Southern Comfort Review
“Casper, there comes a time when you have to abandon principles, and do what’s right!”
It’s Cajun-mayhem when a screwed-up bunch of paranoid “rubber-daggers” venture off the beaten track and get themselves picked off, one by one, in this classic swamp-set suspenser.
Finally, Walter Hill’s most incisive and exciting deconstruction of the myth of machismo, Southern Comfort, comes to Blu-ray, in this UK region B release from Second Sight. Once the heir-apparent to the throne of Sam Peckinpah and the rough ‘n’ tumble director who regularly outgunned John Milius in the men’s men, alpha-male, testosterone-soaked category of filmmaking, Hill creates a savage, in-yer-face thriller that combines backwoods terror with swipes at military bull-headedness. The film was made in 1979 and released in 1980 (and a year later in the UK), and it belongs in every action-junkie’s collection.
My father had taken me to London to see Escape From New York during its opening week (a defining moment for me, underage and agog with the neon of the big city) and the trailer for Southern Comfort came on beforehand. Jumbled, frightening scenes of terrified soldiers being menaced by an unseen enemy, and the classic falling-trees sequence heavily registering in my mind, ensured that I was determined to see this as well. Alas, it would be on videotape when I would catch up with it. I still have the tiny little Thorn EMI Betamax copy! But I was so smitten with the film that I would sit there at home with my American M65 combat jacket on and my army-booted feet sunk into a bucket of cold water whilst watching it night after night. I’m kidding about the bucket of water, folks!
Walter Hill became something a war-god to me. With his name attached to a movie, you were pretty much guaranteed of tough anti-heroes, armed to the teeth and going toe-to-toe with some of the vilest examples scumbaggery. And then he did the remake of Brewster’s Millions.
Ahh well. Until the awesome Extreme Prejudice blasts its way onto Blu, and the even more awesome-looking Bullet To The Head hits the big screen, Southern Comfort serves as a vital and visceral reminder of the days when Hill was top of the game for knuckle-dragging B-movie chaos.
“We ‘poached’ the poachers!”
After Deliverance, Hill’s relocated ode to the futile inevitability of Vietnam is always one of the next to get a mention in the category of redneck terror. America’s long-gestated fear of its own rural cousins has been enormously well-documented and chronicled by Hollywood, and I’ve discussed it many times for the site over the years, myself. Don’t be fooled by Sam Peckinpah’s Cornish excursion with Straw Dogs – this works on exactly the same level, and folds a soft suburban American into the evil grip of devilish yokels just as much as their more home-grown horrors – and even Michael Ritchie’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s The Island worked on the same doomed outsiders principle. The acutely resonant and iconic low-budget shockers of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes were the evolution of Two Thousand Maniacs, seeding the belief that to stray off the freeway was to enter the domain of ferocious inbreds who would lure you into their shacks to torture you, skin you, and rape you – and possibly in that order too. It was obviously a very scary prospect for the just the unwary and the unprepared everyman to fall into such depraved and vile clutches … but when a group of supposedly hardy, trained and resourceful men – soldiers, even – become the helpless prey for a more cunning, more ruthless and utterly savage native foe, then things become severely suspenseful, poignant and thought-provoking indeed.
John Boorman placed city-dwellers in the rugged outdoors to face the elements and the barbaric underbelly of Man, himself, but they had fortitude, courage and Burt Reynolds with a bow and arrow and a severe no-nonsense attitude on their side. Walter Hill takes the equation and gives it an allegorical spin by thrusting a squad of belligerent, tough-talking National Guardsmen on another of those doomed routine training exercises into the heart of a hostile Louisiana swamp, arming them with blanks, getting them irrevocably lost and placing them at each others’ throats, and then allowing them to incur the wrath of the local Cajun nasties, mimicking the plight of “green” US GIs suddenly finding themselves in the unfamiliar and inescapably hostile jungles and highlands of South East Asia and facing an invisible, but decidedly determined enemy, seemingly able to pick them off at will. Hill has always disputed this relocated Vietnam metaphor, but it is impossible to see past it. The grunts here argue with their own chain of command, and especially with one another, they lack any sort of collective and cogent strategy and come completely unstuck without any air support or backup, any radio contact, or any coherent leadership, and they fail miserably to adapt to the badlands that surround them. They cannot tell friend from foe and they blunder into all manner of indigenous traps, becoming reckless idiots and wandering, morally-bankrupt ghosts in the process. When the already gossamer-thin figure of authority that they have in Peter Coyote’s likeable Sgt. Poole, the squad-leader for the exercise, is viciously killed-off almost immediately, they are left to fend for themselves like a pack of self-bullying school-kids lost in the Lake District without a map, a torch, or any coats, and only one bag of crisps between them. Allegiances are made along cultural and racial paths, although they all seem to despise Cajuns and rednecks anyway, and, when it comes down to it, the situation inevitably becomes one of every man for himself, with the blame for their plight apportioned all around. One soldier, dazed, frightened and left in shock at the sight of another dead comrade sobs, “I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not supposed to be here,” in a purely visceral and emotional acknowledgement of how many drafted GI’s felt about the conflict on the other side of the world. The irony being that this guy is supposed to be here.
