What I Remember:
This was one of the first films I wrote down to be rewatched when I started this blog in 2011, 4 years ago. It’s taken me that long to find it. I saw it in the theater with my then girlfriend, and we were both blown away. It is a classic allegory film, starring the Louisiana National Guard as the US Armed Forces, and the Bayou dwelling Cajuns as the Viet Cong. It is as convincing an argument for “Why we shouldn’t go in there” as anything I’ve ever seen.
Walter Hill was fairly established when this came out. "The Warriors” was a breakthrough film for him, and was one of the most ridiculous yet entertaining movies you will ever see. New York City taken over by fighting street gangs with coordinated Halloween costumes, was probably a perfect pubescent male fantasy of violence and implied sex. He followed this with a James Gang movie called “The Long Riders” which did well. After “Southern Comfort”, he directed maybe the most successful film of his career, “48 Hours”. Then his arc began a descent; “Streets of Fire” (probably only remembered for it’s huge hit “I Can Dream About You”), the poorly executed buddy comedy “Brewster’s Millions”, which squandered the teaming of two of the greatest comedians of the time, Richard Pryor and John Candy, and then the ill-advised “Crossroads”, wherein teen heartthrob Ralph Macchio tries to convince us all that he is the Italian-American reincarnation of the legendary Delta Blues singer/guitarist Robert Johnson.
“Crossroads” plays like “The Bottleneck Kid”, complete with a black bluesman version of Mr. Miyagi and a huge showdown for a climax (against the "Devil’s Guitarist", played by Steve Vai!). The only thing they didn’t do is have him break his hand and hold the bottleneck with his teeth. Wax on, wax off, diminished chord, dominant 7th. What a joke.
So yes, Most of these films are short on realism. WAY short. For some reason, that is the complaint about “Southern Comfort”. Most critics maligned the film’s portrayal of National Guardsmen as poorly trained dumbasses. That critique is probably on-target. However as an analogy, it is perfect. American troops were as ill prepared to deal with Viet Cong guerrilla tactics as Lindsay Lohan was to portray Elizabeth Taylor.
I think once you buy into the allegorical concept behind “Southern Comfort”, it all makes sense. Let’s watch and see if that is still the case.
"Four of them with automatic weapons against some swamp rat. I make it even money.” --Hardin
A Louisiana National Guard squadron is on a weekend exercise in the Bayou, armed only with maps and blanks. When their map steers them in the wrong direction, they are confronted with a lake that prevents their progress. Finding some dugout canoes, they decide to borrow them and cross the lake, leaving one behind for the native Cajuns to retrieve their boats. As they cross, the natives appear on the shore where the boats were found, and joking around, one of the guardsmen fires blanks at the Cajuns. The Cajuns, unaware that this is a joke, fire back and kill the Commanding Officer. All of them scramble and panic, tipping over the canoes and ruining radios and losing their compasses. Stranded, they now have to find a way out of the bayou swamp while being pursued by the natives.
There is no mistaking the allegory in this film. In case you missed it, it becomes painfully clear in the climactic sequence, when our two main characters, Hardin (Powers Boothe) and Spencer (Keith Carradine) are “rescued” and find themselves in a backwater Cajun village, amidst the enemy. The Cajuns are presented as happy people, living well off the grid without the use of phones, but complete with food and culture and a society pretty much working and prospering. They are not bloodthirsty barbarians. By 1981, we all understood that the Vietnamese were fighting for their right of self-determination, which they had been doing for decades against the French, Chinese and the USA. We also understood that, left to their own devices, they would be just fine, regardless of what system they chose to govern themselves.
But what we really understood was that this nation of poorly armed, under-educated and poverty stricken people kicked our ASSES at the one thing we were supposed to be the best at-- war.
How could this happen? The great line in this movie comes when our soldiers finally have an English conversation with one of the Cajuns (Brion James- known for playing Leon the replicant in “Blade Runner", and ironically a veteran of the National Guard) , and they ask why this is happening. “You come down here and you fuck with us!”, is the Cajun's response. A word to the wise for all Colonialists.
The real question is, why do we keep doing this? Putting ourselves in these positions where we try and take over or beat down other nations? Why do we go ahead and invade Iraq after 9-11? Why do we try a Bay of Pigs invasion? A Cambodian incursion?
