Southern Comfort

LOUISIANA, 1973 reads the title matted discreetly onto the opening scene of Walter Hill’s 1981 thriller Southern Comfort, so the audience is situated even before the true title sequence (even before the first words of dialogue are uttered).  Why Hill feels the need to locate us with a placard seems ridiculous after having seen the movie–his use of the bayou is over-the-top claustrophobic–but understandable going in; the scene shows a platoon of American soldiers in full camo gear complete with M-16s piling out of an olive drab deuce-and-a-half in the middle of some green forest.  Without the placard, the contemporary viewer could be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that the film is set in Vietnam.

Besides the place pointedly not being Vietnam (or pointedly being not-Vietnam, its shadow twin), 1973 is an in-between year in terms of the war. Though the NVA is launching major assaults against the South, the last U.S. ground troops are being pulled out. One shows up here as our fictional Bravo team’s leader, Sergeant Poole (Peter Coyote).  But we learn that he’s a Vietnam vet later, just as we first learn his given name only after he’s been killed.  For now it’s enough that he’s in charge and getting his squad together.

We meet Bravo team in glimpses.  Corporal Casper, Poole’s second, says people are looking for mercenaries in Africa and Mexico, Latin America too.  Poole shuts him up, saying they’re looking for combat infantry, not typists.  Because other than the decorated Poole, these are weekend warriors, Louisiana National Guardsmen out on maneuvers.  Charles Hardin (Powers Boothe, with the baleful stare that made him a great Jim Jones and that presages Vincent D’Onofrio’s deranged Leonard/Pyle in Full Metal Jacket) is the standoffish new guy, moving over from the Texas National Guard since taking a position as a chemical engineer at a local plant.  There’s a lot of grabassing and raunchy talk as he meets the others, even a brief scuffle between two squad members.  It looks like a crummy weekend, but Spencer (Keith Carradine, laidback but always thinking behind that horsey grin) says, “Life’s full of surprises” and reveals that he’s got six whores waiting for them “when we emerge from the great primordial swamp.”

Simms (Franklyn Seales) asks if there’s one for him–meaning a black one–and Cribbs (T.K. Carter) jumps in and corrects him, “You mean us, brother.”

“Hey, boy,” Spencer says knowingly, playing to the whole group with a lofty patrician accent, “the purpose of the Guard is to keep you darker brothers away from decent Southern women.”

“Shit,” Cribbs says, smiling.

“However, in the spirit of the new South, I have made full arrangements.”

Even in these opening exchanges, it’s clear by their lines and screentime that Spencer and Hardin are our principal characters, the cynical hipster and the outsider new guy.  When Hardin tells Spencer the Texas Guard had things down so they could just watch the ballgame and shoot dice, Spencer says, “The Louisiana Guard’s a little different. They have us out doing really important things like beating up college kids and teargassing niggers.”

“Oh please, Mr. Guardsman,” Simms plays along, “no more cannisters.  Don’t sic the shepherd dogs on me.”

“See what I mean,” Spencer says.  “We have a long, noble military tradition.”  It’s a casual, smart-ass line, but one that neatly conflates America’s failure in Vietnam with the fall of the Confederacy and the South’s later attempts to stonewall the Civil Rights movement.

This loose bullshitting gives Hill and screenwriter Michael Kane not only the opportunity to introduce the major players and their situation but to establish a rough but joking tone, and also the haphazard, even volatile combination of personalities–the lack of any real cohesion or teamwork among the squad.

Their mission is a simple recon patrol through the swamp, and as they mount up, Hill cuts to the title sequence.  The sequence itself is nothing special, just a bunch of drifting postcard shots of cypresses draped with Spanish moss.  Over it, for the first time, we hear Ry Cooder’s score, a brooding slide guitar that’s half Delta and half John Lee Hooker molasses boogie (and that he’d later use more famously in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas).  The score is actually a selling point for the video. The sleeve boasts that the film “features authentic Cajun music composed and arranged by Ry Cooder and performed by leading Cajun musicians,” but once the squad commandeers three pirogues that “belong to indigenous personnel,” a breathy Japanese flute is added to Cooder’s now koto-like guitar, lending an Asiatic flavor to the lush long shots of the squad paddling across the swamp.  It’s no surprise to find that one of the music consultants is Kazu Matsui.

