Southern Comfort (1981)

“We don’t know the enemy’s strength or his disposition — and while he may have the advantage of familiar terrain, we have the advantage of military training.”

Southern Comfort Poster

Synopsis:
A group of Louisiana National Guardsmen (including Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, Franklyn Seales, and Peter Coyote) find themselves lost in the bayou, fighting for survival against militant local Cajuns.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “extremely intense, violent” film by director Walter Hill “can be seen as a metaphor for American involvement in Vietnam”, given that “we see the parallels between these initially arrogant guardsmen and those American soldiers who trespassed through Vietnamese jungles and… acted with condescension toward the illiterate peasants”, often being “blown away” as a result. Indeed, the allegory is hard to miss, and occasionally comes across as heavy-handed; as Roger Ebert accurately points out, the characters in Southern Comfort never fully come alive — we only get to see one of the Cajun militants (an effective Brion James), and, in classic cinematic platoon fashion, the guardsmen are racially and socially diverse “types” (trigger-happy punk, loose cannon, fatherly leader, etc.) rather than individuals.

With that said, the film has much going for it: it’s beautifully shot (the seemingly endless bayou is all muted greens and grays and browns); Ry Cooder’s score is a “good” one; Powers Boothe gives a fine, enigmatic performance; and there are many genuinely tense sequences — particularly the “nerve-wracking” finale, “in which [Carradine and Boothe] nervously party with seemingly friendly Cajun villagers while looking over their shoulders for the vengeful backwoodsmen”. This extended sequence, shot with dozens of seemingly authentic locals, makes one intensely curious to learn more about this mysterious segment of American society.

P.S. The film’s tone and subject immediately bring to mind Jon Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), but film fanatics may also be reminded of the little-seen Peary title Shoot (1976).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Powers Boothe as Cpl. Hardin
    Southern Comfort Boothe
  • Effective location shooting
  • Ry Cooder’s score

Must See?
No, but it’s definitely worth a look.

Links:

2 Responses to “Southern Comfort (1981)”

  1. First viewing. Not a must. Actually, among the dullest ‘action’ films ever.

    Co-writer David Giler was on board for ‘Alien’ – released two years prior – and ‘Southern Comfort’ comes off like ‘Alien’ without an alien, just Cajuns. It also reads like a re-tread of the film ‘And Then There Were None’, or ‘Ten Little Indians’. Once you get wind of that, the predictability of it is all too apparent.

    There’s an awful lot of male posturing in this film, and a fair share of banal dialogue to match it (“There’s a time you have to abandon principles and do what’s right!”). As well, several of the cast-for-macho-type actors simply seem to be ‘acting’ macho. To a degree, that’s the fault of the script – even so, it’s oddly unbelievable.

    Keith Carradine is the least effective of all. (Odd that Altman was able to work well with him in ‘Nashville’, as did Alan Rudolph in ‘Choose Me’.) But then, he’s saddled with some of the most verbose dialogue ever put into the mouth of an average heterosexual military male character!

    Director Hill finally manages to sneak in some real finesse in the final sequence as he stretches the tension amid deceptive tranquility. The rest of the film is often oddly static – and there’s a big bunch of scenes of guys just w-a-l-k-i-n-g in the bayou.

    At least one unintentionally funny bit: a distraught guardsman cries out with “I’m not supposed to be here!” and, at that point, is simply blown away!
    Well, he DID say…

  2. In the same way that ‘Deliverance’ (1978) showed us city-folk that going for a country trek could be hazardous to your health, this film screams it twofold. Not only do the swamps and surroundings paralyze us, but the locals prove to be the worst. Even when you do make it out to one of the dirty, dingy ‘towns’ the tension doesn’t let up. The locals prove more unnerving than the menacing swampland.

    It’s interesting to note that National Guardsmen are portrayed here instead of an Army platoon. Maybe the filmmakers were cautious in denigrating actual soldiers as weak and cowardly.

    Film brings together a stellar ‘cult classic’ cast headed by Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward and in a minor role Brion James (one of my all-time favorites) as a trapper with a conscious.

    This is my favorite Walter Hill film so far, with a superb score by regular ‘compadre’ Ry Cooder. Andrew Laszlos’ cinematography is aptly ‘lush-green’.

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