“A purely political reading of Southern Comfort does not account for the fact that Hill is as much a visual stylist as he is a storyteller. Or rather, it does not account for the manner in which he tells his stories through his style, which happens to be more finely attuned to the spare poetics of male action cinema than any other American filmmaker of his generation.”
By the late 1970s, enough time had passed since the end of the Vietnam War for Hollywood to finally start addressing the subject. Upon their release, The Deer Hunter (1978), Coming Home (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979) garnered serious critical attention and ten Oscars between them. Alongside these highbrow prestige pictures, the turn of the decade also sparked a host of pulpy male melodramas and nihilistic action thrillers haunted by the ghost of Vietnam. Such films cleverly utilized genre forms to spin vivid allegories of the social alienation and moral bankruptcy that saturated the postwar collective consciousness. Rolling Thunder (1977) starred William Devane as a shell-shocked vet who fails to readjust to civilian life after seven years of hell in a Hanoi camp, finally launching a bloodthirsty vigilante spree with the aid of trigger-happy comrade Tommy Lee Jones. Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978) structured its potent chase formula around liberal war correspondent Michael Moriarty’s attempt to stick it to the man by smuggling heroin from Saigon to California, a misjudged act of cynicism that yields a relentless cross-country pursuit for his ex-Marine friend Nick Nolte and pill-popping wife Tuesday Weld. Cutter’s Way (1981) spliced diverse elements of noir, melodrama, and moral fable in its tale of an apolitical beach bum (Jeff Bridges) who stumbles on the aftermath of a murder, and his crippled, alcoholic veteran friend (John Heard) who extrapolates a paranoid conspiracy theory placing a fat-cat oil billionaire at the scene of the crime. Without fail, the protagonists of post-Vietnam cinema are impotent with rage at the power structures that have shattered their lives.
Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) attains its searing intensity by virtue of being the most blatant of all Vietnam allegories. Not only does it differ from most post-Vietnam films in actually depicting a live combat scenario, but its opening credits ominously inform us that the film is set in 1973, the same year that a devastated US military withdrew its troops from Vietnam. In Hill’s film, the war is transplanted from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the primeval swamplands of America’s Deep South, where nine reservists with the Louisiana National Guard embark on a weekend of routine training maneuvers in the bayou. Armed only with M60 automatic rifles that fire blanks, the squad makes a fatal misjudgment of local Cajun etiquette when it borrows some stray canoes to cross a marshy impasse. When the unit’s resident prankster Stuckey (Lewis Smith) moronically fires a blank round at French-speaking trappers who have gathered by the river’s edge, the threatened natives respond to the perceived military assault with live ammunition, instantly killing the squad leader (Peter Coyote), tipping the other eight men into the water, and depriving them of their map, compass, and radio. The National Guard suddenly finds itself the unwitting victim of a guerrilla nightmare, forced to navigate its way through a bayou rife with rabid hunting dogs, steel-jawed animal traps, and trees rigged to come crashing down on them at any moment. In the absence of strong leadership, all measure of solidarity is demolished by a combination of egocentric infighting and poor strategy, as the limited resources provided by military training and technology prove to be no match for the cunning of an unseen enemy that understands Mother Nature, hunts for a living, and knows this harsh terrain like the back of its hand.
The overwhelming impression left by Southern Comfort is of a filmmaker mobilizing the mechanics of genre cinema in order to stake a righteous claim to authorship. The central narrative conceit, in which a steadily dwindling group of men are hunted as blood sport through an agoraphobic expanse of outdoor space, is hardly original. Deliverance (1972) is this film’s easiest reference point, and there are good reasons why John Boorman’s survival-of-the-fittest classic has been cited in virtually every review written of Southern Comfort in the thirty years since its original release. But to lazily reduce Hill’s film to “Deliverance in the bayou,” as so many critics have done, is to misread the varied historical traditions and contexts he draws on. Hill may be as heavily influenced by those canonical Hollywood masters of genre, such as John Ford and Howard Hawks, as the next tough-guy director, but he owes just as much to gritty second-tier iconoclasts like Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, and Samuel Fuller, filmmakers who consistently embraced pulp forms — Westerns, war movies, noirs, and B-thrillers — as a medium to articulate highly personal visions of male conflict in unforgiving rural or urban landscapes. We can trace similar authorial concerns in Hill productions ranging from 1984’s magically revisionist rock ‘n’ roll fable Streets of Fire to 1988’s uninspired Arnold Schwarzenegger/James Belushi vehicle Red Heat, a cynical attempt to capitalize on the buddy-cop formula he had helped to inaugurate with his seminal 48 Hrs. (1982). Indeed, taken in the broader context of Hill’s filmography, Southern Comfort bears less of a resemblance to Deliverance than to his own 1979 cult favorite The Warriors, which transposed Xenophon’s “Anabasis” myth of a Greek army forced to make its way home behind enemy lines to the neon-soaked, gang-infested streets of New York.
