This week is a different kind of war movie, because it’s a war movie on the home front which mirrors the actions and feelings of what the country was going through during the latter half of the Vietnam War. Southern Comfort (1981) is a psychological thriller from acclaimed director Walter Hill (The Warriors, The Long Riders, 48 Hours, Streets of Fire, Geronimo: An American Legend.)
The film centers around a squad of nine National Guardsmen who are on weekend maneuvers in the Louisiana bayous in 1973. The film stars an assortment of fantastic character actors ranging from Powers Boothe (Cpl Hardin), Keith Carradine (Pfc. Spencer), T.K. Carter (Pfc. Cribbs), Peter Coyote (Ssgt. Poole), Brion James (Cajun trapper), Sonny Landham (Cajun hunter), Lewis Smith (Pfc. Stuckey), and Fred Ward (Cpl. Reece).
As the squad of men descend deep into the swamp, Cpl. Hardin (Boothe) and Pfc. Spencer (Carradine) quickly become pals and are the only two level headed individuals in this motley crew of weekend warriors. Hardin is a recent transfer from the Texas Guard who is trying to finish his stint so he can return to civilian life. He has total lack of respect for the Army and for those in charge such as Ssgt. Poole (Coyote) and Sgt. Casper (Les Lannom).
As the film progresses, the squad commandeers a few Cajun canoes in order to make their way to the other side of the swamp. In doing so they seal their fate with a bunch of Cajuns who retaliate due to their canoes being stolen, and after Pfc. Stuckey (as a prank), scares them by opening fire with his M-60 machine gun which is loaded with blanks. Terrified, the Cajuns shoot back killing Ssgt. Cribbs. The men quickly become paranoid as to their fate and have only a few precious live rounds to do battle with the Cajuns who use their knowledge of the terrain to their advantage.
Southern Comfort is brilliantly scripted which shows a very isolated and misunderstood group of Americans who fight like the Vietcong. The squad of guardsmen represent the American military who greatly underestimated their foe, and quickly have their numbers reduced through ambushes, and vicious booby-traps. The film is an allegorical representation of America’s failure to win in Vietnam.
As one by one of the guardsmen perish, only Hardin and Spencer have managed to outwit their pursuers and manage to flee the swamp through the help of the one armed trapper (James). Believing that the worst is behind them, Hardin and Spencer must rely on each other in order to make it out of this nightmare scenario alive as they are discovered by the hunters while hiding out in a Cajun village who welcome the guardsmen with open arms.
Southern Comfort has all the earmarks of Hill’s previous successful film The Warriors (1979) which is a story about a New York street punk gang who are framed for the murder of a gang warlord and fight countless gangs in order to make it back to the sanctuary of their home base on the boardwalk of Coney Island. The guardsmen in Southern Comfort are just like The Warriors, trying to make it out of hostile territory into “civilized”, English speaking Louisiana.
Walter Hill has always been a director which uses reoccurring themes and trends in his films like John Landis does with his movie marquees of a porno film entitled See You Next Wednesday. His use of photography and his positioning of the cameras is absolutely flawless.
He is a director who always gets his shot and it almost looks as if it was only done in one take. I have always celebrated his style as a film maker and have always used terminology as a “Hillian” camera angle or cut away. He is among a small collection of film makers who I have cited as an influential source for myself as a film buff and aspiring director. All of his films represent a vision which is often emulated, but never truly perfected.
Southern Comfort is a dark, terrifying metaphor for America’s involvement in Vietnam. It captures the intense fear and paranoia of G.I.s who were beaten by experts in guerrilla warfare. America lost Vietnam like the colonial French, because they believed that technological superiority and sheer numbers would quell civil unrest in a country that was not only subjugated by the French, but also by the Chinese and Soviets. The Cajuns fight with Davey Crockett era muskets against U.S. Army personnel with modern weaponry and blank ammunition, because the guardsmen represent a threat to the livelihood of the Cajuns who want to be left alone and consider themselves a separate, sovereign entity.
Like the film’s poster states “It’s the land of hospitality…unless you don’t belong there.” One other added touch to the effectiveness of the film’s tones, is its superb music from Ry Cooder who has worked on Many of Hill’s films throughout the decades. The soundtrack is awash in slide guitars and Cajun instruments. A fantastic music score.
Southern Comfort is available on DVD through MGM/UA Home Video & Netflix.