Tag Archives: Film Review

A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981

It’s been way too long since the last film retrospective appeared on Fante’s Inferno. My previous posts on the films of the Summers of 1982, 1983 and 1984 were a lot of fun to write, and even more fun to research. But with each year that passed since my last retrospective in 2014, I kept telling myself to get started on the next one, only to have life get in the way of revisiting the films of the Summer of 1985 and onward. So to find the subject of my next film retrospective, I reviewed the list of film releases from 35 and 40 years ago (to stay within my unofficial 80s timeline) to revisit the classics of that era but more importantly to rediscover some forgotten gems.

I initially planned on writing a retrospective on the films of the Summer of 1981, which in my opinion had a very solid lineup. But 1981 was also the year that some of my all time favorite films were released, namely John Boorman’s Excalibur and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (both of which are still in my personal top ten list of favorite films). Over the years I’ve reviewed several films from 1981 on this site (The Hand, The Last Chase, Gregory’s Girl, Southern Comfort and Time Bandits), so looking over the entire year’s film releases made me realize that 1981 as a whole had a strong mix of classics, cult favorites, guilty pleasures, and a few underrated and forgotten films that deserve to be revisited. Many of them can be found on streaming services today, which allowed me to dig deeper into that year’s lineup and rewatch a few of the less remembered films for the first time in four decades.

But researching this cinematic year led to a very surprising and unexpected opinion: that 1981 is one of the most underrated years of cinema, not only of the 1980s, but of the last 50 years.

I know, I know, that’s a bold statement. But I wrote “underrated” and not “best” for a reason. And while 1939 is considered the definitive “Best Year of Movies,” two recent books add the films of 1962 and 1999 to the debate, and in my opinion 1994 wasn’t too shabby either. Without question the films of 1939 still hold the crown of the greatest cinematic year due to their classic, enduring qualities and the reverence with which they are held to this day. And while only a small handful of films from 1981 could be considered true classics today, the fact that many of the lesser known films from that year are still very enjoyable forty years later legitimately puts 1981 in the category of “underrated” and well worth another look.

It’s safe to say none of the films of 1981 have reached the stature of 1972’s The Godfather, though Raiders of the Lost Ark is one film from 1981 that has earned both classic and blockbuster status along the lines of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), and was the highest grossing film that year. But two of 1981’s Oscar winners Reds and Chariots of Fire probably don’t get watched with the same frequency these days. If you look at the films of 1972, 1975 or 1977, you’ll see a number of great films (for example 1972 also had Deliverance, Cabaret, and Jeremiah Johnson; 1975 included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon and Three Days of the Condor; and 1977 included Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever and A Bridge Too Far), but in my opinion 1981 pulls ahead in terms of the consistency in the quality of a lot of films across all genres, even the hidden gems and cult favorites.

That’s not to say there weren’t any clunkers or outright bombs that year. For every Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond and Chariot of Fire, there was Sphinx, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, and the best example of the worst type of film: Going Ape! Like any other cinematic year before or since, there are films that have been forgotten for good reason. But others may also fall into the category of “badly made but fun to watch.” One thing I never do when I revisit an older film is to judge it by today’s standards with regard to effects, cinematography, etc. I’ll mentally turn the clock back and view a film and judge it on its merits of the time. Easier said than done with some films, but I choose to give each of these a fair shake even if some were intended as B movies and lacking in production value. Even some of the lowest budget horror or action films can still be enjoyable in their own right.

Let’s take a look at some of the notable films of 1981:

January to March:
Scanners
Fort Apache The Bronx
Diva
Goodbye Pork Pie
Modern Romance
American Pop
Eyewitness
Cutter’s Way
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Thief

April to June:
Atlantic City
Nighthawks
Excalibur
The Howling
Knightriders
The Hand
Ms. 45
Bustin’ Loose
The Four Seasons
The Last Chase
Gregory’s Girl
Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams
Clash of the Titans
History of the World: Part I
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Cannonball Run
Superman II
Dragonslayer
For Your Eyes Only
Stripes

July to September
The Decline of Western Civilization
Escape from New York
Arthur
Blow Out
Eye of the Needle
Wolfen
Escape to Victory
Gallipoli
Heavy Metal
An American Werewolf in London
Prince of the City
Body Heat
Continental Divide
Das Boot
Raggedy Man
Southern Comfort
True Confessions

October to December
Enter the Ninja
My Dinner with Andre
The Evil Dead
Time Bandits
Ragtime
Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Four Friends
Pennies From Heaven
Absence of Malice
Chariots of Fire
Taps
Quest for Fire
On Golden Pond
Reds

This list will likely bring out comments defending some of the less successful films, questioning their inclusion as “notable,” or debating whether some of the acclaimed films of that year even hold up today. A few additional titles from 1981 might also be included in this retrospective. I look forward to a spirited discussion.

First up in this retrospective will be the films of January through March of 1981!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Southern Comfort (1981)

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.

Southern Comfort is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on Amazon.  As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  Thank you for your support!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,