Southern Comfort (1981 film)
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Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Walter Hill|
|Produced by||David Giler|
|Written by||Michael Kane
T. K. Carter
|Music by||Ry Cooder|
|Edited by||Freeman A. Davies|
Cinema Group Ventures
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Release dates||September 25, 1981|
|Running time||105 minutes|
Southern Comfort (1981) is an American action/thriller film directed by Walter Hill and written by Michael Kane, and Hill and his longtime collaborator David Giler. It stars Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, T. K. Carter, Franklyn Seales, and Peter Coyote. The film, set in 1973, features a Louisiana Army National Guard squad of nine on weekend maneuvers in rural bayou country as they antagonize some local Cajun people and become hunted.
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It is 1973. Members of an undisciplined patrol of Louisiana National Guardsmen are meeting in the bayou swamps for weekend maneuvers. Corporal Hardin (Boothe), a cynical transfer from the Texas National Guard, is disgusted with the behavior and arrogance of his new squad. A married man, he wants no part of a date with prostitutes that Private Spencer (Carradine) has arranged for the men. Nevertheless, he is befriended by the amiable Spencer, the two seeming to agree that they are the only level-headed soldiers in the squad.
In the swamp, the patrol gets disoriented and will need to turn back unless they steal several pirogues (Cajun canoes). They end up frightening and angering local Cajun hunters as they return in time to see their boats being taken. Pvt. Stuckey (Lewis Smith) fires blanks from his M60 machine gun at the Cajuns as a prank. The threatened Cajuns fire back, killing the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Poole (Coyote).
The second-in-command, Sgt. Casper (Les Lannom), orders the squad to continue the "mission." The squad discovers that Cpl. Lonnie Reece (Ward) secretly brought along a box of live ammunition for hunting purposes. Caspar divides the ammo evenly amongst the squad in order to better their chances of defense. Upon reaching the shack of a one-armed French-only speaking local Cajun hunter and trapper, Caspar orders he be placed under arrest. An emotionally unstable soldier, Cpl. "Coach" Bowden (Alan Autry), then uses a jar filled with gasoline to burn the shack igniting the explosives inside, blowing up the house.
The soldiers begin to feel more threatened. Hearing the barking of dogs, they hope they are about to be rescued. However, the dogs belong to the Cajuns who are now hunting the soldiers because of Stuckey's actions. A dog attacks Stuckey, but Spencer and Hardin manage to frighten the dog, and it runs away. The squad begins to realize that lethal traps have been set for them. Pvt. Tyrone Cribbs walks into one and is speared to death. Cribbs and Poole are buried before the squad camps for the night. In the morning, Hardin sees Reece trying to get the captured Cajun to talk by dunking his head in the swamp. The two soldiers get into a fight. The Cajun directs Hardin's attention to a nearby tree and tells him to kill Reece. Hardin takes a bayonet and stabs Reece against the tree, finally killing him. The Cajun prisoner escapes and the squad buries Reece.
The soldiers grow tired of Sgt. Casper due to his strict military regulations and inability to lead them out. Spencer assumes command and they decide to head for the interstate. Suddenly, Private Simms (Seales) becomes frightened. He sees a Cajun hunter and opens fire. The soldiers then discover that the Cajun hunters have dug up the bodies of the three dead soldiers and tied them to a tree. Horrified, they flee directly into more Cajun traps, but this time they are in the form of falling trees. They manage to avoid them all and reach a clearing. There, they fire at the Cajun hunter while Simms and Casper take shelter behind a tree. The two men realize that they have nothing left except blanks.
Casper throws a makeshift hand grenade towards the hunters, but he misses them. Spencer and Hardin fire into the maneuvering Cajuns and one goes down behind a tree. The men retreat and see an Army helicopter hovering overhead above the thick mass of trees. Stuckey runs after it, but he drowns in quicksand. The soldiers split up and search for Stuckey for a few hours, to no avail. A Cajun position is spotted, and Casper fixes his bayonet to his rifle and charges, only to be shot dead. Simms arrives on the scene and breaks down over the situation, only to be shot dead as well.
