Looking back at Walter Hill's Southern Comfort

Feature Samantha Cliffe 3 Jul 2013 - 06:14

Could director Walter Hill's Southern Comfort be one of the most underrated thrillers of the 80s? Samantha takes a look back...

Southern Comfort must be one of the most underrated of thrillers. Uncomfortably tense and undeniably menacing, this film masterfully leaves us on edge from start to finish. But apart from the atmosphere and tension it creates so well, this is a distinctive film that stays with you long after you’ve seen it. There’s an undercurrent to the story that’s unavoidable, making Southern Comfort an intriguing and very clever film that undoubtedly deserves far more recognition in cinema history.

Set in 1973 in the bayous of Louisiana, a squad of National Guards incur the anger of the local Cajun people while on a training exercise and end up having to fight for their survival as they are hunted through the swamps. Admittedly, it becomes difficult not to draw comparison with the Vietnam War: a troop of soldiers head into unknown territory in the woods, ill-prepared, and end up being hunted by the local population who have the advantage by being on home ground, possessing an intimate knowledge of the area.

Although it has often been described as an allegory for the Vietnam war (see IMDB and Roger Ebert’s review for examples of this), this wasn’t actually Walter Hill’s intention. The director explicitly stated that his film was not meant to be read in context of the war: “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.’"

Southern Comfort has also been compared to Deliverance, and even the film’s trailer makes this comparison. While the similarities are obvious – both are about survival in remote parts of the US where each party faces an enemy – Deliverance went on to achieve notoriety in the cinematic hall of fame while Southern Comfort failed to achieve a similar level of popularity. Ask the average person you pass on the street and it’s likely they won’t have even heard of Southern Comfort.

Perhaps it missed the boat, as the basic storyline doesn’t really do anything dramatically different: Apocalypse Now (1979) showed armed combat in the thick jungles in graphic detail, and Deliverance (1971) was first with a similar storyline and had the additional benefit of its notorious ‘squeal piggy’ scene. But although Southern Comfort wasn’t doing anything new, it surely deserves more recognition as a horror thriller that is nothing short of brilliant.

Creating an oppressive atmosphere

With an emotive score by Ry Cooder, the film begins by panning through the dense bayou as the National Guard squad navigate through the trees, creating a distinctive atmosphere that sets the tone for the rest of the film.

The entire film takes place in the Louisiana bayou, a location that Hill has cleverly and sympathetically brought to life; natural sounds of the bayou – such as birds squawking and the drone of the cicadas – are subtly used to create a tension that is built and maintained throughout the film. These sounds can often be heard in the wake of a violent scene, creating a menacing atmosphere that almost gives the impression that the bayou itself is a living entity and a force to be reckoned with, which is reinforced by the drowning of a member of the Guard in quicksand.

Weather is also sympathetic to the story. A thick fog emerges during a particularly tense fight between Hardin (Powers Boothe) and Reece (Fred Ward), and the only sound effect used is the ominous moaning of the wind.

Music is rarely used in Southern Comfort to build tension or atmosphere; Hill instead relies on the relative stillness and silence of the bayou in order to create an underlying sense of menace. Less, in this case, really is more.

The bayou has a distinctly ominous presence throughout the film. Never once do we emerge from the trees into open space, giving the claustrophobic impression that the dense woods never end. It doesn’t take much to make the swamps of Louisiana feel vast and oppressive, and even this setting is a clever move from Hill. This is an alien landscape to most viewers – the perfect setting to take people right out of their comfort zone. The twist, of course, is that this is America, which should be a setting that the vast majority of viewers are familiar and comfortable with.

Throw into the mix the local Cajun culture and you have something resembling culture shock. It is significant that this occurs within the United States. As the Cajun culture has been little represented in cinema, it makes the concept of Americans being strangers in their own territory even more potent.

A lawless land

The National Guard troops come into contact with the Cajuns early on in the film. Due to irresponsible, reckless and even arrogant behaviour from the troops, the Cajuns go on the defensive and kill Poole (Peter Coyote), who was the captain in charge of the squad. As a result Casper (Les Lannom) assumes command, but he’s a weak leader and lacks the respect of the men.

Authority, or lack of it, is a prominent theme. Casper is unable to maintain control over the team and the situation quickly degenerates. His command is called into question time and again and he is continually overruled. Even law is called into question out in the bayou: at different points of the film, Bowden (Alan Autry) and Reece (Fred Ward) go as far as to take the law into their own hands, with Bowden blowing up the house of a Cajun trapper (whom they take prisoner) and declaring himself an ‘avenging angel’, and Reece judging the trapper guilty and sentencing him to death by his own hands.