Yep … it’s Vietnam all over again, despite what Hill rather belligerently and somewhat bizarrely says to the contrary.
“Now please … for once in your lives … try to ‘look’ like soldiers!”
The film is the perfect all-male, no BS ensemble, standing proudly beside John Carpenters The Thing in the celebration and deconstruction of standard cinematic machismo. The going gets tough … the supposedly tough fall apart at the seams.
Just look at the cast that Hill has assembled.
You’ve got Keith Carradine, son of John and brother to Kung-Fu David, who had appeared alongside his sibling for Hill the previous year in his grand outlaw Western, The Long Riders. Now he plays Spencer, the easygoing good-for-nothing who finds that he has to rise to the occasion and dig into his own reserves of courage and reluctant bonhomie when the chain of command collapses. He definitely doesn’t like it, and Carradine ensures that Spencer can be cynical, sarcastic, volatile, subservient and take-charge at any given time. In short, he portrays a very convincing human being caught up in a dire situation that can still offer moments of brevity and optimism. Although just a PFC the rest of the squad seem to look to him for advice, even if his line of thinking runs counter to military doctrine. He may not like to stick his neck out, but he’s far more adaptable than his buddies. He’s arranged for some horizontal “small-unit military penetration” after the exercise is over; he cuts through the text-book sermonising of the beleaguered and belittled Corporal Casper (Les Lannom), and he even happily accepts a dance from a Cajun lady when he should really be looking over his shoulder.
There’s the sensational Powers Boothe, who would play the charismatic bad guy in Hill’s gloriously violent modern-day oater, Extreme Prejudice (long, long overdue for a Blu release, as I say) and forge something of a vague action-man career in the 80’s with turns in John Milius’ original Red Dawn and John Boorman’s eco-adventure The Emerald Forest. He plays the newcomer to the team, Hardin, transferred from the Texas National Guard. If he didn’t much like them, he’s going to find precious little to enjoy about spending time with his new bayou-bound comrades. Like Spencer, he admits that he’s “not the volunteering type” yet he frequently becomes the man-of-the-moment when he can see nothing but cowardice and ineffectual leadership all around him. He gets off to a bad start with Fred Ward’s brutish Reece, and things go steadily downhill after that between them, but like Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine in The Emperor of the North their innate hostility towards one another is totally engrossing and you literally itch to see the face-off that you know must come.
The film hinges upon the vigorous verbal interplay between the ensemble cast, but these two – Spencer and Hardin - with their endlessly acerbic sparring with one another and with everybody else, become the linchpin of Bravo Team’s ill-fated sortie into the swamp. They may be forced to depend upon each other … but you know that they’ll never be friends even if they do make it out of the swamps alive.
Hill would bring both into his outstanding revisionist Western TV show, Deadwood, Carradine even appearing in Hill’s less-than-enthralling Wild Bill, but their hangdog, reluctant bond is the fragile backbone that we cling to, especially during the incredibly well-constructed climax.
“You come one step closer, Casper, an’ I’ll give you somethin’ else!”
