Feb 25th: “Southern Comfort” (1981)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
I came to this film with an air of caution. One the one hand, I laughed a lot, unintentionally, at the way the characters talked to one another in the beginning and at first, I didn’t think this film was going to go anywhere. I was soon quickly surprised, and even though some of the characterisation comes across a little, enhanced , it all fits in. The plot eventually steam rolls over all of my preconceived notions in the beginning, and soon enough, I was hooked in the how’s, the whys and the who. It was a surprise to me, but then, on the other hand, I stepped back for a moment before considering this as an underrated movie. I began to feel suspicious. “How can this movie be so well buried? How come I’ve never heard of something that, upon viewing, is incredibly watchable, and memorable?”
Whether or not I believed there was a catch, or perhaps a stigma attached to this film because of its divisive views, at least such views fall at the feet of the characters. It’s their prejudice, but in reflection makes it an issue for all of us to reckon with.
This movie came out of nowhere and was a complete surprise to me when I saw it late December 2020. There are not many films that are like it. It’s almost a war film, but not quite. It’s almost a survival, pick them off one-by-one Predator type movie, but not quite, and it’s Deliverance, without the banjos and torturous pig squeals sounds. This film deals with the idea of power over authority, but it also reckons with the issue of cultural xenophobia and racism, and how ignorance and stupidity simply makes life a living hell.
Most of the men in this movie are punished by the way of principle, which leads us to stand behind the two who value their better intentions, to what end, allows them the chance, to rise above, and seek redemption.
This film’s setup is very straightforward, but then, none of it feels familiar: Our focus on on a group of Louisiana National Guards who are out on a training excursion across Byou country, deep within Cajun country. Now if you’re not up to speed on the geographical and demographics of the Deep South, the Louisiana Byou it is a vast area of water and swamp land. The surrounding residents consist in part of the descendants of the original — French speaking — Acadian exiles. How uneducated do I feel not having such a wide understanding of all cultures that live within the United States of America, although, when it comes to cultural first contact situations, this film isn’t really the Ambassador we would want to hone in on reality, when it comes down to cultural representation. Thankfully, not all Cajuns in this movie are regarded as merciless killers. Only the hunters and trappers make their uneasy encounter while following the extracurricular activities of the National Guard. seem are relative to real life enemies they would expect to encounter on international soil.
This training was never meant to get in the way of the local inhabitants. To go one further: these men don’t appear trained to handle the situation they end up fighting. Armed with rubber bullets, the squad consisting of a playbook of specific character traits. Not everybody sings from the same hymn sheet or are made from the same mould. Their inability to work fully as a squad, with honour appears somewhat pathetic in the early stages of their dilemma.
Going in, I wasn’t sure there were even any characters that I sympathised with. That all changed as the threat ensues, and two characters emerge from the generic to the heroic: PFC Spencer (played by Keith Carradine) and Corporal Charles Hardin (Powers Boothe) both share the protagonist role, and stand out by spitting out interesting performances, with much gusto and grit as you’d come to expect.
After “borrowing” the boats — known as pirogues — owned by wandering Cajun trappers, the men head outward bound only to be verbally taunted by said trappers as they catch them in the act — albeit out of reach. The squad’s intentions weren’t completely shot. They did plan to bring them back. But none of that matters. As the taunts ruffles their feathers, PFC Stuckey (played by Lewis Smith) hails rubber bullets in their direction. What turns out first to be a dumb-ass joke, turns deadly as one of the hunters, returns fire for real, killing the squad’s Leader, Sargeant Poole (played by Peter Coyote who we’d know previously as the man who wanted to take ET away from Eliot in ET: The Extra Terrestrial.)
With Poole dead, the squad start to panic. They realise that they are in over their heads in trouble. They neither have the firepower or the skills necessary to work well enough together to avoid further conflict. From that moment on, the Cajun hunters begin to close their net, and stalk them as pray for the rest of the film.
The only predictable trope would be that the hunters end up picking off the men one by one, much like they would do in your typical horror movie. Although the circumstances of this story are profoundly different, and nothing relates, nor can such a trope be taken for granted here. Put simply, we have not seen this kind of reaction to being hunted before.
I had to keep myself from forgetting that these soldiers — let me say it once again: the Louisiana National Guard — were not on international ground. They weren’t fighting in enemy territory. I had to remind myself that they were on a training mission in Louisiana, and that this was, in all counts, a domestic incident that descends into the same kind of madness found in Vietnam War movies made around that same time.
They filmed everything that you see here on location in the Bayou, with exception to the town scenes and interiors that were a backdrop to the final conflict of the film. The actors and the crew worked in very difficult conditions for 55 days. Did it pay off? Not at all. It suffered greatly at the box office and hardly made any money domestically. It did better with the international markets, but it was never enough to stop this movie from sinking deep into the swamp. It has been left behind as one of those forgotten movies that are never ever written about. It’s one that ordinarily, you would stumble upon while searching for something else.
I was lucky. I took a chance with this one and it paid off. It’s an amazing looking film, and it plays well enough to deserve a second viewing. Maybe more. Check it out!
Written by: Stephen Radford