vietnamese shoppers. The immigrants express their discomfort with obnoxious anger as well. Most everyone else in the show does well in limited parts. Cynthia Carle is more than effective as Shang's distressed and bigoted wife Honey, who takes out her frustration on the Vietnamese living down the block. Actor Martin La Salle is Luis, Glory's Mexican employee. Luis is the only Mexican-American we see, which reminds us that Alamo Bay seems to have a black population of zero. La Salle is of interest to European film fans, because he played the lead role in Robert Bresson's Pickpocket, twenty-five years before.
Louis Malle's film wasn't a box office hit; directors make films about social issues because they believe in them, not because they make money. The local attitudes in Alamo Bay are everywhere now, and being transmitted in barely disguised form on cable TV. People no longer describe America as a Melting Pot of other nationalities, and too many of us seem to have no sense of social responsibility -- the dominant dream (shared by Dinh as well) is to be able to say, "I've got mine." Everybody else can fend for himself. I wonder what Shang and Dinh would think of the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf. Would Alamo Bay have been affected?
Twilight Time's Blu-ray of Alamo Bay comes from an excellent Sony master that captures the beauty of the Galveston coast area - I assume that the township of 'Alamo Bay' is a fiction. Some of the nighttime action was difficult to follow when the played back on cable TV, a problem completely cured by the HD image. Ry Cooder's attitude-and-mood guitar tracks here are exemplary. I'll check out a movie just to hear his music. With TT's Isolated Score Track, the disc doubles as an original soundtrack album. A trailer is included as well.
Julie Kirgo's insert pamphlet notes (which I always after writing, as our approaches are similar) point out that Alamo Bay was partly produced by Ross Milloy, the man who broke the story of the shrimp boat wars in The New York Times. The unblinking honesty of Alamo Bay leads us back to John Sayles' great Lone Star, a persuasive pro-assimilation movie whose motto is, "Forget the Alamo."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Alamo Bay Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.