Getting drained in the swamp: Southern Comfort

Southern Comfort (1981)

I had every intention of writing about Peter George’s Surf Nazis Must Die (1987) this month, if only to talk about the score, which is not only better than the movie, it’s better than most movies: rich, panicky, insomniac synth music. It’s so sincere that not even John Carpenter ever quite produced anything as insidiously cool. Carpenter was trying to help tell a story with his music, which meant it was a lithe counterpart to his perfect images. The Jon McCallum music in Surf Nazis is bigger and deeper than the images it scores, though those images have a DIY, super 8 kinda poetry. If George had used the sun a little more, hung back, like he does in the most memorable shots, the film might have earned the score.

As it is I think trying to dissect a film like Surf Nazis Must Die kind of diminishes it. George wasn’t trying to do more than make an insanely entertaining, purposely offensive and sickly fun genre thingamajig. And he did. Trying to talk about a film about a black woman hunting and killing nazi punks with a pistol, some grenades and a speed boat when there are real nazis running around feels a little precious. Watching it’s the best way to appreciate it.

So instead I turn my attention to the guys who likely gave George the stylistic go ahead to make such a film. It’s obvious the synths come from Carpenter and Giorgio Morodor, but the gangs rumbling and pissing each other off? That’s Walter Hill. Obviously the colourful turf-war stuff is all from The Warriors (1979), but the disassemble the team narrative comes right out of Southern Comfort (1981), which is also sort of The Thing (1982) before The Thing.

Southern Comfort‘s got a hefty cult following among critics and not much else. Hill said it wasn’t even ‘big in Japan,’ as the saying goes. To those who know where to look, you don’t need anything else. The only thing it’s missing is a synth. But it’s got Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, Keith Carradine, T.K. Carter, Perfect Tommy and a spooky slide guitar score by Ry Cooder and that’s plenty.

Southern Comfort (1981)

“You can’t just walk off like this… we’re a squad, a unit.”

Southern Comfort is about 9 national guardsmen who piss off some Cajun fur trappers in the swamps of Louisiana. It’s maybe more accurate to say it’s about the pleasures of a 35mm camera dollying through trees and kudzu. Hill’s beleaguered troops blend right into their surroundings, their muddy fatigues meshing with the grey green of the ominous landscape. Hill was wise to never talk about the film as a Vietnam allegory. Politics killed a career back then quicker than drugs, manslaughter or sex crimes. But there’s no mistaking the sight of sweaty, half-crazed men in Army Greens sloshing through waist-high water firing their weapons into the abyss, screaming for mercy and order, for anything other than a stone tape scream from Saigon. The only thing that deviates from the usual Vietnam narrative is how unceremoniously everyone perishes. Almost nothing here is unduly dramatic. Sudden death hiding in puddles is plenty horrifying. They’re outnumbered, they fall into traps, they die. Then, if they’re particularly unlucky, their bodies are dug up and used as scarecrows to frighten the surviving invaders.

“You’re not supposed to say nuttin’… soldya.”

The film may be Hill’s best. It’s certainly his leanest. There’s a split diopter shot that looks straight outta Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983) but beyond that his playbook is scaled back. No neon, no rain slicked streets, no visits to Torchy’s. It’s all minimalist chaos, the trees doing the work of a city with half the effort. The labyrinthine swamp is much easier to get lost in then the New York or LA his dreamers usually get bogged down in.

Hill had been to Louisiana once before to make Hard Times (1975), and even in his Great Depression-set tale of bare knuckle boxers and scurrilous gamblers the place seemed a thousand times friendlier. Jim Jarmusch and Robby Müller would rescue its wilds with their silky black and white photography in Down By Law (1986), turning its endlessness gradually into paradise. Hill didn’t idly stare at the darkness of the world. His camera was always perched a little above his characters, showing the ground they walk on, the only thing of which anyone could be certain, as not even our bodies tell the truth of our being.

Powers Boothe and Keith Carradine in Southern Comfort (1981)

Keith Carradine is at his sardonic, pragmatic ultra here, swatting every posture and suspicion out of the air like he was catching flies. Hill loves stoic introverted warriors and talky operators but the dynamic isn’t as eaily split here as it is in Hard Times, The Assignment (2016) or 48 Hours (1982). Boothe is stoic, but he talks and worries. Carradine is definitely Eddie Murphy compared to Boothe’s Nick Nolte, but Carradine doesn’t always see danger, he just sees human behavior. His blonde pin-up hair makes him look like a star Baseball player lost on his way to a party.

But when push comes to shove he kills the trappers who hunt him without mercy. The climax is a vicious little miracle. Boothe and Carradine wander into a Cajun ho-down and their swamp thing nemeses show up shortly after. The footage of the party, with its boisterous zyedeco and happily dancing Louisianan families, recalls a lost Les Blank documentary (Cooder was the subject of one a few years after Southern Comfort), but the live animal slaughter places this squarely between Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Apocalypse Now (1979), the last New Hollywood fiascos.

Southern Comfort is nearly as rich as those two films, but its lean, mean horrific tone is a worthy successor to the old opulence. The swamp, claustrophobic and agoraphobic, the tiny men who mistrust each other in the face of a greater, unseen threat, the grim determination of the nearly-grindhouse plotting, the intrusion of the military at the end as surreal and jarring as the fall of reality at the end of Lucio Fulci’s The Gates of Hell (1980). Even the arrival of the cavalry can’t make a happy ending out of this. They trained these hapless dead guardsmen, after all. Can’t just break a man like a horse and racism, stupidity and arrogance aren’t cured by handing him a gun. The war was over and everywhere walked our dead.

This Essay article was published in December 2017