A Bay of Today
Thirty-one years later, the same questions of cultures clashing, assimilation of refugee foreigners and the American Dream still remain. Today, in a contentious election year of flashpoint campaign rhetoric, we debate the plight of uprooted Syrian emigrés and transplants from Muslim countries in which pockets of fanatical jihadist extremists exist to consider how open liberty-loving American want their borders to be. When director Louis Malle’s acutely topical Alamo Bay (1985) opened in theatres on April 3, it shone a similar light on then-recent events, the migration of about 15,000 Vietnamese to the Texas coast, where their efforts to make a livelihood within the once-bountiful shrimp-boat fishing industry made major incursions into the income-generating capabilities of the native residents and led to ugly, racially-based confrontations. With the dispassionate, laser-like storytelling art of an outsider, Malle (Pretty Baby, Atlantic City) and screenwriter Alice Arlen (Silkwood, Cookie) sets up the situation of basically decent people caught up in the groundswell of intolerance and mob mentality – and renders it in emotionally affecting human terms, particularly in the characters of a married, independent shrimper (Ed Harris); his one-time, newly rekindled love (Amy Madigan), who is the daughter of his business rival (Donald Moffat) sympathetic to the Vietnamese in his employees; and two refugees (Ho Nguyen and Truyen V. Tran) who opt to take a stand in the face of Ku Klux Klan-generated hatred. “The locals are not necessarily evil, as one might believe, but pressured by a crippling financial burden to fight for what they perceive as their right, as Americans, to live and work,” Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross observe in their positive assessment of the film in The Motion Picture Guide. “It is this perception and distortion of the American Dream that Malle (who, perhaps not coincidentally, is a French director who has found commercial success in the U.S.) finds so fascinating. The Texans and the Vietnamese both want the same things in life, but the difference comes from the question of which group has the right to these things. What makes the real-life conflict more interesting is that many of the shrimpers served in Vietnam to free these same people from their Communist oppressors. With the Vietnamese in their own backyard, however, those freedom-fighters who were once allies are now enemy invaders. Malle’s talent is in high form as he touches on documentary realism in certain scenes (especially the shrimp fishing) and ably captures the bay atmosphere with superb photography [by Curtis Clark] and convincing casting. Ry Cooder supplies an earthy American score in the tradition of The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, The Border and Paris, Texas, as well as a song titled Too Close, sung by Madigan and John Hiatt.” Alamo Bay, available on a Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray with Cooder’s beautifully melancholy music on an Isolated Score Track, may be one of those underappreciated movies whose prescience grows with time.