Craggy-faced hard man Fred Ward (Remo Williams/The Right Stuff) is excellent as the squad’s most resilient, most resourceful and initially most “likely to survive” member, Reece. This is the one guy who had the foresight to bring along some live ammo and is, right now, “locked and loaded-down in case we meet them sum-bitches who shot Poole !” Hill recruited him because of the distinct physical similarity to, and intense screen presence shared with, Charles Bronson. The director had worked with Bronson on similarly Louisiana-set drama The Streetfighter, and loved the wrong-side-of-the-tracks, lived-in, simmering aggression that the granite-faced one exuded, and found roughly the same qualities in the snarly Ward. Even as a good guy, which he actually played more often than not, he is an intimidating prospect and someone you certainly wouldn’t entertain thoughts of crossing. With the meanest countenance and a stare that could make those presidents huddled on Mount Rushmore blanche, you get the feeling that if he was allowed to, he could perfectly execute his plan of coming back into the swamps, finding the Cajuns and wiping them out, singlehandedly. We also understand that as bad as the situation has turned, this is the sort of thing that Reece has wanted to happen all along. He has the skills and the attitude to win … but he is also the type of part-time soldier who simply couldn’t survive on a long active war-time campaign. He needs to come back home again to brag to his buddies in the bar every night about his adventures. So he’s tough and resilient, but he’s also anti-military and not much of a team-player. Once again, the writing and the characterisation, as it is with all the men in the squad, can be seen as being clichéd and somewhat contrived – a thumbnail set-up - but it is actually incredibly on-the-ball with the era and the attitudes of the men who signed-up for the National Guard.
“Casper, do you promise me that this Texas assh*le will be court-martialled when we get back?”
“He’s got to be. He killed a fellow soldier.”
Alongside Ward’s hard-line Reece, there is his rascally and idiotic buddy, Stuckey, played quite brilliantly by a gold-toothed Lewis Smith. A deadringer for James Franco, albeit with a wacky beard and a semi-afro, Stuckey is the catalyst for the disaster that befalls Bravo Team. His own level of insubordination is revealed almost straightaway during our introduction to the men at the base camp, when he unleashes about a hundred rounds of blank ammo from his M60 group machinegun directly at Casper, his own corporal. Now, in anybody’s army, including Dad’s, this would have led to a court-martial and a potential term behind bars … but this just gets laughed-off. Oh, it’s just Stuckey being the group clown again. Well, in the scheme of things, this is a mere fraction of the lunacy that these guys are seemingly permitted to get away with … and this is clearly the crux of the point that Hill is making about these non-professionals in-the-field. What strikes me as being slightly odd, though just as intricately fascinating, is that somebody as tough and as switched-on as Reece would actually be buddies with this guy at all. Reece can be a trouble-maker, all right … though only during situations as tense and as off-the-wall as the one that swiftly consumes the squad. Stuckey, by contrast, is a complete loose-canon, and precisely the sort of brainless soldier that you would never want around you when the proverbial hits the fan. That the whole exercise is doomed is down to him. Period. And, even though he does get a punch in the mush, and a fair bit of flack from the others, in reality, I can imagine his body being left behind in a shallow grave … and not as a result of enemy action. The inspired thing is that Smith is superb at making Stuckey likeable, though, even when he makes the blood boil.
“Don’t bother me. Not now. Not ever.”
But beyond Stuckey’s contemptible behaviour, we have the hair-trigger psychosis of Coach Bowden, played by future Mayor of Fresno, Carlos Brown (now called Alan Autrey after doing some ancestral rooting-about and finding the great Gene Autry in his family tree). Now this is a terrifically rendered character that starts off the drama as rock-solid, efficient and certainly trustworthy, both militarily and morally. But as soon as Poole has been shot, he flips out, panics and becomes a crumbling pillar of unpredictable danger to himself and to his fellow squad-members. His mental volte-face, as sudden as it may seem, is all-too frighteningly real. Had he gone into a true combat situation with the absolute foreknowledge that he would be engaged in fire-fights and witness death, he would surely have been fine and dependable. But given this scenario has just erupted out of the blue, and on what should qualify as home-turf, he reveals that he is utterly unprepared and horrifically out of his depth. His stunt as the “avenging angel” is frighteningly absurd, but you can see where he’s coming from. “That’ll teach ‘em to f*ck with us!” he swells proudly after his explosively foolhardy show of force … but his actions have just cost the squad what meagre victory they thought they’d achieved. His moralistic stance and dedication to duty become his own Achilles Heel and, like Reece and Poole, whatever hope he once represented for the squad’s survival is blown to the wind.
