Southern Comfort

Swampbilly menace
★★★
☆
Released: 
1981
Director: 
Walter Hill
Starring: 
Powers Boothe, John Carradine, Fred Ward, Franklyn Seales, Peter Coyote
The Setup: 
National Guard unit on a training mission in the swamps of Louisiana pisses off the locals, gets hunted.
Discussion: 

A regular movie pen pal recommended this, and, seeing as I'm always up for rednecks-vs-city-folk action, I put it on high priority. Having seen it, I don't know why it isn't even better-known than it is. This is co-written and directed by Walter Hill, who went on to do The Warriors and 48 Hours and Streets of Fire. It has a great cast with Powers Boothe, John Carradine, Fred Ward, and Peter Coyote, among others, and music by Ry Cooder. And it's quite good!

We open with a title saying it's Louisiana 1973—a year after the Vietnam War ended. Please keep an ear out for all the Vietnam parallels because this whole movie is supposed to be an allegory of that war. I thank you in advance for your cooperation. Anyway, so there's this group of National Guardsman hangin' in the bayou. Powers Boothe as Hardin is the new guy, having come over from the Texas National Guard, which offers mucho opportunity for the film to start laying out all sorts of thematic exposition about teamwork and level of commitment to the team and where people's loyalties lie and all that. One of them plays a "joke" on the Sergeant by shooting at him with a machine gun which is full of blanks. Then they are informed that they have a training mission that will require then to trudge into the swamp and do something or other. They want to be home by the end of the weekend, since John Carradine as Spencer has arranged some hookers for them all upon return. So as they march off we have our credits, which shows a number of views of the swamp interior, showing us the terrain they are about to face. Some of it may be more obvious than other elements, but Hill is doing a good job of laying out a bunch of exposition in the first 10 minutes, introducing the characters, themes and setting in a fairly elegant and efficient way.

So they're deep in the swamp when they realize that the waterline has shifted as the area they are supposed to get to is now separated from them by a ton of water. The ludicrously sexy Fred Ward as Reece discovers a camp with a lot of dead animals, and four canoes. He suggests that they take the canoes. Peter Coyote as their Sergeant, Poole, reluctantly agrees, saying to leave one so the Cajuns can use it to retrieve the others, and to leave a note. It's worth noting that the deciding factor in taking the canoes is so they can finish their mission and get back in time to take advantage of the hookers, although it's clear that many of the men [Reece especially] regard the Cajuns, who they haven't met or even seen yet, as worthless backwoods trash, who don't even deserve to have canoes—the extension being, of course, that the Guardsman are worthy individuals whose noble purpose gives them rights to pursue any course of action they wish.

SPOILERS > > >
So they set off in the canoes. They are halfway across when—in a very creepy shot—the three Cajuns come out. They are shot at a great distance so you can't make them out, and under a huge mossy tree, showing how they blend into their surroundings. The Latino dude shoots at them with his machine gun—which we know is loaded with blanks, but of course the Cajuns don't know that. They drop, and the National Guardsman start rowing for it! They're a' rowin' along when suddenly Sergeant Poole is blasted right in the head! They canoes all go over, and the guys struggle to shore. They've lost their Sergeant, their radio, and their compass—and all they have are blanks. Dudes are FUCKED.

Now this is one of those incidences in which you have to decide how much more of this movie's plot you want to know, because it's kind of more enjoyable to be surprised. So this wussy little dude Casper who doesn't seem to know anything asserts that, based on his rank, he is now in command. Meanwhile, Reece has brought along a box of live ammo, but is keeping it to himself, until Spencer busts him for it. He threatens to KILL Casper—a court-martialable offense—but Hardin disarms him, and the guys all divide up the bullets. In here we also find that the one black guy makes his living when not in the Guard by selling dope to high school students. I'm serious. They soon see a guy in a cabin in the woods, and decide to attack and capture him, because he IS the one that killed Poole. A few of the guys try to get them to think about how they don't KNOW that this was the guy—they didn't actually get a good look at the shooter—but they are in a frenzy of indignation and high on their own military righteousness. They go capture the guy [Brion James, Leon of Blade Runner], but he doesn't speak English. They find his cabin is full of fishing equipment and dynamite—for killing fish. Reece acts like all of this is somehow an indictable offense. Then Coach, one of the other guys, goes in the cabin while no one else is watching, paints a red cross on his chest, constructs a makeshift bomb, and blows up the entire cabin! These guys are not making a lot of friends down in the bayou. They force the Cajun to march with them as they try to find their way out. By the way, Casper is the only one who thinks they're going in the right direction, everyone else thinks he's wrong, but he is pulling rank.

So Spencer and Hardin start pulling together, since a lot of the other guys are clearly going nuts. They start encountering traps and eerie portents, like eight rabbits, hung and disemboweled [I had to shield my bunny's eyes! She often chills in my lap while I'm watching movies]. They start being hunted down, and start freaking out. And here's where I'm going to leave you to discover the rest on your own.
< < < SPOILERS END

It was both very good, and yet somehow has an air of being not quite as good as it should be. Part of this is because it goes on about fifteen minutes too long, after you're worn out and no longer willing to take new diversions. But for the most part I think I agree with Roger Ebert, who points out that the Vietnam allegory is so on the surface, and the guys less characters than symbolic representations OF characters, that it's hard for the thing to fully come to life. There are surprises, it's true, but the surprises aren't really that surprising, and for the most part just remind you of other movies—mainly Deliverance. The filmmaking is also well-done, but again is mostly a synthesis of other well-done movies. I know, so is every movie, right? But there's something here that just keeps it this side of greatness, and I guess the fact that it's so ambitious makes us compare it against better movies, rather than saying it's far ahead of less well-made films.

I also think how much you can get into this depends on your view of the military. This is quite a lefty movie which portrays the guys as a bunch of barely-hinged good 'ol boys who regard civilians [let alone swampbillies] as sub-humans with no real rights. They react to everything by trying to impose military discipline on it, engage in astonishingly immature "jokes" and stunts [shooting at the Cajuns, beating the prisoner Cajun when he won't speak English, blowing up his cabin, torturing him, seizing him when they aren't sure he's the killer], and really are barely holding together mentally. It is your worst characterization of the military as a bunch of rednecks too simple for regular society, racist, xenophobic goons who try to solve every problem by beating it up or blowing it up. And then there's the whole Vietnam allegory thing, with them imposing their will on a group of people who never bothered anyone and didn't ask to be messed with, and who are better-equipped to battle in the murky environment than the battle-trained soldiers with their high-tech equipment. Okay, lesson learned, everyone? This movie does gain a sheen of new relevance given the whole Iraq situation, all these parallels made new again, but it's not going to provide much insight to anyone who scans a newspaper once in a while.

The trailer for this movie is just not every good, and brings its aspirations right to the surface when it says—and here I wish I had written down the exact wording—that it'll teach you as much about backwoods survival as Deliverance, as much about war as Apocalypse Now, and calls out one other major movie. So it's clearly really ASKING to be considered important, which of course only makes one less generous about considering it important. Ah Walter, always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, still definitely worth watching.