Today: February 25, 2024

Southern Comfort

In Louisiana, in 1973, a rag-tag body of men set out into the swamp for some National Guard training.

In Louisiana, in 1973, a rag-tag body of men set out
into the swamp for some National Guard training.

Desperate
to get quickly to the end of their mission, where one of them has set up a
rendezvous with some ‘Bayou Queens,’ they find and borrow some canoes belonging
to indigenous Cajun hunters.

Not 20
meters out, the hunters appear on the shoreline, as shadowy as they will remain
for almost the film’s entirety. Stuckey (Lewis Smith), a young hothead,
fires off some blanks in their direction. One shot is returned, blowing a hole
in the head of Poole, the company’s leader.

Panicked,
the guardsmen ditch the boats and in the process their radio, maps and compass.
Led now by Casper (Les Lannon), a by-the-book guy promoted by
circumstance beyond his skills, they stumble deeper into the swamp pursued by
the mostly-unseen Cajun hunters and, armed mostly with blanks, face a fight to
the death.

Guided with
a customary steady hand by director Walter Hill, Southern Comfort is
the film he made before The Warriors, the film that made his name.

It is a
stark drama, based on Howard Hawks’ dictum that all good stories are
premised on the simple question: ‘will he live or will he die.’

The company
is familiar with each other — good ole boys making up a fair representation of
wider America. T.K. Carter’s dope-pusher Cribbs, Alan Autry’s
high school coach Bowden, Fred Ward’s intense Reece, and Keith
Carradine’s
louche, Southern aristocrat Spencer.

A man apart
is the enigmatic Hardin (Powers Boothe), a Texan who can’t believe what
a bunch of rednecks he’s been assigned to. Detached from the local mindset, it
is he who gets to speak the unspeakable: “I don’t know a goddamn thing about
this swamp. What the hell’s going on here?”

They are
being hunted because they are somewhere they shouldn’t be and have offended the
local sensibilities. A troop of American soldiers, out of place and out of its
depth, in an alien place and led by a man who quotes the manual when confronted
by guerrilla tactics.

The
parallels are there, but director Hill doesn’t want them made – in the
excellent 30-minute documentary that accompanies this DVD and Blu-ray release,
Hill reminisces about the location filming, the cast and the crew, and is
adamant that this is not a Vietnam allegory.

He even
says he told the cast there would be trouble if he caught anyone playing a
metaphor.

There
should be no quibbling with a director so talented that he even made a
half-decent film with Ices T and Cube as the leading men.

For his
part, Hill prefers Southern Comfort to be seen as a ‘displaced western’ and
it’s easy to see where he’s coming from.

The habits
of the Cajuns are unchanged from the 1860s — in a key scene the company find
and capture a one-armed trapper who lives in the woods, certain he was involved
in the death of Poole. The trapper, in his dress and in the way he lives, could
have stumbled out of The Outlaw Josey Wales were he not a French
speaker.

And it is
all set in badlands, the company having to face the sort of inhospitable
terrain and moral conundrums that so many grizzled men on horseback have faced
on the high plains.

Supporting
the action is a rich score from the ever-reliable Ry Cooder, who eschews
the squeezebox and fiddle, and effortlessly turns a Japanese flute into the
sound of the Deep South.

That the
excellent ensemble is allowed the space to develop their characters within the
relatively tight running time is down to Hill’s sure hand, presaging things to
come from this fine director.

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