Monday, April 26, 2004


Finally scored myself a copy of Walter Hill's Southern Comfort yesterday (that's a movie, by the way) at Northland Shopping Centre for a puny $8. What in God's name was I doing at Norflands? That's between me and my maker. Anyhow, it's fairly debatable as to how legit this videotape version is, but what the hey, I've been looking for a copy of this sucka for a good half-decade so I'll take just about any format I can get (at least a better format than the unbelievably crustatious made-in-1983 copies I've had to rent from video stores the last 10 years).

An oft-repeated late nighter on commercial TV in the late '80s/early '90s, this 1982 gem directed and co-written by Hill (The Warriors, Trespass, etc.) is one of those movies which falls into that all-too-common category of a film that next to no-one seems to have ever heard of, but those who have seen it swear by it. Yeah, I'm one of those guys.

Based on a fairly typical Samurai theme (like much of Hill's output) of the "noble warrior", Southern Comfort puts a nice (relatively) contemporary spin to the tale by placing the band of warriors - this time a unit of mostly loathsome redneck National Guardsmen - in the Louisiana swamps ca. 1973. On a weekend hiking exercise, the group encounter a local Cajun hunting port and, being literally caught up shit creek without a paddle, decide to steal the locals' canoes. Everything goes haywire when the stupidest guy in the crew fires blanks upon the Cajuns (as a "joke") and promptly gets the unit's leader (Peter Coyote, he actually being a real-life first-wave San Fran radical/Yippie back in the '60s) shot and killed with real bullets in the return fire.

OK, so amongst all this idiocy, who the hell are you supposed to barrack for? Well, not the Cajuns - at least not these Cajuns - these guys are just a French swamp version of the same inbred yahoos that make up the NG troupe. Thankfully, there are two guys here to root for, played by Powers Boothe (usually a dreadful ham, but he's great here) and David Carradine (ditto), the former an educated, non-conformist Chemical Engineer from Texas, the latter a more practical, street-smart Good Ol' Boy sidekick to Boothe. These two are the "noble warriors" who aren't willing to sacrifice themselves or their beliefs to the idiocy of the mob.

Suffice to say, things fall apart pretty soon for the gang as they're hunted down by the Cajuns and proceed to spend much of the film fighting amongst themselves. Any film student - something I've never been - will likely tell you two basic points about the film, and much as I hate to admit it, they're probably right: 1) the entire movie is an attempted parallel with the illegalities and moral bankruptcy of the Vietnam War (as the Americans bluster their way into a foreign land and very quickly stir up problems with the locals); 2) the film bears various similarities with Deliverance. A valid point, as Southern Comfort does bear resemblance to Deliverance in its portrayal of a bunch of city boys getting caught up in various backwoods trouble, though I think the comparison stops there. The "victims" in SC are trained to kill, whilst Burt, Ned and co. in Deliverance have to learn it on the run. Anyway, if you want a massive, in-depth thesis on these flicks, go elsewhere because I'm not a man willing (or likely able) to complete such a task. At least not in this format (gotta try to make these sound bites brief).

I will, however, give Southern Comfort my highest recommendation. The pacing is perfect, the Ry Cooder score purchase-worthy, the acting mostly great (give or take the odd bit of over-acting from all involved), the atmosphere of the dank swampland incredible, and the last 20 minutes is just about the most gripping 1,200 seconds ever committed to celluloid. Set in a small Cajun village where the two last survivors wind up, they slowly get hunted down whilst trying to take cover at a local street party (filmed in a real-life back-of-nowhere Cajun village with excellent musical accompaniment), which is a nice contrast to the film's 'til-then portrayal of Cajuns as merely a buncha French-speakin' hillbilly moonshiners.

Southern Comfort is, in this man's opinions, one of the best American films of the 1980s, and its obscurity I can only blame on either the incredibly bad taste of the general movie-going public, or its Anti-American/anti-military sentiments sinking it like the Titanic upon release, which was at the height of Reagan-mania. Or maybe Walter Hill isn't considered enough of an auter by the Arthouse crowd to gain valuable Critic's Choice kudos. Maybe he is a hack, but a darn good hack he be. Beg, borrow or steal, I say.

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