Likewise, it’s predictable that five minutes into the bayou, Bravo team is hopelessly lost.  “Either this map is wrong, or all of a sudden I can’t find my way around the block,” the seasoned Poole says.  The land and the elements become their enemy, and in stealing the pirogues so they don’t have to walk around the deeper water, they anger several locals who suddenly appear behind them on shore.  Thinking the Cajuns speak only French, they holler insults in English, and then for a joke Stuckey (constantly referred to as a dumb redneck) opens fire on them with blanks. The Cajuns, thinking they’re really being shot at, return fire and hit Sgt. Poole in the head.  In the commotion, all three boats go over.

They drag Poole to shore and take cover.  “Where are they?  I can’t see ’em.”  Like the VC, the enemy disappears into the land.  The toughguy Reese (longtime character actor Fred Ward) secretly fits his clip with live ammo he’s brought along.

Poole is dead, and à la Blair Witch they’ve lost the map and the compass. Casper takes charge of the squad, but he’s a weak leader, like a ROTC lieutenant doing everything by the book (“We’re going to follow through with our mission,” he says absurdly).  Reese openly disrespects Casper, refusing to share his live rounds with the squad, holding Casper off at gunpoint until Hardin puts a knife to Reese’s throat.

Throughout the film, in the lapses between action, Hardin and Spencer have shot-reverse shot conversations that reveal their personalities.  In recent war movies, these speechy scenes have been embarrassingly earnest and overreaching (say, in Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line), but since this is a simple thriller and the timeframe of the film is a period of disillusion, Hardin can only carp about how he’s tired of being surrounded by dumb, gun-toting rednecks.

“Well, you know how it is,” Spencer says.  “Down here in Louisiana, when we don’t carry guns we carry ropes.  RC colas and moonpies . . . We’re not too smart but we have a real good time.”

Spencer’s joking, of course, but his riffs are supposed to carry a bitter edge of historical truth, as are the parallels between Bravo team and the American experience in Vietnam.  The section directly after the bloody head-shot assassination of their leader (not to read too much JFK into this) has the squad smoking dope on sentry duty and then, the next morning, rousting a native trapper from his ramshackle hut and–in a scene replayed in every Vietnam combat movie–brutally abusing him in a botched interrogation before torching his place.

“There comes a time when you have to abandon principles and do what’s right,” the formerly straight-laced Coach says after painting a cross on his chest and tossing a Molotov cocktail into the shack.

“I got news for you,” Hardin tells Spencer.  “He’s nuts.  I mean, really fucking nuts.”

The I-10 is around there somewhere, and they wander around trying to find it, stumbling across eight gutted rabbits hung up and drying on a wire–eight for the eight of them, including two black ones.  Blacks, someone says, represent bad luck to the Cajuns, and Cribbs jokes that he knows it, he’s got to stop hanging around with so many sorry-ass brothers.

By this time Casper’s gotten them even more lost.  “Why are we following him?” one trooper asks.

In the distance they hear baying.  For a second they think it’s a search party, but the Rottweilers that bound out of the woods and attack them are hunting dogs.  Simms, in a neat echo of his earlier German shepherd shtick, can’t believe it:  “They sicced their goddamn dogs on us!”

“I want to know what the fuck’s going on here,” Hardin demands.

Spencer can only shrug.  “I’m just a city boy.”

The Cajuns have rigged the trail with bear traps, and farther on, a deadly punji device.  “We’re at war,” Casper says.  “I want you to look like soldiers.”  As in Vietnam, Huey helicopters are supposed to come find them, but don’t.  Coach has gone mad and sits there with a thousand-yard stare.  Reese nearly drowns the captured trapper while interrogating him, and in a vicious confrontation over him Hardin ends up killing Reese.

The rains come down, monsoon hard.  “How many more graves we gonna leave back here?” Simms asks.

“You guys are deserting,” Casper accuses them.

“You bet your ass we are.”

From here on in the film follows the basic premise of Deliverance–the weekend warriors from the city lost in the murderous backwoods and at the mercy of its eye-for-an-eye inhabitants–but the Vietnam allegory and the fact that the principals are civilians playing at being soldiers (not just city folks playing at being outdoorsmen) keep alive the idea that the bayou isn’t just a strange place but a totally foreign country with its own language and culture, a country that views them as outsiders if not invaders.

