Southern Comfort Movie Review
The story is a simple one. It has been told many times. A troop of American soldiers blunder into a foreign land where they have no real “mission,” don’t speak the language, are unsure of the terrain, understand none of the local customs, and can’t tell which of the “foreigners” wants to help them or kill them. They are badly trained and under-equipped. They face traps, IEDS, “insurgents,” gunfire and betrayal. Many die gruesomely, or just stupidly. Finally, the traumatized survivors go home, presumably to a life of alcoholism. domestic violence, and PTSD.
Sound familiar? Of course, yawningly familiar to those of us who had parents of the ‘Nam generation, who grew up on movies like Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and less worthy company, and then lived through Iraq and Afghanistan. But this movie is a not set in any of those locales, nor are these men fighting for “freedom” from Communism or to save the US from non-existent WMDs or anything so noble. And that is why Southern Comfort deserves to be resurrected for a new generation. (Plus, the whole thing is on Youtube, so you don’t have to pay Netflix, Hulu, On Demand or Amazon for the privilege of watching it.)
Plus, it’s got an amazing cast at the top of their game: Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Peter Coyote, Fred Ward, artist Franklyn Searles, T.K. Knight (of The Onion Field), the late Brion James of Blade Runner, and former Fresno Mayor Allan Autry. It also has one of the finest film soundtracks ever recorded, by traditional musician/composer Ry Cooder.
The year is 1975; the place, a National Guard post in Southern Louisiana, Cajun Country. It’s Cpl. Charles Hardin’s (Boothe) first weekend warrior outing with his Louisiana counterparts, having previously served with the Texas Guard, which he describes as a joke. Seemingly, Hardin is a normal, married engineer in civilian life. Hardin meets his new cohort, his Bravo Team leader Poole (Coyote), a world-weary Vietnam hero, and Poole’s dimwitted second banana Caspar (Les Lannom), who believes the answer to all life’s questions is in the manual. Reese (Ward) is a sadistic wannabe. Cpl. “Coach” Bowden (Autry) a true believer in the red, white and blue who coaches football, teaches high school history, and probably bakes a mean apple pie to boot.
Rounding out the cast are three punks of various races who likely joined up to avoid jail or service in SE Asia: The white one, Stuckey (Lewis Smith), tells tall tales and brags; the black fellow, Tyrone Cribbs (Carter), tries to embody as many racial stereotypes possible by smoking pot and discussing his “pimping”; and the mixed-race Simms (Seales) has an almost homorecotic devotion to Poole, but seems conflicted about everything else he’s doing. But the standout is Pfc. Spencer (Carradine). Intelligent, well-spoken, and friendly, he mocks the Guard’s mission of “hassling niggers and beating up on college kids” and arranges for the whole interracial troop to be entertained by whores at their rendezvous point “in the spirit of the New South.” Sadly, they do not make their appointment with “Noleen and her Bayou Queens, “ to give the ladies “some small-unit military penetration,” as their ignorance soon screws everything up.
Meant to be an overnight “training exercise,” Poole’s “mission” is just to get the troop from the post to Catahoula. They travel light, with only their ponchos and M-16s armed with blanks, and as the credits roll they walk across a swamp to the foreboding sounds of Ry Cooder’s slide guitar. About twelve minutes in, they realise that a recent rainstorm has expanded the swamp and it’s now too deep to walk across.
On a less political and more personal level, this film is also about how one stupid decision can lead to another stupid decision, and another, that eventually results in a complete fuckup of Hiroshima proportions. (I can just hear everybody saying, “Oh, marriage.”) But seriously, the film makes it quite clear that on about a dozen occasions the men had the power to stop the coming onslaught themselves and for whatever (mostly foolish) reason, they didn’t. The first stupid decision comes when Poole reaches the Impenetrable Swamp: All he has to do is turn around, go back to HQ and tell his superiors that the map was wrong and he couldn’t continue the training mission safely. Nobody was going to court-martial him, get angry, or very likely even care. Chances are they would just shrug, everyone would be in for the night, and Spencer and friends would just pile in a car and go visit Noleen & her Bayou Queens anyway.
