‘Southern Comfort’ Is Populated By Tropes

Walter Hill's talkiest action film boasts one of his best stories, but isn't the forgotten classic one might hope for.

“I don’t think you make movies about metaphors – at least, I don’t.”

Walter Hill is correct in that no one who has watched his 1981 bayou siege film Southern Comfort should care one iota whether the action was intended as a broad analogy for the Vietnam War—a failure lingering on the minds of American audiences, many of whom would surely read story about a band of hapless National Guard troops trudging in circles through the Louisiana swamps as politically charged.

This is the sort of thing that surely crossed the mind of Hill and his screenwriting partners, Michael Kane (Smokey & the Bandit) and David Giler (a genre stalwart, of the Alien films, The Parallax View, and Beverly Hills Cop II). This is not because of any leftist Hollywood agenda, but because it seems absurd for three experienced filmmakers to complete a military-themed project and never once consider that the political attitudes of the era might cut into their bottom line.

Vietnam ultimately has little bearing on one’s enjoyment of Southern Comfort, because the characters are wading through so much other tiresome subtext that the war scarcely enters into the equation. Start at the beginning with Powers Boothe, whose Texan Corporal Hardin seems unfazed by the boisterous, ignorant behavior of his new comrades in the Louisiana National Guard. He mutters to Private Spencer (Keith Carradine) that the troops are just different versions of “the same Texas rednecks I’ve known my whole life.”

Indeed, it’s this kind of short-sighted, reckless tendency that dooms many of the men. The inciting incident sees the troops taking a shortcut to the end of their training exercise with some stolen canoes, only to spy the Cajun owners watching them from the shoreline. After some failed attempts at communicating in broken French, Private Stuckey (Lewis Smith) repeats an earlier prank by firing a round of blanks at the natives, who respond with real gunfire, killing their commanding officer and sending the men into the water.

Hill is fond of discussing the connections between his own work and films of the classical Western genre, which like Southern Comfort usually involve tough men encountering their own limitations against a hostile landscape. Western dialogues, of course, don’t have to deal in political subtext because they would be purely redundant. In almost any Western, the audience is actually seeing a nation coming together, native peoples actually being subjugated to the will of a stronger force, blood actually staining the landscape. And it’s in such frank, less-talk genre outings that Hill made his mark.

Despite the mitigating talents of Kane and Giler, Hill seems unable to make this material work. He’s built an impressive filmography and a substantial following among film lovers for a certain strain of minimally structured action films, where characters are sketched out with only a couple of defining traits and left to the actors to illuminate. Think of The Driver’s antagonist, the single-minded detective played by Bruce Dern with a wild sneer and not much else. Yet it works in that picture, which builds a miniature universe out of its characters’ lack of inner lives and utter devotion to their roles in the endless game of chase, getaway, and score. He writes not thin characters but Platonic ideals of genre tropes, of protagonist and antagonist and all the supporting roles in between: The Driver, The Detective, The Player, The Connection.

Could you write a more introspective, psychological thriller about those same characters? Likely not, and so it’s Hill’s own strengths as a writer that prove crippling to the drama in Southern Comfort as the troops fall victim to paranoia, fatigue, starvation, and start to crack under pressure. Still, we know little about these men save for their prejudices and short tempers; Spencer and Hardin are the aloof, competent exceptions, determined to get out alive even if no one else does. Shaded in with only some specific regional commentary—Carradine has the film’s worst line, as the screenwriters try to pithily explain the redneck phenomenon: “If we’re not carrying guns, we’re carrying ropes”—Hill’s reliable genre types start to look a lot more like stereotypes, and crude, uninteresting ones at that.

Soon after the punishment begins, it becomes clear that psychological drama is less a priority for Hill and his partners than a kind of detached comedy of easily dismantled hierarchies. Sgt. Casper (Les Lannom), ill-equipped to handle his new leadership role, tries to recover the ammunition that Fred Ward’s Cpl. Reece has been holding on to. When Reece refuses a direct order and turns his gun on Casper, the senior officer whines, “That’s a court martial offense, man!” It’s a cheap laugh, but perhaps a cheaper way to underline the dire situation. The rules don’t even matter out here!

Yet there’s no more tiresome example of the script underlining the flaws and prejudices of these troops to the film’s detriment than the case of Cpl. Bowden (Alan Autry), who out of all the men experiences the most dramatic shift in personality as a result of their circumstances. An encounter with a Cajun trapper whom the men take hostage, with the intent to interrogate him, awakens some lingering instability or mental illness in Bowden. He paints a red cross on his bare chest and blows up the trapper’s cabin, which held useful supplies, alienating him from his comrades.

Unable to explain his actions fully (“Like the holy warrior, Spence…I thought you out of anyone would get it”), Bowden eventually goes comatose, forcing the men to bind him up and lug him behind them as they continue looking for a way out. With Autry ceasing to act as a character and becoming a big, heavy symbol for the regional prejudices that have doomed the men and are now literally weighing them down, one would hope that his burden at least proves a suspense-heightening impediment to their escape. Instead, Bowden remains so much background noise for the rest of his time onscreen, barely factoring into the ensuing scenes of danger.

This reads as a harsh review because the creativity involved, the scenario of the story, and the ensemble’s impressively deep bench hold such promise. There are moments of quiet, earthy poetry in between the scenes of in-fighting and ambush, as Spencer and Hardin find a strong mutual bond in their shared level-headedness and awareness of their own limitations. Furthermore, it’s difficult to reconcile the sluggish drama of the first two-thirds with the anxious, Zydeco shriek of a climax Hill summons out of the swamp, the last moments stuttering and slowing until the film fades out on a single, frozen image that barely relieves the tension built in the final ten minutes.

A better version of this picture came out in 2011, a Western in the classical style (even shot in the boxy Academy ratio of Stagecoach and the Anthony Mann-James Stewart cycle) called Meek’s Cutoff, directed by American independent Kelly Reichardt. Her naturalist style is pretty far removed from the brawny, tough mode that Hill deals in, but both filmmakers have a respect for silences and limiting dialogue to only meaningful exchanges. It deals in many of the same themes, of Americans ill-equipped to navigate an unfriendly terrain, an encounter with an enigmatic native that brings out their prejudices, and the unspoken idea that its ensemble comprises a microcosm of a nation. It’s the difference between Reichardt’s history, written with lightning, and Hill’s tall tale in the bayou that makes the latter such sadly inessential cinema.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-Ray update of a standard release clears up the green, hazy beauty of Andrew Laszlo’s images and contains a substantial featurette including interviews with nearly the entire cast, all of whom remember the experience fondly, and with Hill himself. The discussion is refreshingly wide-ranging, even nudging the actors into discussing the stylistic traits of a Hill picture, the Western connection, and the political subtext that may or may not exist.

RATING 6 / 10