The first line in the script for The Hamlet is, “We own the day, but CHARLIE owns the night.” These are the words that Sergeant Jay Bellamy first hears from his new commanding officer, Captain Will Shamus. In the film, Shamus is a World War II veteran who served in Normandy. His mission is to save the innocent mountain people who live in a peaceful hamlet near the border of Laos. What’s threatening them is a particularly ruthless group of Viet Cong guerillas, nicknamed “King Cong.” King Cong has infiltrated the hamlet with subversives and sympathizers. Sergeant Bellamy dropped out of Harvard and ran away from his St. Louis home, where he grew up the son of a millionaire.
The Hamlet is a parody of Apocalypse Now, which was a revision of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. One of the critiques of the film is that it failed to depict the Vietnamese people as fully-realized human beings, instead presenting them as grotesque enemies. Nguyen addresses this aspect of grotesqueness by nicknaming the group of Viet Cong “King Cong,” which is a re-appropriation of the title of the 1933 film King Kong. The latter has often been analyzed as a depiction of Americans’ racist fears.
The screenplay is mailed to the narrator by the director’s personal assistant, Violet. Violet is brusque when she calls to ask for the narrator’s mailing address, never bothering to say hello or goodbye. She’s equally ill-mannered when the narrator visits the Auteur’s Hollywood Hills home. The narrator wonders if “her abruptness” is part of her personality or because of his race. Making their way to the Auteur’s office, they walk along bamboo floors, avoiding “the dusky maid vacuuming a Turkish rug.” By the time the narrator sits before the Auteur, he remains in a state of paranoia about Violet, wondering if she really is racist and regards the narrator as “foreign.”
The narrator’s obsessive paranoia over Violet probably has a gendered aspect. The narrator has never before expressed any concern regarding a man’s approval, indicating that he’s particularly concerned about being rejected by white women. His concern over Violet is a manifestation of his internalized racism, which is focused on her but fails even to identify the other woman in the Auteur’s home, except by her color.
The narrator is a fan of the Auteur’s work, but he’s “flummoxed” by having read a screenplay in which not a single Vietnamese person has “an intelligible word to say.” The Auteur tells the narrator that he’s pleased to meet him and “loved” his notes. He says that there aren’t any Vietnamese in Hollywood. He acknowledges that authenticity is important but insists that it doesn’t beat the imagination.
The Auteur tries to disarm the narrator by flattering him, hoping that this will cause the narrator to drop the issue over representation. He then goes on to excuse his depiction due to his lack of interactions with Vietnamese people. In the end, however, he insists that nothing more than the story matters.
The narrator notes that the Auteur didn’t get the details about the Vietnamese right in the script. The Auteur notes how he has read the foremost historians and authors on the narrator’s “little part of the world.” The Auteur’s aggressiveness flusters the narrator, who tells the Auteur that he “didn’t even get the screams right.” The Auteur finds this absurd, believing that screams are “universal.” The narrator explains that different people produce different sounds, depending on circumstances. He thinks of his first assignment as a lieutenant, when he couldn’t figure out how to save an elder of the Bru minority, a Montagnard who lived in an actual hamlet not far from the setting of the Auteur’s story, from his captain, who was wrapping a strand of barbed wire around the old man’s throat. The narrator then writes out an onomatopoeic scream on the script to illustrate what he means.
By “the details,” the narrator is indicating that the Auteur has failed to represent the subtleties of humanity. However, he’s being generous, because the Auteur already revealed that he hasn’t bothered to depict Vietnamese people at all and has no Vietnamese characters in the film. The Auteur defends his work by belittling the narrator’s country, suggesting that the Vietnamese should be honored even to have a movie produced about them. The narrator uses the point about screams as a metaphor to explain that there are as many subtle differences between Vietnamese people as there are between anyone else.