T.K. Carter didn’t learn a great deal from his experiences in the wilderness of male in-fighting as he would sign up for ice-bound, alien-bashing duty in John Carpenter’s The Thing pretty much straight after his tour in Southern Comfort. Ostensibly there as background comical support, his dope-smoking pimp is, on the face of it, hardly the sort of material that the National Guard would want to be recruiting. But, bearing in mind that the story is set in 1973, this is possibly the most logical direction that the Point-walking Tyrone Cribbs would have taken in order to avoid the draft to Vietnam. At least this way, he only does this “Army bullsh*t” for the odd weekend. Up until this release, I have never been able to discern what he says to Bowden when quizzed about what he does for a living … and I’m still not certain whether or not he’s telling the truth or just trying to wind the athletic football coach/history teacher up. Either way, it adds more texture than just stereotyping to Cribbs.
“No radio! No ammo! No air support! How the hell are we supposed to fight like that?”
“Don’t f*ckin’ ask me, Casper! You’re the one who’s supposed to know that!”
What often goes unsung when people talk about Southern Comfort is the emotional weight that Les Lannom and Franklyn Seales add to the group dynamic. As the struggling Corporal Casper, cuddly-looking softie Lannom is actually very good indeed. Another veteran of Vietnam, alongside Poole, Casper knows the rules, understands the tactics that they should be employing in defence and counter-attack, but struggles so completely with maintaining morale and gaining the respect of the men that every little thing that he does right blows up in his face, and ends in simply plucking another string on the fiddle of catastrophe. Brilliantly, he barks and shouts and even backhands one of the men when his authority is questioned, but you can see that he just hasn’t got the edge in his eyes, or the strength of character to win hearts and minds. If you placed yourself in their situation, however, you’d be dumb not to listen to the guy and, given the chance, he could even find the gumption to shine. He’s the one who fashions a hand-grenade out of blank rounds and a mess-tin. As it transpires, he is also the one who makes the most valiant stand, Hill instinctively and astutely gauging where true heroism lies … and exposing to us the fact that it rarely comes from the direction you expect it to … and that it rarely succeeds.
Seales, on the other hand, plays quite a perplexing character in the softly spoken Simms. Another black man, like Cribbs, Simms runs the risk of being sidelined and marginalised by the rest of the squad, but he is a very likeable and sensitive soul. Again, this could be the reason that he has enlisted in the National Guard – simply to avoid the real bad stuff taking place elsewhere in the world. Yet even he is given to outbursts of violence – slugging a one-armed prisoner in the face, for instance, or letting rip with blanks and the odd couple of live rounds at any shadow he sees in the trees – that seem to fly in the face of his character. However, these outbursts are brought-about by his own fear and sense of intimidation. Although all the men essay different elements of the groups’ psychological makeup, some even manifesting them all, it is Simms who captures the soul of the lost patrol, and you really do feel for him as the more horrific tricks that the Cajuns play on them take their toll and he breaks down.
The fabulously monikered Peter Coyote (ET/The Hunt for Billie-Jean) takes on the sort of role that Steven Seagal would assume in Executive Decision. Since the entire plot pivots upon his murder, I feel no reservations about discussing it here. Whilst he is the man in charge, we have many reasons to doubt his prowess with commanding this particular squad. They all start off respecting him, but you can tell from his withering expression and rather lax dismissal of some small but important misdemeanours that he is man who is idling-away his post Vietnam service with a part-time vocation that will keep him in uniform and maintain his military standing. The heroic years are behind him, though, and he’s found himself at something of a dead end. When his loyal corporal mentions that there are prospects for mercenaries in Africa, Poole is hesitant and unsure. He has no more taste for battle. You can see that in his eyes. And watch how worried he appears to be when he has his men steer the canoes they have taken without permission from the hunters towards the opposite bank … suddenly he realises that they have crossed the line and that he will have to face up to a confrontation that he could have done well without. As great an actor as he is, Coyote has such an earnest and soulful face that there is no way he could have played Poole any differently. There is no malice in the guy at all, and his loss is felt at a personal level even though we hardly knew him.
“That’s a nice speech, but it doesn’t help us very much.”
“Damn you, Spencer … I’m trying to do my best.”
“I know you are. But quoting the manual isn’t getting us anywhere.”
