Friday, November 08, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: Southern Comfort (1981)

“Instead of raising the tragic possibility that a subculture might disappear, Southern Comfort explores our anxiety that the dominant culture itself may be divided and destroyed.  [It] seems to suggest that destruction is the price of the desire to use -- rather than understand – another culture.”

-          Jeffrey H. Mahan, The Christian Century, December 16, 1981, page 1322.

“Southern Comfort” is not only a liqueur (a New Orleans original, so-to-speak…), but a turn of phrase that links a storied American region with ideas like relaxation, hospitality, and succor. 

Walter Hill’s 1981 film Southern Comfort plays ironically on the meaning of the term, and forges the director’s second effort -- after The Warriors (1979) -- that involves outnumbered soldiers trapped in harsh enemy territory and forced to fight every step of the way home.

But Southern Comfort is rather steadfastly not the urban fantasy of The Warriors. 

Instead, it’s a blistering social critique as well as a violent action film.  By setting his film in the year 1973 and featuring as his protagonists soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard, Hill crafts a film that, according to Michael Sragow in Rolling Stone, is a “parody of the military sensibility,” “a metaphor for the Vietnam War” and a “study of gracelessness under fire.”

Southern Comfort gazes at the idea of a nation knowingly unloosing aggression and violence on a mass scale, often times by soldiers who are not educated about the nature of the enemy, are insensitive to cultural differences, and who – finally – crack under pressure. 

Can war ever be a moral “right?”  And if so, does it matter who, specifically, a nation sends to war, and how those men wage that war?

These are not easy questions to answer.  And these were not small issues in the days of Vietnam, a war that severely tested American beliefs about its own national might and moral rectitude.  Southern Comfort suggests a home-grown Vietnam culture-clash right here, inside our regional borders, and a so-called “primitive” culture dwelling side-by-side with the more “advanced,” dominant one.    

By making this sustained cinematic battle an intra-American one, so-to-speak -- American National Guard vs. American Cajuns -- Walter Hill allows viewers to see concepts not always readily apparent in the case of foreign wars, where patriotism can overwhelm reason and balance.  In America we cherish and protect our right and responsibility to defend our homes and even our right just to be left alone, the very concepts that the Cajuns wage bloody guerrilla war over in the film.  But when we’re the aggressors intruding in the territory of others, our values seem to change.  This film holds up a mirror to that paradox. It is a non-romantic, non-idealized view of war and soldiers.  

Notice that I didn’t say negative view.  

The approach here is even-handed, revealing how soldiers can be smart and heroic, as well as misguided and out-of-control.  The trenchant idea seems to be that of the Pandora’s Box.  If you release men with guns into an untamed environment, where danger is everywhere, each will respond in his own way.  Some will find and adhere to a strong moral compass.  Others will degenerate into sadistic violence.

Furthermore, Southern Comfort suggests, as the quote from Jeffrey Mahan above observes, that a dominant culture out to “use” a weaker culture is actually the one in danger of being “divided and destroyed.”  

That destruction comes about from a moral failure, the failure to contextualize “the enemy” as human, and understand the enemy on human terms.  Specifically, if we use our might just to take resources from others, or to argue for the assertion of our ideology in someone else’s land, we are in violation of our own cherished beliefs and values.  We say “don’t tread on me,” but if someone else has what we want, we tread on them with the greatest military machine in history.

This cerebral argument doesn’t make Walter Hill’s film any less tense or violent, but rather adds a layer of commentary to the savagery.  As critic Diane Hust wrote in “Heavy Symbolism Ravels Film’s Good Yarn” (The Daily Oklahoman, November 12, 1981): “These ‘civilized’ but allegedly trained soldiers fall apart in a blue-green otherworld, and even the likable heroes...have brutal and vulnerable sides that emerge during the ordeal.” 

The idea here is that all soldiers are not created equal, and until the crucible of combat occurs, it’s almost impossible to determine who will thrive, and who will succumb to cowardice, or animalistic brutality.  The film walks a delicate balance, but not everyone agrees it succeeds.  Vincent Canby at The New York Times noted that Walter Hill is “the best stager of action in practice,” but found the film to be “more an exercise in masochism than suspense.”  Yes, in some way, the same argument could be made of every entry in the Savage Cinema genre.

Time Magazine noted (derisively) that in Southern Comforteverything is a metaphor for something else,” but that’s okay with me too.  When vetting extreme violence, I prefer that movies boast and reflect an intellectual point-of-view about that violence.  In other words, the violence becomes palatable and meaningful because we sense it is being applied to convey a point of intellectual merit.

In this case, Southern Comfort reminds us that once war is uncorked, and men are encouraged to rely on instinctive, violent impulses, all bets are off concerning outcomes. It also reminds us how people with guns can, in a moment of impulse spark a conflagration that can’t be controlled.