Hardin (Powers Boothe) and Spencer (Keith Carradine) are the voices of reason throughout the film and are the only characters with whom we’re really able to sympathise, but even they have to go against the law in order to survive and attempt to control the situation. Hardin kills Reece in order to stop him from killing the Cajun trapper, and Spencer encourages Hardin to overthrow Casper’s command, even though he knows that it would mean a court-martial.

But none of this really matters in the bayou. Laws lack any real weight and it draws attention to the fact that the troops are out on their own and it means nothing that they are the National Guard.

In fact the National Guard is represented as something of a shambles. Casper argues that they have the upper-hand as they have the advantage of military training, and he is openly laughed at for saying this. It is suggested that the National Guard are something of a joke; they lack proper training, they are disorderly and fight amongst themselves, without a strong leadership, and they are also ill-prepared emotionally, lacking an understanding and respect for another culture, the Cajuns.

Throughout the film panic amongst the troops continues to grow. They see dead animals strung up in the woods (spoils from the hunters) and become increasingly unnerved. Their surroundings become completely inhospitable: the Cajuns set dogs on them and set primitive but effective traps around the swamps, killing them off one by one.

The Cajuns are out for revenge, and they’re out to make a point, as the freed trapper later reappears and says, “This is our home and no one goin’ fuck with us!”

The film teeters on horror when the surviving members of the squad find the three bodies of the murdered troops dug up and tied up together on a tree trunk. This harks back to the dead animals hung up on trees we saw earlier in the film, and in this sense these animals served to show us the inevitable fate of the National Guard men.

Climax

Hardin and Spencer are the only survivors of the attacks and eventually make it to the road. Having found it, they’re openly relieved and flag down a car they see driving toward them, but as the car stops they hesitate. It’s clear that they are, quite literally, not out of the woods and remain ‘behind enemy lines’.

The film reaches its tense climax in a backwoods Cajun town still stuck in the past. With no phone and no access out of the town, the two find themselves in the middle of the Cajun community. Although they are out of the swamp, the oppressive presence of the bayou remains a strong force.

The townspeople are friendly to the pair, telling them to stay and drink. In reality they have little choice but to do so, a fact which isn’t lost on Hardin. But Spencer is happy to relax. “These are the good Cajuns,” he tells Hardin.

The end scene is expertly designed to put you on edge: traditional live Cajun music is playing, people are dancing, and a pig is slaughtered. The pig is of particular relevance as we’re reminded of the fate of the animals and the troops earlier in the film, making us fear that this is another literal sign of things to come for the two survivors.

Jumping between scenes of the Hardin’s unease, people dancing, and the pig slaughter heightens tensions, making it all feel very raw, untamed and chaotic. We’re transported into the Cajuns’ world and we find ourselves, along with Hardin, acutely aware that we don’t belong.

Culture shock is at its height here, as Hardin’s paranoia reaches its pinnacle. Throughout the film we view the Cajuns as ‘the other’, whereas in the town it is Hardin and Spencer who are the outsiders. It becomes far more unnerving being in the town than the bayou, throwing into question where we would feel the most safe.

Spencer is lulled into a false sense of security, while Hardin suspiciously watches a couple of hunters arrive in the town on boats. His fears are realised when he is confronted by one of the Cajun hunters who shoots him. Spencer comes to his rescue, and the two make a run for the military helicopter that appears overhead.

As it begins to land by the town, Spencer and Hardin stumble toward it. A truck appears and the camera lingers on the ‘USA 22877’ print on the side, and then the red star, symbolically reminding us that we’re still in the US.

Clash of cultures

Southern Comfort is not simply a film about survival, and nor should it be viewed in the context of the Vietnam war. On the contrary, it’s not a film that shows the political situation of the United States and its place in the world, but rather it shows the country's state at home.

It is a film that draws on our own paranoia, or in particular the paranoia of the United States. It’s about a lack of control, the incapability of the National Guard who in essence started ‘the war’, which was born out of ignorance – or even arrogance – and was entirely preventable.

It’s also a film about revenge and chaos; it becomes difficult to say which are the good guys, and which the bad. Both ‘sides’ behave in a destructive way toward the other, and both feel that they have a right to revenge.

But significantly, the film represents a clash of cultures. Yes it’s a film about survival, but more than just individual survival, it’s about cultural survival. The Cajuns are represented in the film as ‘the enemy within’, but they’re also defending what’s theirs: their home, their land, their way of life.

As one of the film’s taglines succinctly puts it: “It’s the land of hospitality... unless you don’t belong there.”

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