The guardsmen of this film, however, are strictly weekend warriors. As written and played, they are less fully fleshed-out portraits of multifaceted individuals than a set of symbols and archetypes cast in broad brushstrokes. Reece (Fred Ward) is a case study in blowhard machismo and American exceptionalism, cutting a fisherman’s net that blocks his passage, hustling private weaponry past personnel, and generally bulldozing through military protocol at every turn. Cribbs (T. K. Carter) remains a blank slate, blithely informing his peers that he peddles dope to high-school students. Unstable football coach Bowden (Alan Autry) appoints himself the Guard’s avenging angel, painting a red cross on his chest, dynamiting the shack of a one-armed backwoods poacher (Brion James), and spouting a few gung-ho clichés that fool nobody (“There comes a time when you have to abandon principles and do what’s right”) before withdrawing into silence for the rest of the film. The troop’s most socially adept and mentally balanced member is Spencer (Keith Carradine), a self-described city slicker whose only initial concern is the brothel visit he has organized as a post-training celebration; in Carradine’s appealing and credible rendition, Spencer gradually emerges as a welcome voice of reason, albeit a far from infallible one. Yet the film’s most thoughtful performance belongs to the improbably named Powers Boothe as Corporal Hardin, a saturnine, college-educated chemical engineer who previously served an unhappy stint in the Texas Guard. Hardin is the most intelligent man in the unit, and Boothe registers his conflicted interiority through subtle vocal inflections and sidelong glances as he distances himself from his peers (whom he arrogantly, if accurately, refers to as “dumb rednecks”), incites Spencer to take command while freeing himself from charges of mutiny, and is steadily ravaged by paranoia.
The film’s broad focus on metaphor and myth has interesting implications for our mode of viewing. Rather than forging specific emotional connections with the men, we foster a more general identification with their experience of fear. When asked in an interview why he preferred making action films to horror films, and furthermore what he considered to be the primary differences between those two genres, Hill responded (with typical economy) that “horror movies terrorize women, and action movies terrorize guys” (Zelazny). Certainly, Southern Comfort terrorizes guys to the extent that it often feels more like a horror film. Few cinematic accounts of war have so vividly evoked the chaos, confusion, and raw terror of live combat, and fewer still have allowed its male protagonists to express such depths of primal fear. Consider, for instance, the scene in which Simms (Franklyn Seales) encounters the corpses of three dead comrades who have been mysteriously dug up from their makeshift graves and bound to a tree, a ghoulish harbinger of his own encroaching fate. As he helplessly wails “No more!” at his invisible assailants, we wince at the soldier’s swift regression into infantilism, his traumatized and total abandonment of the behavioral codes assigned to masculinity in traditional action cinema. Yet we are never so consumed with empathy for the guardsmen’s suffering that we conveniently forget the fundamental racism, immaturity, and ignorance that have landed them in this crisis, or that we feel immune to the loaded reverberations of US armed forces fighting a foreign enemy, about which they know nothing, on the latter’s home turf. When Hardin incredulously ponders how the Cajuns’ war of attrition has escalated simply “because some asshole fired blanks out of his damn machine gun,” Spencer pointedly reminds him — and us — that events have also transpired in this fashion “because a bunch of assholes stole some boat.” In this respect, the squad’s pointless “search and destroy” of the poacher’s humble homestead prefigures the grim My Lai-inspired sequence in Platoon (1986) in which the Bravo Company unit, paranoid and enraged by the violent loss of three infantrymen, take it upon themselves to invade, pillage, and finally torch a Vietnamese farming village populated by innocent peasants. As with Oliver Stone’s film, it is only by dismantling conventional models of male military heroism that Hill can voice a wider indictment of all government systems that are driven by a deep-rooted ethos of entitlement and a fatal condescension toward cultural difference.