“Comes a time when you have to abandon principles and do what's right.

In 1973, the Louisiana National Guard’s “Bravo Team” practices maneuvers in the bayou, tromping through nearly forty kilometers of treacherous and dangerous natural terrain.

Soon, the squad becomes lost and realizes it must procure transportation to traverse a river.  Accordingly, Sgt. Pool (Peter Coyote) orders the men to appropriate three Cajun canoes.  Worse, one of the soldiers, Stuckey (Lewis Smith) playfully opens fire on the Cajun owners. 

They don’t realize his weapon is loaded with blanks, and respond with sustained lethal force.  In the first attack, Sgt. Pool is shot down, and the Cajuns begin hunting down “Bravo Team.”

Inexperienced and scared, the reservists make a bad situation worse when they seek shelter at the home of a French-speaking trapper (Brion James), and blow up his house using dynamite.

As the reservists die in the swamp, one by one, the level-headed Spencer (Keith Carradine) and a transfer from Texas, Hardin (Powers Boothe) try to hold their own and maintain some sense of order and control.

They eventually escape the treacherous bayou, but end up in a remote Cajun village in the middle of nowhere…

“Well, you know how it is, down here in Louisiana, we don't carry guns, we carry ropes, RC colas and moon pies, we're not too smart, but we have a real good time.” 

Set in “the great primordial swamp,” Hill’s hard-driving polemic, Southern Comfort shreds typical bromides about “supporting the troops” and gazes instead, in rather even-handed (if gory...) fashion at soldiers who are ill-prepared emotionally, intellectually and even physically in some cases.

Powers Boothe portrays Hardin, one of Southern Comfort’s main protagonists.  He’s a chemical engineer who recently transferred from Texas, and he immediately understands the brand of man he’s now training with.  He calls them “the same dumb rednecks” he’s been around his “whole life.” 

In short order, this descriptor proves tragically accurate. His fellow “soldiers” steal private property (canoes), and open fire – as a dumb joke! -- on unaware American citizens, the local Cajuns. 

The same “dumb rednecks,” meanwhile, deride the Cajuns as “dumb asses” or primitives.  It’s true that director Hill has on occasion rejected the Vietnam metaphor encoded in his film, but it’s apparent that these soldiers view the Cajuns precisely as some Americans viewed “Charlie:” inferiors who couldn’t possibly pose a threat to modern, technologically-superior Americans.

Again, cementing this Vietnam allegory, the Cajuns in the film boast a strategic advantage because they are familiar with the harsh landscape of their “homeland.” 

Also, they resort to guerrilla tactics, deploying deadly booby traps and other hazards against the lost soldiers.  Like the Viet Cong, then, the Cajuns have been underestimated, and prove more resourceful and cunning than the forces of the more technologically-advanced culture. 

This is very much the same dynamic we see in another film Walter Hill produced, 1986’s Aliens.  There, the titular xenomorphs with their underground (sub-level) tunnels (hive) were grossly under-estimated by soldiers packing high-tech weaponry.  They were derided as “animals,” but they executed brilliant battle strategy.  The idea in both instances is the arrogance of military might, and the misapplication of military power.

Much of Southern Comfort finds the Guardsmen lost, confused, and running in circles as the Cajun hunters pick them off one at a time. Making the plight of the Guardsmen even more dangerous and harrowing, they lose their leader early on, in the equivalent of a decapitation strike.  

Also, and again repeating aspects of the Vietnam War dynamic, the Guardsmen are absolutely unable to distinguish allies from enemies, “good” Cajuns from “bad” ones.  They think (literally) that all the enemies look alike and capture and torture one Cajun man they are convinced must be the one that shot the sergeant.   In short, in “alien” territory, the members of Bravo Team are completely clueless-ness about the nature of things. Yet this doesn’t stop them from acting aggressively, impulsively and violently.

Roger Ebert writes persuasively about this metaphor, though notes the fact that it is plain early on: “From the moment we discover that the guardsmen are firing blanks in their rifles, we somehow know that the movie’s going to be about their impotence in a land where they do not belong.  And as the weekend soldiers are relentlessly hunted down…we think of the useless of American technology against the Viet Cong.

Tremendous tension is generated throughout Southern Comfort not merely by the presence of the almost invisible, omnipresent enemy, but in the exploitation of another brilliantly-expressed (and, yes… politically incorrect) fear.  This is, simply, the fear that your comrade-in-arms is a redneck idiot who could do something stupid at any time. 

For the most part, and excepting one or two important characters, the members of Bravo Team prove that they are not trustworthy, capable or smart.  It’s a two-front war: battling the enemy, and battling “self.”  This again seems like a metaphor for The Vietnam War, where incidents including the My-Lai Massacre raised questions and concerns about the military’s behavior.

