The Film: Southern Comfort (1981)
The Principles: Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, Lewis Smith, Peter Coyote, T. K. Carter and Brion James. Directed by Walter Hill.
The Premise: In 1973, nine National Guardsman are sent on an isolated weekend exercise into the swamps of Louisiana where they anger a group of local Cajuns by stealing their canoes and firing blank machine gun rounds at them for a joke. This error in judgment results in the Cajuns firing back and killing their commanding officer. Now the eight remaining men must fight for their lives without any live ammunition, as they are hunted down one by one by an enemy that knows the territory like the back of their hands.
Is it good: FUCKING A RIGHT IT IS! This is vintage Walter Hill at his finest and I consider it to be an underrated classic. It’s part war movie, part survival horror and it holds up better today then it did over thirty years ago. The storyline is very similar to Hill’s previous classic The Warriors, in which the main characters must take a dangerous journey through a hostile environment to find their way home, encountering many obstacles and enemies along the way.
But Southern Comfort has something going for it that sets it apart from anything else before or since in that it can also be viewed as an allegory to the Vietnam war, and although Walter Hill has been quoted as saying this isn’t the case, you can’t help but make the connection to the predicament that the main characters are in to the common daily experience of a combat soldier in ‘Nam or any other war. Many military veterans have cited this film as one of the most realistic representations of the fear and confusion of live combat that they’ve ever seen.
The genius of it is that although it’s set during the same time period that Vietnam was happening in (1973), it’s about military trained “weekend warriors” who are only armed with blanks, except for a few real rounds that are quickly expended. Out-gunned and out-witted at every turn, the enemy enjoys a game of cat and mouse with the steadily unraveling guardsman. They drop trees on them, sick their vicious hounds on them and dig up the bodies of their fallen comrades, creating a grotesque monument, just to fuck with their minds.
As the men are picked off one by one by a relatively unseen enemy, the tension among the ranks becomes more volatile, with some of the guardsmen eventually turning on each other. A few of the men try to maintain the chain of command, while others try to maintain their very sanity. In the end it’s clear that there is no one to trust including the very military that put them in this situation, which is masterfully communicated in the ominous final shot.
It doesn’t hurt that this has possibly one of the finest all-male ensembles ever put together next to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe are rock solid as the two leads, Spencer and Hardin. They forge a natural bond early on that helps the two men survive as they must depend on each other while everyone else in the squad is falling apart. My all-time favorite actor ever – Fred Ward is Reece, a gung-ho Soldier of Fortune type, who develops an adversarial relationship with Hardin that results in a knife battle to the death. Lewis Smith plays Reece’s redneck best friend Stuckey, whose demise is probably one of the most poignant in terms of irony, as he falls into quicksand while chasing an army helicopter in hopes of rescue. T. K. Carter (The Thing) portrays Cribbs, a weed smoking goldbricker who has a particularly nasty death scene when he trips a huge spiked booby-trap set by the Cajuns. Peter Coyote (E.T. The Extraterrestrial) is Poole the CO, the character with the most set up early on, who dies first in order to leave the men without any sense of leadership. Alan Autry (At Close Range) has the most interesting character in the film, Coach – a straight-laced, ultra-conservative type who cracks like a walnut under the pressure and becomes a liability to the squad. And rounding out this suberb cast is the fantastic 80’s character actor and Hill favorite, Brion James (Blade Runner) as a one-armed Cajun trapper who’s taken along as a prisoner by the guardsmen because they think he may be one of the people trying to kill them. You’re never sure if he is.
There are so many great things in this movie. Ry Cooder’s Cajun slide-guitar score is bone-chillingly awesome. Andrew Lazlo’s beautiful cinematography is also a sight to behold in the grey, damp, other-worldly landscape of the Louisiana swamp this film was shot in, including the very authentic-looking Cajun shanty town that is the setting for the film’s nerve-jangling conclusion. This shoot must have been a dreadful ordeal for everyone involved, but the stark bleakness captured in the images is sublime. The macho dialogue is pure Hill and the intensity of the acting and the situation combined with the atmosphere is brilliant. The film is a first rate survival action-thriller with a powerful subtext that can’t be denied.
Is it worth a look: If you are any kind of a fan of totally badass cinema then yes, I’d definitely give it a looksee. Walter Hill was on a cinematic tear through the 70’s and 80’s and this is, in my opinion, one of his finest and most neglected masterpieces. I’d put it alongside Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, 48 Hrs., Streets of Fire, Extreme Prejudice and Johnny Handsome as some of his best work from that era. God, how I miss the days when I had a new Walter Hill movie to look forward to almost every year. I even liked Red Heat.
Random anecdotes: The film was co-scripted by Walter Hill and David Giler, whom both co-produced Alien and its sequel Aliens together. There are a lot of strong similarities between the set up of how the Colonial Marines are left stranded and leaderless at the mercy of the aliens in the sequel with the premise of Southern Comfort. Its template continues to be copied today.
Cinematic soul mates: Deliverance, Straw Dogs, The Hills Have Eyes, First Blood, Hunter’s Blood, The Zero Boys, Raw Courage, The Edge, The Grey.