Interestingly, the film sketches these disparate characters with inkblot résumés that do just enough to denote their attitudes and ethical stances right from the get-go. We know who the jokers are straightaway. We know the tough-nuts. We can spot the teacher’s pet, as well as the canny chancer … and we can readily identify with every single of them. What Hill’s screenplay does, which was written with Michael Kane and David Giler, is to flesh these people out throughout a series of responses and reactions. None of them are reliable, or even all that trustworthy. All are fallible and stricken with easily-collapsible egos. Even Coyote’s Sgt. Poole, Vietnam veteran and winner of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, is defeated by circumstance. “Either the map is wrong … or I cain’t find my way around the block anymore,” he spouts when confronted with a wide lagoon that has sprung up where no lagoon should be. His lack of authority when it comes to Spencer’s, um, recreational arrangements for when they “emerge from the great primordial swamp,” reveals him as someone who simply doesn’t know his men all that well. And when the arrogant Reese thinks nothing of cutting through the Cajun fishing line instead of simply stepping over it, we can see how this shocks him, yet he does absolutely nothing to reprimand the grunt. He’s the most experienced soldier in the group, and the one who drawls a few quite half-hearted orders … but you can see that this squad can probably walk all over him if they actually got their act together and had a full-scale mutiny. Again, this is something that would be addressed in Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood with the National Guardsmen who flat-out refuse to obey Lt. Clinton Morgan’s commands when tracking Johnny Rambo. In a bold and accusatory move, Hill is revealing the cockiness of these part-time soldiers who use the uniform and the M16 as a means of elevating their status within the social pack, to be nothing more than a bogus smokescreen for their own ineptitude back on civvie-street. The mask to hide their own fears and insecurities.
“Now, if I were you I’d quit askin’ questions and haul ass. My buddies … dey not nice like me …”
Cult-movie demigod Brion (Blade Runner/Tango & Cash) James sports a crazy boondock beard, a crazier Cajun accent and just one crazy arm as the local who is forced to fall-in with the errant platoon simply because he is first swamp-resident that they stumble across in the aftermath of Sgt. Poole’s murder. Funnily enough, the late James would go on to produce quite a few highly distinctive characters over his career. His brutal but childlike replicant, Leon, in Blade Runner made an impact despite scant screentime, and his vile slave-trading Earthman in Wolfgang Petersen’s visually sublime Enemy Mine added some much-needed vitriol and a sadistic edge. But despite such terrific support over the 80’s, it is possibly his comically nasty henchman in Tango & Cash that fans most reluctantly revere. His Cajun accent here, mostly voiced in Creole French, may be very good indeed, but his ponytailed assassin in the fun Stallone/Kurt Russell actioner has the worst and most clichéd Cockney dialect since Dick Van Dycke skipped across the London rooftops – yet he makes it work with splendid conviction and a wicked little hyena giggle. He would appear before Hill’s cameras again in 48 Hrs and its sequel Another 48 Hrs, and he would create another chilling adversary in House III, aka The Horror Show, as an executed convict out for “shocking” revenge from beyond the grave. Sadly, he was also in the travesty of The Fifth Element, wearing a camp red beret … so we won’t go into that one.His Cajun poacher, summarily caught, beaten and trussed-up by the ragged soldiers in Southern Comfort elicits both our sympathy and our fear, and furthering our realisation that nothing and nobody is quite what they may seem.
“We gotta go east to go north.”
“You wanna run that be me agin … we gotta go which to go where?”
Scarface and Goodfellas may have a greater claim for medals in the obscenity stakes, but Southern Comfort is certainly no slouch when it comes to potty-mouthed bicker-banter. Those of a more delicate disposition should be warned that these boys do occasionally punctuate the F-bomb train with a few “normal” words now and again! But I love this ripe ‘n’ ridiculous dialogue. If you’ve ever been with a bunch of blokes out on military manoeuvres then you may rue the flagrant lack of respect for authority that we see depicted here (the point is rammed-home, though, that these guys, far more so than our own TA or Reserves, are weekend warriors with a level of commitment to their unit that wouldn’t come up to the knees on a legless grasshopper), but the expletive-sodden banter is perfectly accurate to the group dynamic and the environment. There is a Hawksian bent to the exchanges, with endless whipcrack insults and retorts, recoilless put-downs and scatter-shot character-assassinations. If this lot could apply even half of this verbal energy to their defence and counter-attack stratagem then they could stroll out of the swamps with Cajun scalps hanging from their belts.
In The Long Riders, Hill supplied us with a brief, but furious knife-fight, loving the grunting, painful exertions of a full-on mano-et-mano scrap between James Remar’s half-breed and David Carradine’s noble outlaw, Cole Younger. He does the same here, pitching the arch-rivals of Boothe and Ward against one-another amidst a cold and misty, dew-filled dawn. Brief again, the tussle is brilliantly hard and horribly random with blades slicing through the grey murk and the whole thing goaded by rancid, spittle-flecked Creole blood-baying from the sidelines. He would expand magnificently upon these ritualistic dances of death with the elaborate sledgehammer duel between Michael Pare and Willem Dafoe in the “rock ‘n’ roll fable” of Streets of Fire a few years later, and the furious game of chicken with buses in the Arnie-starring Red Heat.