The ineptitude of the Guardsmen is also apparent in the team’s misuse of their resources. They continually waste their limited bullets, so that in the end they can’t even rely on their superior equipment.  Ironically the group is termed Bravo Team according to protocol right up until the very end, yet this group has never been a team, and one senses that this is why things go badly.  There is no camaraderie, no respect, and no trust.  These men are thrown together and have little in common.  Unlike the Cajuns, who work in silent tandem and strike without warning, the Guardsmen blunder and fail except for a few – namely Hardin and Spencer -- who evidence common sense at least.

Southern Comfort shares core thematic elements with John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), though, as I’ve noted above, in a far more militaristic setting. Both films are set in treacherous, difficult landscapes.  Both films involve a diverse group of men who, individually, see things very differently.  And both films pit the “visitors” (or invaders) against another culture with superior knowledge of the landscape.

Southern Comfort adds to the Deliverance equation the dangerous and unpredictable factor of guns, and indeed, lots of them.   This addition changes the central dynamic a bit.  In Deliverance, the “invaders” on the river never actually did anything violent to the inbred mountain folk that attacked them.  Sure, they were insulting “city folks” who thought they knew better.  They didn’t belong on that river, and were rude to everyone they met.  But they didn’t strike back and wage war until their lives were on the line.  Their posture, in terms of violence, was largely self-defense.

In Southern Comfort, by contrast, Bravo Team steals property and opens fire on the Cajuns.  The Cajuns don’t have the luxury of “knowing” the attack occurred with blanks.  All they know is that they are suddenly under siege, on their own land.  The posture is different.  In this case, the Cajuns believe war is being waged against them.  And foolishly, Bravo Team has started that war.

The last thirty minutes of Southern Comfort are hair-raising and terrifying, as Hardin and Spencer survive the deadly traps and gun battles only to reach a Cajun village.  Hill provides a trenchant image of the soldiers’ plight here. They sit on the back of a Cajun transport, the truck carrying them to ostensible freedom. But placed nearby, in a key visualization, are two pigs trapped in cages.  The Guardsmen don’t realize it yet, but they are in as much imminent danger as the trapped animals. 

When the men reach the village and the increasingly fast, increasingly intense Cajun music becomes a near constant on the film’s soundtrack, the locals ominously ready two nooses in the center of town…either for Spencer and Hardin, or for the pigs.  This portion of the film, fostering ambivalence and paranoia, is almost unbearably suspenseful in my opinion.

Again, the soldiers (and the viewers too) have difficulty understanding this “foreign” enemy and discerning its motives.  In that “fog,” we begin to understand why people react fearfully and impulsively when in danger.  In essence, Hill makes us understand how terrifying it is to be in a place far from home, observing customs you can’t understand, and having to make “calls” that could result in your death.  This ability to place us in Hardin and Spencer’s shoes is one reason why the film doesn’t indict all soldiers.  It makes us “feel” their plight, and understand why mistakes happen.  Again, I count the film as pretty even-handed and judicious.  We see both really bad soldiers, and some really good ones.

Finally, the film ends in a frenetic, almost insane flurry of dancing, spinning and slow-motion, graphic violence as the Guardsmen are drawn into more battle, this time of a much bloodier, personal dimension.  The first time I watched this finale, I was literally up on my feet because it’s so damn intense, and because I felt so invested in the outcome.  Again, viewers wouldn’t feel that way if Hill were indicting all soldiers or making an anti-American film.

There’s no comfort at all in Southern Comfort, and that, finally, is the point.  The film effectively captures the “domino effect” that can occur once groups of armed men -- without leaders and without any real common sense, either -- start letting bullets fly.  Gunfire is a threshold that, once traversed, is difficult to come back from. “Survival is a mental outlook,” one character in the film insists.  Indeed, but survival is made exponentially more difficult when the guy in the fox hole next to you is a moron, or you don’t understand local customs, or you’re lost, or you’re out of bullets. 

This is the very crux of Savage Cinema ideas.  In the absence of safety and security, violence is, perhaps, inevitable. But in that situation I certainly hope there are level-headed guys like Spencer and Hardin around.  They fight to survive, but also never lose sight of the concept of civilization. 

1 comment:

  1. How exciting to see an excellent review of one of my favorite films on your site today, John. I first saw this film on HBO when my family got cable TV probably in around 1983 or so; I would have been 13 years old. My friends and I were always seeking out movies with Vietnam-era military themes. Apocalypse Now was a favorite of the time. I think shortly after seeing this film, we convinced my friends mom to take us to see Uncommon Valor when it was initially released, which also became a favorite.

    Anyway.. thanks for the remembrances and a great review of this movie.


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