After stumbling upon a film I saw and loved long, long ago, I thought this would be a great time to create a new series for Savage Cinema. Entitled "Savage Cinema's Buried Treasure," I want to take the time to shed some light on obscure films from the past and present, that will hopefully catch your fancy.
So sit back, grab your favorite beverage and read onwards. I hope my first installment and this series leads you to new cinematic grounds that you will enjoy as much as I did.
"SOUTHERN COMFORT" (1981)
Co-Written & Directed by Walter Hill
If you happen to be in the market for a strong action movie that is also left of center, then, I am happy to point you to look no further than “Southern Comfort,” a 1981 thriller directed by Walter Hill, a filmmaker who specializes in hard charged and violent male driven rites of passage. Hill’s oeuvre typically contains a collective of two-fisted, guns blazing, tough talking anti-heroes with deep moral codes and an “honor among thieves” framework that cinematically reaches back towards classic crime dramas, westerns and the eternally influential films from Akira Kurosawa.
The films of Walter Hill have spanned the gamut from westerns (1980’s “The Long Riders”), a collection of urban thrillers (including 1979’s “The Warriors,” 1989’s “Johnny Handsome,” and 1992’s “Trespass”), one fantasy driven delta blues musical with Ralph Macchio (1986’s “Crossroads”), an ambitiously conceived rock and roll fable—which incidentally was partially responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating (1984’s “Streets Of Fire”), and the smash hit film debut of Eddie Murphy (1982’s brilliant “48 Hrs.”). With “Southern Comfort,” Hill takes us to the swamps of the Louisiana bayous and firmly concentrates his story upon a collective of colorful characters, a strong attention to mood and atmosphere, quiet paranoid tension that explodes into blistering violence as well as functioning as a subtle political commentary.
Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe and Fred Ward lead the cast as members of the National Guard who band together for a weekend military exercise in the swamps. As the men cajole amongst themselves, they eventually decide to engage in carnal pursuits with hookers in a nearby town. Yet the only way to arrive is via a group of canoes left by the edge of a river bank by the local Cajuns. The soldiers steal the canoes, leaving only one behind and with the intent to return them later. But as they glide through the murky waters, the surprised and rightfully angered Cajuns arrive on the scene only to be met with a blast of impetuous gunfire—albeit blanks--from one of the soldiers. After a brief moment of confused silence, the Cajuns retaliate with real gunfire, shooting their Staff Sgt. (the great Peter Coyote) in the head. As the soldiers scatter and reach drier land, the previously mundane excursion transforms into a terrifyingly claustrophobic fight for survival as the unarmed soldiers are gradually picked off one by one by the infuriated Cajuns.
"Southern Comfort" holds appropriately stifling and oppressive cinematography as well as a methodically slow and bluesy score by frequent Hill composer Ry Cooder to set the stage of this brutal story. Every single performance is solid as granite with Carradine’s sardonic demeanor and Boothe’s steady grimness as the most effective of anchors. I loved how Walter Hill completely turned the heavy testosterone on display inside out as we watch the soldiers unravel as they are all lost in unfamiliar surroundings without effective weapons of any sort. The profane (and often quite funny) dialogue is obviously being used as a not terribly effective shield to conceal their building fear. The intense psychological suspense rises with each passage through the swamps as their search for the open highway proves to be increasingly futile and inevitably begin to turn upon each other in suspicion, distrust and madness. Each graphic killing and violent transgression (for 1981’s standards) that transpires always arrives as a horrific and cathartic surprise (one soldier's shaken howl at yet another Cajun inflicted murder is chilling). Hill definitely has you in the palm of his firm Directorial hands as you feel as disoriented as the National Guard troop, never knowing from where and when the punishing karma of the Cajuns will strike next.
As I previously stated, Hill is also able to weave in a sly political commentary as “Southern Comfort” functions strongly as an allegory to the Vietnam war. Taking on the cliché of soldiers being young, dumb and full of…well, you know, Hill plays with those conventions by having a cast of characters whose members are not that young, more than a little dumb and definitely full of something! The arrogance, sense of entitlement and stupidity of a few is the catalyst for their collective downfall as they are forced to fight and ultimately, be bested by those they perceive to be lesser. They don't know the language, customs or terrain and by battling on the unforgiving Cajuns’ home turf, the rules of engagement to which our soldiers are familiar have been changed irrevocably and the unwritten laws have been broken. For these soldiers, it is a war in which they can only lose and any perceived victory can only be achieved through the act of getting out alive.
I first saw this film at the age of 13 on a pay television channel and was deeply affected by the locations, the storytelling, the performances, the music, and yes…the profanity. It was a strong introduction to the world of adult thrillers for me and after viewing it again, after not having seen it for over 25 years, I was pleasantly struck to see how well this film still holds up.
If you can find it at your local video store or stumble across it on cable as I did, I gently urge you to take the time to check this one out. In many respects, it is exactly the kind of film that isn’t being made in quite the same ways these days as mainstream audiences are now more accustomed to being bludgeoned by the sounds and visions rather than being drawn in and eventually allowing yourself to be engulfed by it.
“Southern Comfort” will engulf you.
SUGGESTED FILMS TO TRY IF YOU LIKE “SOUTHERN COMFORT”
“Deliverance” (1972) Directed by John Boorman
“John Carpenter’s The Thing” (1982) Directed by John Carpenter
“The Edge” (1997) Written by David Mamet Directed by Lee Tamahori