“How many more graves are we gonna be leaving back here?”
“No more of ours – I can tell you that.”
Brilliantly, the Cajun hunters display all the military and guerrilla strategy that the soldiers lack. They kill off the National Guard commander with their first shot. They lead their prey on a wild goose chase, setting traps for them and grim teases – they set seven man-traps when there are eight of the Guardsmen still escaping and evading, though this is actually a very stark warning that one of them will not be going much further – and they move through the swamp like ghosts, wordless and barely glimpsed whilst the soldiers blunder, shout and splash about like jesters. “Maximum stealth and concealment,” Poole had commanded right at the start. Yeah, right. Stevie Wonder could lead Jedward through the swamp with less noise! The concept of the good guys being stuck behind enemy lines and having to fight their way home every step of the way was already explored in Hill’s urban adventure, The Warriors, and his co-writer here, David Giler, would even have a hand in the screenplay for Aliens, which would once again pit a supposedly well-trained and well-armed force deep inside a hostile environment and eliminate their official chain of command very quickly, leaving the subordinates to argue things out amongst themselves.
When it comes, the violence is random and unexpected. We witness everything from the soldiers’ perspectives … and they are always on the receiving end … so we don’t ever ascertain the true motives that spur the aggressors on. Perhaps Spencer sums it up the best, “they’re huntin’ us just for the hell of it.” Shots of rifle-barrels and squinting redneck eyes make the foe seem like deranged marionettes. But the fact that we don’t ever see them plotting and planning their next outrage, or applauding each new trap they’ve sprung, makes them all more demonic – like swampland Terminators. Jeff Lieberman’s terrific backwoods horror tale, Just Before Dawn, made stomach-churning use of a serrated machete thrust through somebody’s groin, but Hill presages it by a year with a vigorously doled-out knife slammed into an unguarded nether-region in a scene that really hits home. Cleverly, you can’t punch the air like you want to at this justified act of vengeance … because your hands have instinctively sought to reassure you that your own bits are still right there. Even if the film no longer carries the “X” certificate it once did – it is now a 15 – the physical jolts often carry a severe kick, and the action feels authentically loose and chaotic, with the soldiers mostly running about like headless chickens. A savage attack by hunting dogs is kinetic, shocking and even quite disorientating.
He even finds time to deliver a fabulous explosion that really rocks the house as it totally eradicates someone else’s from the planet forever. The sheer amount of spinning, shrieking shrapnel that flies across the screen and the sensational oomph that sends them on their way is deliciously emphatic and rousing, even in mono.
“Just like a steel pussy!”
Andrew Laszlo’s photography is grubbily excellent. They shot the movie in the swamps of Louisiana during the winter and the place does not look quaintly rustic and steeped in languid bayou-beauty. On Golden Pond this ain’t. There are no fireflies burning the night, no limpid pools caressed by the dragging fingers of overhanging vines. But there’s plenty of atmosphere, all right. Huge trees squat on copses just above the waterline, like prehistoric spiders with knotted legs tucked-up beneath them. Whatever glens rise up out of the filth look as dry and barren as the desiccated landscape in The Road. The place looks bloody horrible. Damp. Cold. Gloomy. And a real drudgery to move through. Whoever gets out of here will have a severe case of trench-foot, that’s for sure. Hill intercuts the verbal and physical violence with scenic but static shots of the trees and the marshes and the low sun attempting to penetrate the stagnant canopy, acknowledging the fact that nature, however unkempt and un-pretty, just gets back on track and carries on regardless. This is perfectly exemplified when one unsuspecting character gets sucked beneath the roof of a patch of unseen quicksand – his struggles instantly forgotten when the muddy lid closes over his head and peace and harmony are once more returned to the province. Both Hill and Laszlo ensure that a huge number of shots seem crowded with the ensemble cast, with the group filling a dense frame, or focus upon very close two-shots, heavily bordered by trees. In this way, they create an outdoors film that looks and feels incredibly claustrophobic, almost stage-set at times. Even the Vietnam War movies that were springing-up all over the place during this period were more spacious, and more cinematic despite dealing with a harsh, over-burgeoning jungle.