Yet a purely political reading of Southern Comfort does not account for the fact that Hill is as much a visual stylist as he is a storyteller. Or rather, it does not account for the manner in which he tells his stories through his style, which happens to be more finely attuned to the spare poetics of male action cinema than any other American filmmaker of his generation. He has an intuitive understanding of locale, a painterly eye for composition, and a gift for choreographing fights, chases, and shoot-outs with rhythmic precision. Here his innovative visual sense finds an ally in the form of cinematographer Andrew Laszlo, who had already devised striking fluorescent lighting schemes for the nocturnal street scenes and interior coverage of moving subway cars in The Warriors. This shoot represented a different type of challenge, consisting almost entirely of exterior daytime photography in the swamps of northern Louisiana and Texas, and working without the benefit of either back-lot sets or artificial light. In the chapter on Southern Comfort in his 2000 book Every Frame a Rembrandt: Art and Practice of Cinematography, Laszlo cites as a key aesthetic influence the photojournalism of David Douglas Duncan, whose prominent coverage of Korean War combat for Life magazine was anthologized in the luridly titled 1951 book This Is War! In particular, Laszlo was struck by one dark and desaturated portrait of a Marine sitting on a rock in a wet poncho and steel helmet, enshrouded in late-afternoon mist, physically and spiritually exhausted after two days without food or sleep. Laszlo sought to replicate Duncan’s mood of abject desolation at the level of color, light, and depth of field, which means that his primary function on Southern Comfort was to systematically debase each image that unfolds before us. Natural light was rigorously drained from the frame through the use of overhead silks, tarps, and smoke that engulfed the bayou trees in a canopy of gloom, while black-dot filters served to add a layer of grain to the image, muting the color contrast and allowing the detail of human figures to blend menacingly into shadowy ground. The result is a truly alien bayou landscape rendered in a hundred monochromatic shades of green and gray, with the men’s military fatigues near-indistinguishable from the murky waters they trudge through — human frailty swallowed whole by a hostile environment. Laszlo’s camerawork betrays a similarly expressionistic economy: winter sunsets roll by in chilly dissolves; expressions of fear are distilled in evocative freeze-frames; dolly movements laterally scan and stalk the expanse of the swamp; and the touches of slow motion — brief and sparingly used — unleash an apocalyptic force, as with the distinctly Peckinpah-style interlude of the squad’s incompetent second-in-command, Sergeant Casper (Les Lannom), sloshing half-speed toward the camera and certain death, a bayonet sadly appended to his rifle in a grotesque parody of military heroism.
Hill furnishes the image track with an equally nuanced treatment of silence and sound. Ry Cooder’s score is a thing of sinister beauty, a scrim of eerie woodwind, fluttering snares, and aquatic slide reverb that nicely preempts his definitive work on Paris, Texas (1984). By integrating Cooder’s funereal blues with the frequent gaps in dialogue, the amplified rhythms of feet wading through water, and the ever-present aria of crickets, swamp insects, and exotic birds commentating on the men’s descent into hell, the film constructs a taut and textured soundscape that pulls us like a current into its ecology of difference. Indeed, the whole audiovisual design of Southern Comfort seems to float in some interstitial space between gritty realism and mythic grandeur. It is a space that further encourages us to receive the film on its own terms, to engage with it as potent genre allegory rather than pure social tract.
And it is perhaps for this reason that, despite all contrary evidence, Hill was reluctant to pigeonhole Southern Comfort as an allegory of a single war: “We were very aware that people were going to see it as a metaphor for Vietnam,” he later admitted. “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'” (Zelazny). In this light, it seems meaningful that the film’s most haunting episodes of bloodshed are not the ones inflicted on its human victims, but those fleeting nightmare images of violence wrought against an animal kingdom eternally at the mercy of man’s will to power. At various points of their journey, the soldiers stumble on fish dangling from a branch, a gutted deer draped over a wire fence, and rabbit skins hanging in the bayou, their careful arrangement a crudely effective foreshadowing of the butchery that awaits them. The war against animals comes full circle in the suspenseful final montage, which intercuts Spencer and Hardin’s paranoid entrapment at a seemingly benign Cajun village dance with fearsome documentary-style footage of locals stringing up nooses for two caged hogs. We witness a real-time twitch of the death nerve as one of the pigs is sliced open, after which it is skinned, bled out, and disemboweled in graphic detail. It is an image that lingers long after Southern Comfort is over — a savage parting shot from a universe where conflict takes no prisoners.
Laszlo, Andrew. Every Frame a Rembrandt: Art and Practice of Cinematography. Massachusetts: Focal Press, 2000. Print.
Zelazny, Jon. “Walter Hill: The Hollywood Interview.” Sept. 8, 2009.http://thehollywoodinterview.blogspot.com/2009/09/walter-hill-hollywood-interview.html. Web. Accessed Oct. 25, 2012.