But of course that doesn’t happen, and their next dipshit move (Stupid Mistake #2, hereafter SM)is to “borrow” three pirogues they find on the shore (traditional Cajun kayaks.) They do leave a note, figuring that should be enough despite the fact that both Spencer and Hardin point out that the the owners may not be able to read English, or read at all (SM #3). But never mind–our intrepid idiots take off in the pirogues, getting about halfway across the swamp before a number of Cajuns appear in the trees. Poole, wisely, screams, “We’re bringing them back!” but the irrepressible Stuckey stands up, screams “Take no prisoners!” (?), and fires a bunch of blanks at the Cajuns (SM #4). Unamused, the Cajuns fire back real bullets, one of which goes straight through Peter Coyote’s head and pretty much blows it away. The Cajuns disappear back into the bayou, while the Guardmorons scramble back to shore.
Once again, the sensible thing to do would be to go back to HQ, tell them what happened, and once again things would have been reasonably ok (especially if they told an edited version of the story.) Naturally, though, Dumbass Second (now First) Banana, Caspar, decides they must “complete the mission” and “find the Cajuns who shot Poole.” Despite objections by the Guardsman who still have functioning brain stems, the Guarddicks actually continue with Majorly Stupid Mistake #5. From now on I’m going to stop counting, for fear that someone might use this as a drinking game.
They bivouac down for the night. In a moment of comic relief, most of them play cards over Poole’s carcass while Cribbs stands watch, smoking weed and taunts Coach that “some of my best customers were at Fremont High, and they were 10-0 this year, Coach.” In the morning, however, shit starts to get real. It begins when Spencer suggests they divvy up the live rounds–the sadistic creep Reese always carries a box of live rounds on training missions in case he sees some big game, or perhaps a Rougarou. Caspar orders him to hand it over, first in a decisive “military” voice and then, when Reese refuses, he meekly begs, setting the tone for the rest of his tenure as Big Banana. Hardin, tiring of this, comes up behind Reese, holds a knife to his throat and orders him to hand over the bullets; Reese complies (and starts seething).
Hardin then goes off to sulk, but Spencer follows and asks him if that was “the way they did things” in the Texas Guard. “Yeah,” Hardin says equivocally, that’s the way we do things where I come from.” This is the first obvious hint we get that Hardin may have “skills” that extend beyond being a chemical engineer. Spencer responds: “Well, you know, down here in Louisiana, we don’t carry knives, we carry ropes. RC Colas and Moon Pies? We’re not too smart, but we have a real good time.” Unfortunately, they can’t linger long on this Iron John-type bonding, because the Guardgoons stumble on the cabin on of a one-armed Cajun trapper. The “trapper” is nameless but played by Brion James (best known for his role in Blade Runner where he uttered the immortal line “I’ll tell you about MY MOTHER!”) They tie up the trapper–well, secure his one arm behind his back–and start to interrogate him. This proves a challenge, as they don’t speak Cajun French and the trapper apparently speaks no English. Spencer, who has a few years of high-school parlez-vous under his belt, tries, but the dialect “doesn’t sound like any French I ever heard.” Caspar decides to take the trapper back to HQ so he can answer for killing Poole, though as Spencer and Hardin point out, they have no idea if this is really true–he just happens to be the first Cajun they saw after Poole was killed. Hardin warns, Cassandra-syle, that this is just going to lead to a bigger clusterfuck; Spencer agrees but declines to argue further with Dumb Banana; and it’s doubtful either man could predict how big a trainwreck it will become.