The remaining group of Spencer, Hardin and the addled Bowden (who has been disarmed and tied up) escape and camp for the night. They awaken at morning's light by a freight train and discover train tracks nearby. Bowden is hanging in a noose from the bridge. The escaped Cajun prisoner appears on the train tracks overhead. Now speaking fluent English, he warns the two remaining men to leave the Cajuns' territory while they still can, giving them directions on how to get out.
Spencer and Hardin make their way to a remote dirt road where they get a ride from a Cajun couple and are taken to the next town where the local Cajun community is celebrating with a party. As Hardin and Spencer go into a warehouse to get washed up, Hardin believes he spots two of the Cajun hunters getting off a boat. Spencer tells him he is paranoid and not to worry. Hardin is not convinced. He sees the two Cajuns speak to the man who gave him and Spencer a ride, followed by hangman nooses being thrown over a wooden frame. Hardin grabs a large knife and leaves the party. He is spotted, pursued back into the warehouse and shot through the shoulder by a third Cajun trapper, who then prepares to kill him. Meantime, a slaughtered pig is hung by the legs using the nooses and skinned and gutted.
Spencer runs in firing blanks from his rifle. The distracted Cajun turns his gun on him, but the injured Hardin stabs the Cajun in the inner thigh. Spencer runs as the two Cajuns that Hardin saw on the boat enter the room. Spencer knocks one of them out with his rifle, only to see another Cajun blocking his exit from the warehouse. As the Cajun is about to shoot Spencer, Hardin grabs him and Spencer stabs the Cajun with a fixed bayonet. The pair leave the town and see an Army helicopter overhead and an unidentified truck coming towards them. The film ends as they see the truck bears U.S. Army markings.
- Keith Carradine as Pvt. Spencer
- Powers Boothe as Cpl. Hardin
- Fred Ward as Cpl. Reece
- Franklyn Seales as Pvt. Simms
- T. K. Carter as Pvt. Cribbs
- Lewis Smith as Pvt. Stuckey
- Les Lannom as Sgt. Casper
- Peter Coyote as Staff Sgt. Poole
- Alan Autry as Cpl. "Coach" Bowden (billed as Carlos Brown)
- Brion James as Cajun trapper
- Sonny Landham as hunter
- Dewey Balfa, traditional musician, in a cameo role as a Cajun singer and fiddle player
- Marc Savoy, traditional musician, in a cameo role as a Cajun accordion player
- Frank Savoy, traditional musician, in a cameo role as a Cajun singer and triangle player
The plot of Walter Hill's earlier film, The Warriors, is based on a similar idea, that of a group of warriors who are chased by a large number of enemies through treacherous territory in order to reach their home; in that case, Coney Island. For Southern Comfort, home is English-speaking Louisiana. The literary archetype for this film can be found in the Anabasis of Xenophon. The Anabasis tells the story of the Ten Thousand, a Greek mercenary army that had fought for Cyrus the Younger in his attempt to usurp the throne of the Persian Empire from his brother, Artaxerxes II. When Cyrus died in the Battle of Cunaxa, the Greeks were forced to march through unfamiliar territory in what are now the countries of Iraq and Turkey while frequently being attacked by the people living in those regions.
According to Walter Hill he and David Giler had a deal with 20th Century Fox to "acquire and develop interesting, commercial scripts that could be produced cheaply. Alien (1979) was one of them, and Southern Comfort was another. We wanted to do a survival story, and I’d already done a film in Louisiana."
They hired a writer to do a draft which Giler and Hill then rewrote. According to Hill, "No studio wanted to make it, but an independent guy showed up who had a relationship with Fox. Liked it, said he would finance it."
