There’s a lot of gold to mine from a fish-out-of-water, culture-clash story in Hollywood movies. It’s sort of how most horror movies get started, and a fair amount of action movies. Really, the closest thing we have to that massive a schism between cultures is in the Deep South. It’s a completely different world down there, or so movies would have us believe. You guys seen Deliverance? That surely screwed things up for the tourism board for a long time. But it’s not just Appalachian country that’s to be feared; it’s also Cajun Country. I mean, those people speak French, you can’t trust them not to kill you. At any rate, it’s these particular catfish-infused backwoods yokels who are the adversaries in Walter Hill’s 1981 survival adventure, Southern Comfort, in which a group of Louisiana National Guardsmen are woefully ill-equipped to deal with four hunters who know the bayou.
By the early ’80s, Walter Hill had already made a name for himself as a maker of gritty urban action movies, like The Driver (1978) and The Warriors (1979), which remains my favorite of his films. His movies were always high on action and full of bodies hitting the floor. Southern Comfort certainly has these elements, but there’s also a definite air of melancholy involved as well. The overcast and miserable scenery of the wintery swamp certainly adds to this, but there’s also an idea that the movie was a veiled response to the Vietnam War, no matter how Hill or writer David Giler insist otherwise. We have a group of unprepared and under-supplied American military guys traipsing through a landscape and a culture they know almost nothing about. Even though most of the people are actually supposed to be from Louisiana, they aren’t from THIS part of Louisiana, and they don’t even speak French very well.
The film follows a group of Louisiana Guardsmen out for a couple of days’ training in the swamp. These are weekend warriors to a tee; they think they’re badasses and act like they’re completely in control. A new member joins the group led by Sgt. Poole (Peter Coyote) in the form of Pvt Hardin (Powers Boothe), a Guardsman who moved from Texas and who has very little love for the military mentality. Other members of the group include the smart by sarcastic Spencer (Keith Carradine), the hot-headed Reece (Fred Ward), the by-the-book Bowdin (Alan Autry), and the big idiot Stuckey (Lewis Smith). While walking loudly through the heavily-wooded area, they come across canoes and Reece eventually convinces the Sarge to let them take the canoes to go downriver to meet some “dates” he got set up for the boys.
Despite the note Bowdin left explaining they’d return them, the Cajun hunters don’t seem to understand them from across the river. Stuckey, again a big moron, decides to open fire with his machine gun, full of blanks of course. It is a training mission. The hunters don’t know this and return fire with a well-aimed rifle shot hitting Poole in the head, killing him. From here, the now hopelessly lost men have to try to get back to the main road following the nervous second-in-command Casper (Len Lannom). Internal arguments and chest-beating ensure after they capture a one-armed Cajun trapper (Brion James) who may or may not be involved, and cleverly-laid traps begin picking people off one by one.
Like all good survival-horror movies, there’s a sense from the beginning that pretty much everybody in the group is doomed. The flippancy of the characters at the beginning melts away by the inciting incident, by the defiance does not. There’s a reason these guys aren’t in the Army or the Marines; they’re largely not mentally prepared for battle, which again speaks to the way a lot of young people felt after going to Vietnam. Carradine’s character especially feels like a precursor, even though it takes place after the War, to Pvt. Joker in Full Metal Jacket. There’s also this idea that no matter what anyone does, or doesn’t do, there’s no escape from or reasoning with the hunters, as one character faces them down with tears in his eyes exclaiming “I didn’t do anything! I’m not supposed to be here!”
Even if they do meet seemingly friendly folks in the Cajun towns, there’s a sense that they can’t be trusted. It’s an “Us vs Them” society, and the hunters can’t just let these guys live, not after what they’ve already seen. The movie doesn’t have the same level of sadism on the part of the aggressors the way Deliverance did (i.e., nobody is made to squeal like a pig), but there is a real sense that the hunters don’t want anything besides killing these guys. They aren’t having fun or enjoying it; they’re just hunters out hunting, even if that game is the “most dangerous.” That’s far scarier, I think.
Southern Comfort is a movie I’d never heard of before the Blu-ray release from Shout Factory, but it’s a movie I’ll certainly be watching again. It’s exciting, scary, a bit funny, and definitely deeper than you might think. Carradine and Boothe are terrific leads and the whole cast is made up of excellent character actors all getting to do great work. The ending is ambiguous and eerie, and that’s exactly what you’d want from a movie this full of confusion. Nothing is guaranteed, not even safety.
The Blu-ray features a new 30 minute making-of documentary featuring interviews with Carradine, Boothe, Coyote, Smith, director Hill, and writer Giler. It’s an interesting mixture of anecdotes and opining on the messages contained in the film. There’s no commentary on the disc, but this making-of is definitely packed with info and well worth the time.
Southern Comfort is a movie more people need to see, fans of war movies, adventure movies, and horror movies will certainly find a lot to like, and you can’t beat a tough guy cast like this. Pick up the Blu-ray and see what I mean.