Release Date: September 25, 1981
Starring: Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, T.K. Carter, Franklyn Seales, Lewis Smith, Alan Autry (credited as Carlos Brown), Les Lannom, Brion James, Peter Coyote
Written by: Michael Kane, Walter Hill, David Giler
Directed by: Walter Hill
I love rediscovering an obscure film from the 80’s that still hits on all cylinders decades later. When my family first got cable TV in 1981 it gave me exposure to quality (and some not so quality) films that I normally would not have been introduced to at our local cinemas. Southern Comfort, directed by Walter Hill, is one of those great films that was easy to find on cable TV back then but became harder to find over the years. With the film’s recent availability on Amazon Prime, it was time to revisit it.
Walter Hill is best known for The Warriors and 48 Hours, but his impressive list of films includes hard hitting dramas (Hard Times, The Driver), a beloved comedy (Brewster’s Millions), an action film (Red Heat) and less conventional dramas like the neo-noir Streets of Fire and blues themed Faustian tale Crossroads. But the 1981 drama/thriller Southern Comfort is a solid film that inexplicably slipped through the cracks over time despite an engaging story and great cast.
The film begins in 1973 Louisiana. Army National Guardsmen are on maneuvers in the bayou. Captain Poole (played by Peter Coyote) assembles a squad of eight men for a standard recon mission. Their morale is apathetic at best and it doesn’t get any better with arrival of Hardin (played by Powers Boothe), a transfer from Texas who wants to put in his time and get home to his wife. Stuckey (played by Lewis Smith) tries to lighten the mood by firing blank rounds from his machine gun at Poole’s second-in-command Sergeant Casper (played by Les Lannom), which shows the amount of respect they have for him (and also makes a viewer wonder why the surrounding troops didn’t respond to it as a threat – my one caveat with the film). Spencer (Keith Carradine) boosts the men’s motivation when he tells them he has hired several prostitutes to wait for them at a rendezvous point at the end of their recon mission.
Several hours into the recon mission Captain Poole realizes their course has been blocked by a river that rose with the winter rains. Their choice is to continue forward to find their rendezvous point or backtrack to base and start the recon all over again. At a trapping post, faced with a river they are unable to cross and the entertainment waiting for them at their eventual rendezvous point, they “requisition” three canoes from local trappers who aren’t around to give permission. At the suggestion of straight laced high school coach Bowden (played by Alan Autry but credited as Carlos Brown), the squad leaves one canoe behind with a note explaining where they will find the other canoes. But despite the soldiers’ best intentions the trappers are not happy with a group of outsiders interfering with their property.
The group is halfway across the river when the French speaking Cajun trappers angrily make their presence known. Reece (played by Fred Ward) manages to get a few rude words out in French. Poole attempts to explain they’ll get their canoes back, but the situation spirals out of control when joker Stuckey fires a couple of dozen blank rounds at them. The trappers, unaware they are blanks, return fire and shoot Poole in the head, killing him. Leaderless and lost, the guardsmen now need to survive in unfamiliar territory without live ammunition.
Fear and infighting within the group set in. Spencer reveals that Reese has his own box of live ammunition. Casper orders him to turn it over to distribute among the squad but Reese is more than willing to give Casper a bullet to the head to keep his stash. Hardin sneaks up behind Reese with a knife to his throat and the bullets are turned over. Casper does his best to keep order and lead the squad, but despite his experience and knowledge of military procedure, he’s unable to command the respect of the men.
The next day they find the trappers cabin and capture the only inhabitant, a one-armed trapper (Brion James). But the group has different ideas as to how their new prisoner should be treated. After Simms (played by Franklyn Seales) cracks him across the jaw he’s unwilling to talk. Bowden’s composure erodes and he’s hellbent on payback. Oblivious to the supplies they could have collected, he sets the trapper’s cabin on fire and nearly kills all of them when a storage of dynamite goes off. With even less live ammunition they continue through the bayou dragging both a prisoner and Poole’s lifeless body. They can’t find the highway and they take it as a morbid sign when they encounter eight dead rabbits (one for each of them) hanging in their path.
Without a compass, Spencer and Casper disagree over which direction to go. As they attempt to get their bearings, a group of hunting dogs attack them with Stuckey and Cribbs (played by T.K. Carter) getting the worst of it. The squad is now the hunted, descending into fear, despair and paranoia with each deadly trap they encounter. When they’re not feeling the presence of their hunters, the squad begins to turn on itself. Bowden cracks and is tied up so as not to become a danger to himself and the squad. Reese tries his own methods of interrogation on their prisoner which leads to a knife-wielding showdown with Hardin. With no end to their ordeal in sight, Casper’s quoting of the manual finally turns the men against him and they follow Spencer.
No spoilers here. Walter Hill’s direction and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo’s photography of the bayou puts the audience right in the middle of the squad’s nightmare. It’s the portrayal of the “local’s” desire to protect their land and way of life that effectively brings out the growing fear and desperation of the guardsmen (a few shots are not for the squeamish). It’s too easy to compare Southern Comfort to the critically acclaimed Deliverance (unfortunately even the film’s poster is guilty of this), but Southern Comfort stands on its own as a powerful psychological drama that keeps the audience engaged to the very end.
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