The movie was shot in Louisiana over 55 days in the Cattle Lake Area outside Shreveport. Hill:
We were very aware that people were going to see it as a metaphor for Vietnam. The day we had the cast read, before we went into the swamps, I told everybody, 'People are going to say this is about Vietnam. They can say whatever they want, but I don’t want to hear another word about it.'"
The film is supported by an atmospheric soundtrack by longstanding Hill collaborator Ry Cooder. The song "Parlez Nous à Boire," sung during the scene in the Cajun village at the end of the film, was performed by Cajun musician Dewey Balfa. The film includes many actors, including Fred Ward and Peter Coyote, who had one of their first big roles here.
Hill said the concept of Keith Carradine's character "was that he was one of nature's aristocrats - graceful, confident of his own ability and able to separate himself from other people with an amusing remark", whereas the character played by Boothe "is much more the rational, hardworking, self made individual" and as a result "just cannot believe the nature of the situation at first" whereas Carradine's can.
Hill later said he enjoyed the experience of making the film but that it was tough:
I was very proud of the actors in it. It was a tough movie to make, and they put up with a lot. They would probably tell you they put up with a lot from me. [Laughs.] But they really did it without complaint. And I just thought I was very fortunate to have the cast that I had. Jesus, it was a hard movie to make... I think when you see the movie you can see that this one wasn’t nightclubs in Vegas. But it was just very hard locations to get in there. Very hard to shoot. I remember so many times we’d only have a few minutes to set the camera because the bottom of the swamp would give way. And so, for your camera positions, you had to stage and shoot very quickly in many cases. It just was hard, and the weather was miserable. However, I will say this: If you choose to go make a movie in a swamp in the middle of winter, you probably deserve what you get. [Laughs.]
Walter Hill said the film was "not a simple action movie where the people chasing the other out there is bad":
It is clearly in a sense the kind of fault of our guys for getting into this situation. In the collective group, there are individuals who are not as highly evolved as the others. And the answers to the dilemma, I mean both nature's noblemen, those of higher character through some innate quality. And you have people that operate on a sliding scale downward to the brute level in their response to the situation that they have gotten themselves into. All of which I think is a kind of, war is terrible. It's a wartime situation. With mixed results and accompanying paranoia even by those who are the best and the brightest of the bunch... None of us are quite as good or bad as we construct them. Southern Comfort is trying not to be an easy drama.
Walter Hill later said he was "always amazed" by the reception to the film. "The American reception was a real kind of nothing. But it was very nicely received around the world."
He added that the movie "didn't make a fucking nickel anywhere. Foreign domestic, anything... I was proud of the film... But I was disappointed in the lack of response. It was a universal audience failure... Usually you can say they loved it in Japan or something. I don't think anybody loved it anywhere."
- THE NEW STAR PRODUCERS: THE NEW 'STAR' PRODUCERS THE NEW 'STAR' PRODUCERS Chase, Donald Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Mar 14, 1982; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990) pg. K1
- Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p259
- The storyteller French, Philip. The Observer (1901- 2003) [London (UK)] 01 Nov 1981: 30.
- At the Movies: Marthe Keller, implacable foe of typecasting. Buckley, Tom. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 05 Dec 1980: C8.
- Jon Zelazny, 'Kicking Ass with Walter Hill', The Hollywood Interview, 8 Sept 2009
- "Interview with Walter Hill Chapter 7" Directors Guild of Australia accessed 12 June 2014
- 'SOUTHERN COMFORT'S' COOL ONE: POWERS BOOTHE Mann, Roderick. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 22 Sep 1981: g1.
- MOVIES: Director Walter Hill: Ruggedly keeping the heroic tradition alive Kart, Larry. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 11 Oct 1981: d11.
- "Walter Hill on the anti-buddy movie and the evolution of the action film" By Scott Tobias AV Club Feb 1, 2013 accessed 7 July 2014
- Southern Comfort at the Internet Movie Database
- Southern Comfort at AllMovie
- Southern Comfort at Rotten Tomatoes
- "Walter Hill: The Hollywood Interview" (September 8, 2009)