This film boasts the best and most immediately obeyable tirade that I’ve ever heard in my life. When Boothe’s end-of-tether Texan firebrand kicks off at the buffoons he’s been lumbered with, even the fearsome rainstorm and lightning roaring above their heads seems to be at his beck and call. “I’m talkin’ to everybody includin’ you!” he bellows above the elements to one affronted answer-backer. “Now keep yer f*ckin’ mouths shut and dig the goddamn graves!” And, swinging around upon the ever-antagonising Stuckey, the fool responsible for the dire predicament they find themselves in, he delivers the marvellously brow-beating,“And I don’t want any more sh*t outta you, either!” Boothe then sits with his back against a tree as the rest of the squad he is holding to ransom toil about in the rain-slicked mudslide to cover up the bodies of their slain comrades. Considering that the real-life Texan actor actually looks like Gregory Peck (and increasingly so as he gets older), this becomes a pure Captain Ahab moment of delirious, elemental power.
Critics at the time of the film’s release seemed determined to find some sort of discontent from the Cajun population regarding the story’s depiction of them, but they are not maligned or belittled at all and, as Hill relates, those that watched the end result actually quite admired it. During the late seventies when the film was made, there were many such outback enclaves buried deep in the bayous. The story, itself, is set in 1973, but I don’t doubt for one minute that little provinces and rural denizens still exist in this manner even today. The settlement that we arrive in for the exciting final act is clearly a great fun place for the locals to gather and trade, and to simply PARTY! The overwhelming majority of the Cajuns that we see are nice, well-adjusted people, making the best damn clam-chowder that you can imagine and whooping it up in a seriously infectious stomp-in-the-swamp. There’s no doubting that the angry hunters who harass and terrorise the Guardsmen are an exception to the rule. These guys probably don’t come into town all that much but, by the same token, they probably don’t spend all their time stalking cityfolk and plastic soldiers either. They’re good old boys, for sure, but I think it’s pretty apparent that they will only turn this nasty if you steal their property and make fools of them by shooting at them with blanks. OOPS, Stuckey … you’re a moron.
“They don’t understand. Maybe they only speak French.”
“Well, does anybody speak French?”
“Yeah … voulez-vous f*ck me!”
Whilst the majority of the rednecks on the hunt are pure unknowns, there is one fiercely indomitable face that genre fans will surely recognise amongst their number.
Walter Hill would recruit the mighty Sonny Landham again as the big bad Indian accomplice to James Remar’s psychotic escaped convict in 48 Hrs, and the ex-porn-star would gain the most fame from his portrayal of the sage-like redskin warrior, Billy, on Arnie’s alien-hunted team in Predator, but he gets to create the most disturbing presence in the bayou. As one of the unnamed Cajun hunters making life hell for the silly squaddies trespassing in their swamp, he cuts a very sinister figure. His stoic expression, half submerged beneath an exceedingly meaty ‘tache and a baseball cap only cracks for a millimetre’s worth of sadistic grin when he has one of them lying, wounded, at his feet. I’ll tell you what … the sight of a pair of big rubber gumboots slowly striding towards you has never seemed so terrifying as when his feet are inside them.
Francis Ford Coppola shocked audiences with the ceremonial slaughter of a cow during the classic Apocalypse Now, and Hill goes way beyond the plunging and falling horses that we saw in The Long Riders with the real-life killing, gutting and skinning of two pigs. Now, the genuine Cajun folks have brought these animals in for a genuine cook-out feast, but I know people who may be able to watch men getting impaled on spikes and having their bodies blown-apart by shotgun blasts, who then shrink away from this stylishly intercut imagery of what is probably everyday life for these folks and then denounce the film for unnecessary cruelty. Well, the imagery surely is unpleasant … but you can’t deny how skilfully Hill uses it to incite a reaction from us, because it is by not looking at the full picture that Hardin gets the wrong impression of the townspeople at large. Naturally, though, Hill ensures that this moralistic confusion then becomes a moot point during the ensuing drama.