First, Caspar decides that they’ll raid the trapper’s house for supplies, but before he can carry it out, Coach strips to the waist, paints a red cross on his chest, and tosses a Molotov cocktail into the cabin and blows it to hell. He apologizes with the statement that he “greatly admired Sergeant Poole” and then begins to go batshit. The nitwits are then attacked by hunting dogs, and after getting away from the dogs, Cribbs the pot dealer walks into a massive bear trap. They note that one was set for each Guarddork, and surmise that that the Cajuns are really, really out to get them. Now with too many bodies to carry, the dingleberries hold a funeral service of sorts and bury Poole and Cribbs before bedding down for the evening. By this time Coach is completely unhinged and speaking only unintelligible gibberish, as opposed to just gibberish, so they tie him up as well. Spencer then approaches Dumb Banana and suggests, sensibly, that they let the trapper go–that maybe that’s all their oppressors want. Banana indignantly refuses, since after all, the guy killed Cribs and Poole, or knows who did. Once again, an opportunity to mitigate the damage and not do something completely stupid….just slides by.
The following morning, Hardin awakes to Reece holding the trapper’s head under water to make him talk. (Why does this scene seem so much harder to watch today?) Hardin tells Reece to knock it off, but Reece, possibly still a bit miffed about the whole knife-to-the-throat incident, takes out his own knife and comes at Hardin, who pulls out his own. The Cajun screams “Kill him!” in English and helps Hardin by distracting Reece, allowing Hardin to plunge a bayonet into him (something I’m sure many have wanted to do to Fred Ward, especially after watching “Enough,” and “Corky Romano.”) The Cajun escapes and the squad buries Reece, oddly subdued about whether or not Hardin should face a court martial. At any rate, Caspar then gives the remaining soldiers a ridiculous pep talk; the remaining soldiers rebel and decide to follow Spencer and Hardin, who believe they can find the way out of the swamp (at least, better than Caspar can.) They get separated, though, and face traps of falling trees, quicksand (Stuckey), and invisible Cajuns (Simms and Caspar).
With only Spencer, Hardin, and the mute Coach left facing another night, the trio beds down beside an old railroad track. In the morning, they awake to a freight train, and Coach hanging by his neck from the tracks. Standing on the tracks is the Cajun, speaking fluent English and telling them how to get back to civilization. When Spencer asks, in effect, why it all had to happen, the trapper answers:
“It’s real simple. We live back here, this is is our home, and don’t nobody fuck with us.”
Again, words harder to hear than the writers probably intended, as do the words that follow. The trapper tells them to “haul ass, cause my friends, they not nice like me.” Hardin asks sarcastically, “Are we supposed to say thank you?”
“You not supposed to say nothing.”
The film doesn’t end there–Spencer and Hardin end up at a Cajun village where a festival is in progress. Spencer insists they are among “the good Cajuns,” and accepts their hospitality, which includes a great performance by the Balfa Brothers. Hardin is naturally more suspicious, particularly after watching them slaughter a couple of pigs for dinner, and gets his trusty knife handy.
I’ll refrain from spoiling the last eight minutes of the film, though knowing (or guessing) how it ends doesn’t make it any less worth watching. Why do I say this film needs to be resurrected for a new generation? The director, Walter Hill (who at that point in his career was best known for his post-apocalyptic gang movie, “The Warriors,” which has since become something of a cult classic) knew that everyone would read “Southern Comfort” as an analogy for Vietnam, which apparently irritated him to no end. But had he seen the future, he likely would have been even more horrified at the parallels between Gitmo/Iraq/Afghanistan. Repeatedly shoving a prisoner under water to get information? A lot tougher to watch today than when I first saw this film in 1983 or so. Should it have bothered me then? Probably, but then, in the movie it’s just a crazy soldier going rogue, right? It’s not like it’s a institutionalised practice or something. A bunch of seemingly backwards folks mad that the military has invaded “their home?”Again, it’s a movie. We learned our lessons from Vietnam, didn’t we? In real life, this would never happen without a good reason. And of course, making one dumb mistake after another until your life and circumstances are unrecognizable? Hey, it’s just a–
A movie. Riiiiiight.