After the narrator leaves the Auteur’s home in the hills, he goes to the General’s house, thirty blocks away and down the hills. He tells the General and Madame about his experience with the Auteur. Both are angry about the Auteur’s dismissive attitude. The narrator talks about the more unpleasant part of his meeting, when Violet mentioned that Vietnamese people aren’t going to buy tickets to the movie, so their feelings about it don’t really matter. The narrator was outraged. He insisted that the story would be more compelling if the characters said something, even in their own language, and if one of the men had a love interest. The Auteur grimaced at the suggestions and reminded the narrator that he’s never made a movie. Maybe after he’s made one, the Auteur said, he’ll listen to a couple of the narrator’s “cheap ideas.” The Auteur then kicked the narrator out of his house.
The General and Madame are angry for the same reason as the narrator: the Auteur doesn’t respect their people. Violet utters a blunt truth, though it rightfully outrages the narrator to know that the film’s producers have no interest in depicting Vietnamese people humanely. It is a truth, however, because many white Americans actually feel this way, at least subconsciously. Moreover, if they can regard the Vietnamese as barely human or villainous, the country’s actions in Vietnam seem more just and the audience can reaffirm its sense of moral righteousness.
Back at the General’s house, Madame asks the narrator why the Auteur was so rude. The narrator figures that the director was just looking for a yes man. Moreover, he’s an artist; they always have thin skins. The narrator recalls how the Auteur said that no one would give a shit about his not making a distinction between mountain peoples, remaining unconvinced by the narrator’s comparison to the importance of distinguishing between Native American tribes. The narrator realizes that he had been naïve. The Auteur would make whatever movie he wanted to make, and what he wanted to make was a film in which the Vietnamese would merely serve as “raw material” in “an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people.”
The narrator uses the example of how Westerns have distinguished between Native American tribes, though this example is somewhat ironic. Hollywood Westerns have notoriously misrepresented Native Americans, often even using white actors in red face paint. Like the directors of those old Westerns who thought that their depictions of indigenous people wouldn’t matter to the imagined white audience, the Auteur insists on making a similar kind of film. The only depiction that matters is that of the white hero.
The General pulls a newspaper from a stack on the kitchen countertop and asks the narrator if he’s seen it. The General is disturbed by Sonny’s article on the crapulent major’s funeral and his coverage of the wedding that the narrator attended. On the major’s death, Sonny writes that the police call it “a robbery-homicide.” He also mentions that the major, an officer of the secret police, must’ve had enemies who wanted to see him dead. In regard to the wedding, Sonny uses the speeches to argue that talk of the war should cease because the war is over.
The General is upset with Sonny because of the newspaper’s potential to sway the Vietnamese community away from efforts to take the country back from the Communists. Furthermore, Sonny questions the narrator’s story, which was designed to protect everyone’s reputation.
The narrator surmises that Sonny’s doing his job, though he may be a bit “naïve” in how he’s going about it. The General thinks that Sonny is interpreting things instead of reporting facts. When the narrator mentions that Sonny isn’t exactly wrong about the major, Madame becomes offended and questions his loyalty. She says that “the best newspaper policy” is one in which reporters are beaten. The narrator decides to pretend that he, too, is against freedom of the press.
At first, the narrator tries to equivocate by emphasizing the importance of Sonny’s work, while he is also careful to avoid offending the General and Madame. When this proves not to work, he decides to pretend to side with the General and Madame, whose extreme positions on issues require total devotion.
The General insists that the war isn’t dead, and that Claude and the Congressman are among many allies. The General has a list of officers who want to fight. The narrator suggests forming a “vanguard” that will work in secret. The General decides to turn Sonny’s newspaper into a front organization, along with starting a youth group, a women’s group, and an intellectuals’ group. The Congressman, he says, is working on contacts to clear the way for them to send men to Thailand, which will be a staging area. The General insists that they have no choice but to fight and to resist the evil that is Communism, which is why it’s dangerous to talk about the war being over. Their people mustn’t grow complacent. The newspapers will play a role in never letting them forget their resentment.
The General dedicates everything in his life, including the earnings from his businesses, to funding a futile war effort. Unlike the crapulent major, he’s unable to leave the past behind. It’s likely that he still feels guilty for leaving men to fight while he fled to safety in the U.S. To redeem his reputation and legacy, he imagines staging a return to his homeland in which he will seize the country back from the Viet Cong. He views himself not as a man who is starting a new life, but as a man in exile.