Monday, August 6, 2007

Southern Comfort (1981)

Like Cutter's Way (which I wrote about last week), another 1981 film that addresses the Vietnam War (though much more obliquely) is Walter Hill's Southern Comfort. The film features an excellent ensemble cast (including Peter Coyote, Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, and Brion James) and some kick-ass action scenes filmed in the Louisiana swamps. It has, however, garnered mixed critical reactions over the years, though those viewers who appreciate it seem to champion it strongly.

Walter Hill is probably best known for his critical and cult success, The Warriors (1979); his contribution to defining the buddy cop film, 48 Hours (1982); and his involvement as one of the creators behind the Alien franchise. Fans of Westerns may additionally know him for The Long Riders (1980), a great Western made in that post-Blazing Saddles period where not very many Westerns were being made. Otherwise, his career has been a mixed bag, with perhaps the low point reached in the science fiction bomb, Supernova, a movie from which Hill had his name removed when the studio recut the film and reshot significant portions.

While Walter Hill has made movies in a variety of genres--Westerns, musicals, comedies, science fiction, thrillers, and film noir--his approach to genre is often revisionist and unconventional, and that may contribute to the mixed critical and popular responses his movies have received. His films often bend the genre's conventions to the breaking point, a move that might confuse casual filmgoers with rigid expectations of a particular genre while aggravating fans of the genre as well. For example, one of Hill's later Westerns, Wild Bill, was a critical and commercial flop, I would argue mainly because it failed to meet audiences' expectations of the genre. However, in looking back on the film, it's revision of the Western genre in terms of character, plot, narrative structure, and even setting clearly anticipate the much-more-popular Deadwood series (Hill also directed the pilot of Deadwood, and I would recommend fans of that series to check out Wild Bill, at least for the performances of Jeff Bridges as the title character and Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane).

I have often found that my own personal appreciation of Walter Hill's films usually does not keep pace with the general critical concensus on his work. Hill has had a spotty career, but I think most of his films are much better than the two-star reviews they receive in many film guides.

I would define Southern Comfort as a revisionist war movie, though it bends war movie conventions far past the breaking point. The film takes place in 1973, with a group of Louisiana National Guardsmen on an exercise in the bayou. From the beginning, few characters come across as sympathetic: they are either excessively gung-ho weekend warriors or lazy and lacking in motivation. We can see from the beginning that these are men playing at being soldiers: they're undisciplined, their leaders lack authority, and they see the exercise as an excuse to get away from their mundane responsibilities and behave badly.

Once on maneuvers, the guardsmen start to experience some problems. Recent flooding has washed away the path they have to take through the swamp, and the soldiers make a controversial decision to "borrow" some canoes they find near a fishing dock. As the group paddles across the water, the canoes' owners return, and one particularly trigger-happy guardsman decides that it would be funny to scare the Cajuns by firing rounds of blanks in their direction. The Cajuns, however, don't get the joke and return fire with live ammunition, killing one of the guardmen. And everything goes to shit from there.

For the rest of the movie, the survivors must overcome both external and internal threats: the Cajuns pursue them in a kind of cat-and-mouse game, but the soldiers also experience madness, jealousy, and anger that also proves as much a threat as their pursuers. The guardsmen continue to make bad decisions as they try to escape the swamp, especially when they decide to take, as a prisoner, a Cajun (Brion James) that they find who may or may not be involved in the earlier shooting. To make things even worse, one of the guardsmen, Private Simms (Franklyn Seales), paints a red cross on his chest and blows up the Cajun's shack, in a scene that serves as an obvious allegory to American troops' behavior in Vietnam. Simms's growing insanity makes him useless to the group, and they are forced to restrain him. Eventually, the soldiers are picked off one by one (or pick each other off, as the case may be), as they get increasingly lost in the swamp with diminishing hopes of rescue.

The movie often gets compared to Deliverance, with which it shares obvious similarities, but the movie that may have the most direct bearing on it is Apocalypse Now. One of the basic messages of Apocalypse Now (and its source, the novel Heart of Darkness) is that civilization is a veneer that can be rubbed off quite easily, and the skills or traits that make us successful in civilized society (including social rank and morality) are useless when humans are brought closer to a natural state of existence. Southern Comfort adds to this theme an element of geography: it says that you don't have to go all the way to Cambodia or the Congo to lose your connection to civilization and be reduced to a state of nature.

The attempts by the guardsmen to maintain some facade of civilization is what lead to the downfall of several characters. For example, a debate occurs early in the film over who should be in charge. The men relent to letting Sgt. Casper lead because he has the most "stripes," despite the fact that he is the least qualified in any practical sense. It is those men who are the most reluctant to lead--Spencer (Carradine) and Hardin (Boothe)--who exhibit the true alpha male characteristics that would make them the better choices. Also, the men's decisions to first carry the dead body of their fellow soldier so that he can receive a proper burial, and then to continue keeping Simms along despite his madness, prove to be bad decisions that hinder their mobility and make them vulnerable to attack. The movie seems to be advocating a kind of Darwinian morality where the weak or injured need to be left behind, and sentimental attachment to the dead is useless.

The biggest obstacle to overcome in enjoying this movie is a strong sense of improbability. The Cajuns seem to know exactly where the guardsmen are going in this vast swamp, setting up some unlikely traps and threatening signs. The Cajuns are given a near-supernatural sense of their environment, making them too alien and unknowable. However, the ending is particularly effective--even when the surviving guardsmen find temporary safety in a Cajun villiage, that safety is illusory, and the film ramps up the tension even further. The end comes abruptly, without the "comfort" of a denouement that might reinforce the value of civilization. In the final shot, we are left on the verge of leaving the swamp, but we must imagine for ourselves how or even if the survivors can return to their normal lives.


Piano Man Steve said...

One big correction -- the character who went insane was BOWDEN, not Simms. (P.S. the Bowden character was played by Alan Autry, who would score big later on TV as "Bubba" in In The Heat Of The Night.

It was BOWDEN who blew up the Cajun's cabin. To add insult to injury, the Cajun got punched in the mouth by SIMMS. REESE tortured the Cajun by holding his head underwater. CASPER ordered the Cajun to be kept prisoner, without any justification. LT. POOLE made the stupid decision to grab the Cajun canoes, and STUCKY made the even more stupid decision to provoke the Cajuns with the blank machine-gunfire. All of these guardsmen wwere dead at the end of the film.

Of the dead guardsmen, only CRIBBS was innocent of violating cajuns.

The only two surviving guardsmen, SPENCER and HARDIN, actually defended the prisoner Cajun and helped him get away. They were the most ethical, plus they were levelheaded. Their survival makes the film appealing.

Unknown said...

Piano Man Steve is right about the corrections. Good job Steve.