And we can’t leave out the contribution that Ry Cooder made to the film with his redolent, languid and all-encompassing Cajun-tainted score. Having worked with him before on The Long Riders, Hill knew that he could rely upon the folk-laced tunesmith to provide an evocative, minimalist soundtrack that would totally capture the setting and the mood of the story. His main theme is a gorgeous laidback lament, peacefully drawled out through plucked guitar and fiddle yet still registering a sense of pathos and a hint of danger. Cooder also recruits the Japanese flute to provide some eerie tones of unease and shock – and this ethnic disparity actually works supremely well with the Louisiana setting and doesn’t sound at all out of place. The real Cajun musicians, led by Dewey Balfa, who helped Cooder come up with his haunting score, strike up as the village band during the ho-down finale, their wildly upbeat stomping and joviality brilliantly juxtaposed with the life and death struggle taking place in the clapboard huts.
From here on, the land of hospitality becomes the land of heavy spoilers. Please proceed only if you know the film well.
Hill’s imagery is frequently magisterial. The sight of the men in the stolen canoes gracefully traversing a dappled lagoon. Stuckey jokingly unloading at the hunters and screaming “Let ‘em have it! Take no prisoners!” Bowden painting a red cross on his chest and smiling with exultation as he hurls a Molotov cocktail into a shack filled with dynamite. His hanged body then observed through the mist beneath the train-bridge, like some sacrificial offering to the gods of the swamp. The sight of three dead soldiers, freshly dug up from their graves and trussed together in some hideous effigy to taunt the remaining men. Casper’s last charge against the Cajuns is the epitome of American misjudged might. He fixes his bayonet and plunges after the fleeting foe in the trees, Hill protracting his fateful plight in exquisite slow-motion, the Japanese flute echoing balefully his imminent demise. His cruciform body sinking in the fetid water in a bullet-blasted liturgy – something that Oliver Stone would adopt for the haunting death of Sgt. Elias in Platoon. The tantalising vision of an army helicopter whirring helplessly just above the treetops with nowhere to land. Hardin taking a shot to the shoulder that sends him flying ten feet through the air, and the splendid image of Spencer coming to his rescue with a distracting fusillade of blanks and an impressive series of intense muzzle-flashes. And, of course, the savagely euphoric moment when Hardin rams his knife between the Cajun’s legs, and Sonny Landham’s eyes almost popping from his head.
I love the way that Hardin actually leaves his buddy behind to fend for himself when Spencer doesn't take his fears about the new arrivals in the village seriously. The two have been though thick and thin together, and they will eventually save one another's bacon again, tit for tat, but this is the cold measure of a man's own instincts that Hill is forever striving to dissect. When it all comes down to it, you look out for number one.
Something that I’ve never quite grasped, though, is why people are bound-over with suspense about the actual outcome of the film. Spencer and Hardin have escaped from the village and are proceeding back out into the swamps. Overhead is a helicopter that is clearly from the National Guard, and approaching them through the trees is an olive drab truck. Hill turns the film into stylised, juddering slow-motion as the two battered survivors haul one another out of the turgid broth of the marsh, both looking at the other in fearful anticipation of just who has come to collect them in the full knowledge that neither are in any fit state to mount any defence is the reception isn’t a happy one. We, however, are under absolutely no illusion that the pair of them are completely and utterly safe. These are the good guys coming for them. An army chopper and a great big army truck. We’ve clocked the cavalry way before Hill shows us the big white star on the side of the wagon. But there are folks who badger back and forth about whether the two have been saved or just been caught again. Huh?
It's patently obvious.
If you want metaphor, and in this case it works quite well, you can view this tense finale as being akin to the Fall of Saigon. Rescue is tantalisingly close for the American soldiers and aid workers who are caught in a confusing chaos of a province that was once deemed as friendly that could rapidly be shifting to considerably unfriendly, but the helicopters may not get there in time, and some will inevitably be left behind. And all of it is being filmed by the world’s press. In Hill’s scenario, we are the cameras watching this drama unfold, unable to shout out either a warning to them, or to tell them that they are safe.
“Civilian in peace. Soldier in war. I AM THE GUARD!”
Whether you see the film as an allegory, or as a hard-hitting thriller, Southern Comfort exposes the moral morass that men often find themselves in when they confuse right and wrong and situations inevitably turn nasty. Walter Hill has made a career out of studying this macho dilemma, with varying degrees of success. The Warriors is a fabulous comic-book odyssey. 48 Hrs tremendously blends tough thrills and spills with a comedic strain, courtesy of the new sheriff in town, Eddie Murphy. And Extreme Prejudice was a worthy grandson to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. But Southern Comfort gets under the skin like a swampland tick because of its barnstorming roster of roguish characters, its rolling momentum and its bleak understanding of Man’s darker impulses.
A classic of its kind from a one-time master of mythical machismo.
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