Friday, September 14, 2007

Dir. by Walter Hill

Southern Comfort is one of the best works from Walter Hill, a director with a distinguished resume (48 Hours, The Warriors, Trespass, etc.). It is also the best Not-Vietnam film.

In 1981 the Vietnam War was still relatively raw for Americans. One can only imagine what studios said when approached with the idea of filming battle scenes in the jungle. It would be expensive and controversial, two things that are pretty much anathema in Hollywood. Not being Francis Ford Coppola, Hill took a different tack. He made a movie about a group of Louisiana National Guardsmen on weekend maneuvers.

Hardin (Powers Boothe) is a Texan who has just moved to Baton Rouge and transferred to the Louisiana Guard. He finds his new comrades to mostly be ignorant, gun-toting rednecks (“Just the ones I been around all my life,” he says). In this passel of misfits, he gravitates to the only other misfit whose IQ is more than room temperature, Spencer (Keith Carradine).

While the squad is on maneuvers, they steal some pirogues from the swamp-Cajuns. They also indulge in firing blanks at anything that moves. Unfortunately the Cajuns aren’t in on the joke and reply with real guns. Lost and under fire, the Guardsmens’ jaunt across the swamp turns into a bloody nightmare.

By now you may have guessed that this story has bugger-all to do with Cajuns. They are hill-billy stand-ins for the VC. Much of what transpires to Bravo squad is the stuff of Vietnam movie-cliché, except of course it wasn’t cliché at all in 1981. The enemy is mostly invisible, they attack with unpredictable and highly effective means that demoralize the troops. The Guardsmen are book soldiers, they are prey to ferocious conflicts among themselves, and use drugs in the field. The civilians (yes, there are civilians) speak an incomprehensible patois and the troops must either brutally treat them as or enemies trust them with their lives.

The most compelling element of Southern Comfort is the cast and characters. The relationship between Hardin and Spencer is at the core of the film. It’s classic Walter Hill fare: two men bond under the stress of a survival situation. The supporting cast is no less compelling. They are a scruffy, unmilitary lot, alternately oafish and vulnerable. Fred Ward plays Reese, a man who thinks of himself as a hardened killer. Alan Autry (credited as Carlos Brown) plays Bowden, an emotionally unstable high school football coach. The underrated standout is Les Lanom as Sgt. Casper, who plays a desperately unimaginative and naïve squad leader whose doomed efforts to lead the squad are almost painful watch in their folly. Fine performances by Peter Coyote, Lewis Smith, Franklyn Seales, and T.K. Carter, and Brion James (as a Cajun trapper) round out the cast.

The film builds a tour de force of intercut music, image, and action that makes an ending that is of exceptional emotional impact. As in real war, men may survive, but Hill makes it clear that his protagonists will be marked by the struggle. Do the survivors run toward rescue or away from it?

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

I Remember this movie with fondness. Loved, simply loved, when the city boys shoot (blanks) at the Cajuns and the cajuns return fire with real bullets. Priceless.

Dave Hardy said...

It's part of what makes this movie so great. The subtext is Vietnam, but it IS kind of what you expect a bunch of swamp Cajuns to do.