Kane and Hill are smart in not pushing the allegory to include the huge technological advantage America had in the war.  Neither do they play that lack-of-ammunition card that other moviemakers would drop on us, counting down the live rounds.  There’s concern early on about wasting bullets, but there’s no big swelling-violin build-up to any last, critical make-or-break shot.  At some point they just run out.

Things get desperate then, and Southern Comfort turns into a kind of sole-survivor horror film, The Most Dangerous Game.  They’re lost and outgunned, and the invisible enemy picks them off one by one.  Simms, face to face with his killers (not shown), pleads, “I didn’t do anything wrong.  I’m not supposed to be here.”

Ultimately, it comes down to Hardin and Spencer.  Their only hope is to keep slogging through the swamp and find their way back to civilization, but when they do, it’s a backwoods outpost of the Cajuns, and they’re not sure if they’re safe there.  The Cajuns are throwing a party, dancing to wild zydeco and boiling crawfish, slaughtering two hogs for a feast.  As the two men walk around gawking, suspicious of everything, the music chugs along, hypnotic and relentless.  “Relax, Hardin,” Spencer says, “these are the good Cajuns.”

But after what they’ve been through, Hardin now jumps to conclusions the way Reese did earlier.  “I’ve got reason to be paranoid,” he says, and so do we.  Are the two nooses that guy is tossing over a frame for the hogs or for them (” . . . when we don’t carry a gun we carry a rope”)? Is the disemboweling of the hogs just a prelude?

It’s the dread and drama of the closing section that really caps Southern Comfort–a typically crosscut mix of distracting atmospheric detail and hide-and-seek violence, but because the rest of the movie has been so even-handedly grim, there’s real doubt in the viewer’s mind as to whether our heroes will survive.  I’ve given away enough, but let me say that the closing image is a miracle:  a freeze frame that actually resonates.

How deep is the film in its interrogation of America and Vietnam and the South as a real and singular place?  The Vietnam allegory is simple and open-ended, with none of the poetic excesses and architecture–or intricacies–of Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter.  In terms of its portrayal of the bayou as a dangerous, more elemental world, it recalls Deliverance, except the earlier film is richer thematically and puts its contrasts upfront.  There the pampered city slickers and the hardscrabble hillbillies are a neatly matched pair.  In Southern Comfort, the differences in lifestyle are as subtle as the soldiers eating processed C-rations from olive drab cans while the Cajuns’ food is always freshly (and personally) killed.  The Americans, it seems, have lost a necessary connection to the physical world, and with it, the basic capabilities of Man.  It may be that some of these material contrasts crop up because of the parallels Kane and Hill are trying to draw with the war (the hamlets and jungles, the subsistence farmers who are possibly VC), but the South both the soldiers and the whitewater party in Deliverance blunder into is the Old South, rural and pre-Civil Rights, bypassed by technological progress. “We got the electric light but not the telephone,” one Cajun says.  To survive in this earlier world, as in war, the heroes of both movies have to renounce their modern comforts and civilized notions and reconnect with their animal nature (just as Joker’s helmet cover in Full Metal Jacket reads Born to Kill, Reese, who Hardin kills, has a skull magic markered on his).  It’s by acknowledging this amoral instinct for self-preservation that the heroes can then measure their society’s purported values, determining afterward whether they’re a sham or a salvation or somewhere in-between.  In the end, Southern Comfort’s answer to this question is more realistic than Full Metal Jacket’s or Platoon’s, and more satisfying.

But Southern Comfort isn’t that deep or programmatic.  It doesn’t make any great claims.  In fact, if the thriller surface wasn’t as good as it is, the movie would probably be entirely forgotten.  As it is, it’s difficult to find on video, but the script and performances are so solid that it deserves more fans.  It’s not a text to be read but a movie to be watched.  If you’re lucky enough to catch it on TV, stick with it.  There’s no greater triumph for a film set on the bayou than completely avoiding that classic, stupid beauty shot of a gator slithering into the dark water.  Against all odds, Southern Comfort does.

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