Cue Peter, Paul and Mary. "When will they ever learn? When will they ehhhhhhhhhver learn?"
I really think that this film stands apart from Hill's other work in it's artistic standards, which are very high. The cinematography, the use of music and much of the film language represent the best of this era. There is a direct reference to one of my favorite Hal Ashby devices in an early scene. Right after the CO gets shot, the Guardsmen are moving through the swamps and arguing/ discussing the situation. Their face to face arguments are superimposed over the actual trudging through the swamps. This is not the kind of thing you expect to see in a movie like "48 Hours" or "Crossroads".
A lot of the deaths of these guardsmen are telegraphed by the director, which takes away from the originality and unpredictability of the movie. "OK, Cribbs. You're on the point". Cribbs complains but takes it. Oh gee, you think, why is it important to show us this? Because....wait for it, BAM!!..a Cajun impaling device gets sprung when the lead guy steps on it. Later, Stuckey, in a panic to try and wave down the search helicopters runs off by himself. Yep…he’s a goner. This time it’s quicksand. The CO’s death is the only one you don’t really see coming.
Since I've already spent some time on Hill, I'd like to discuss Andrew Laszlo who shot the film, and Ry Cooder who scored it. Laszlo did 3 films with Hill, including "Warriors" and "Streets of Fire". He was a Hungarian born concentration camp survivor, who emigrated to the USA and became a combat photographer for the Korean War. Talk about qualified!
I can't give enough credit to him for the look of this film. It is astonishingly beautiful. The contrast between this peaceful beauty and the tense, violent situation is striking. The scene in the Cajun village is also beautifully shot. It feels as if you are right there amongst the natives, and the dull colors of their clothes and shacks are contrasted with the red of the crawfish, the pigs blood, and eventually the blood of our lead characters and that of the hunters.
The music is mostly Ry Cooder's achingly atmospheric slide guitar work. Cooder, of course, played for the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker and more. The soundtrack is awash with sloshing, bird calls and Cooder's sinuous sound. It reflects Laszlo's work perfectly, and accomplishes the same feat of contrasting the natural beauty with this invasive force.
This film is not poorly acted. In fact, everybody does a fine job with what they were given. That is the issue, however, because these characters are paper thin. We've got;
1) your thorny but respected CO,
2) your horny but generally intelligent wise-ass,
3) your religious nut-job,
4) your violent sociopath,
5) your total redneck dumbass,
6) your goofy black guy,
7) your easily spookable black guy,
8) your officious but clueless 2nd-in-command,
and of course,
9) your strong, silent outsider.
What? No room for the tough Italian guy from Joisy or the poetry quoting intellectual from Boston? I mean, couldn't we have spent a little time giving these people something deeper?
Keith Carradine’s wiseass is probably the best drawn character, which is not saying much. He does a fine job, although his California accent is not even dropped for a second. He sounds as much from New Orleans as McNulty from the "The Wire" sounded like he was from Baltimore. Just a couple of drawled vowels would have been nice.
Fred Ward is memorable as the sociopathic Reece, and he obviously is having a field day snarling his way through the dialogue and action.
Native Texan Powers Boothe plays the outsider from the El Paso, Texas National Guard, who’s been transferred to this Louisiana unit for unexplained reasons. He doesn’t want to be accepted. or for that matter be friendly with anyone. He thinks he’s smarter than them all (HAH! A Texan who thinks he’s smarter than everyone. What a riot). It's a one-note character in desperate need of another dimension.
As for the rest of this cast, Only Brion James stands out as the captured Cajun. He has some great moments, especially during a knife fight, when he starts yelling something in Cajun French, and then blurts out “KILL HIM! This is the point when you realize that he understands English. His delivery of the film’s key lines near the end is extremely powerful.
Everybody else; nice job. We’ll see you at the next auditions for “48 Hours”.
ON SECOND LOOK
As an allegory, “Southern Comfort” is right on, albeit a tad superficial. As an atmospheric action flick it is superb and harrowing. As a story based on real situations and real characters, it is flawed at best, and at times ridiculous. So go in and watch this for free on YouTube and put your bullshit detector in the basement drawer. You will enjoy this very much with that caveat. No, it’s not as great as I remembered, but totally deserves a better fate than having disappeared from most streaming providers.
On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2 On Second Look: ✭✭✭