Revisiting Walter Hill's 1981 quasi-war movie Southern Comfort

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Southern Comfort
  • Southern Comfort
Is Chicago on the brink of a Walter Hill retrospective? A month ago Doc Films screened a new 35-millimeter print of Hill's The Driver, and in a little over three weeks Chicago Cinema Society will present an archival print of The Warriors, probably his best-known directorial effort. Bullet to the Head, Hill's first theatrical project in more than a decade, opened in general release earlier this month and left theaters shortly thereafter. Even Hill's fans seemed disappointed by the movie, but they agreed it was good to see him in the public eye again.

Alas it's all too easy to see why Hill's been marginalized for so long. He's a genre director who specializes in action and suspense, but also a quirky, self-conscious artist who tends towards minimalist imagery and pessimistic themes. Like John Carpenter, who also advanced a personal aesthetic through hard-edged genre films in the 70s and 80s, he's the sort of macho pop artist that Hollywood no longer knows what to do with. (This disconnect is evidenced in the generic, uncertain ad campaigns for such recent movies as Joe Carnahan's The Grey and Neveldine/Taylor's Gamer, which can be said to follow in the Carpenter-Hill tradition.)

The upside of this development is that Hill has become so alien to contemporary American cinema that he seems new again. Compared to the most recent mainstream action releases—which operate under the assumption that "action" means bombarding the audience with kinetic imagery, visual coherence be damned—The Driver and The Warriors are refreshing in their stripped-down compositions, pregnant silences, and overall formal control. There's something uncanny about these films too: whenever possible Hill removes from the frame everyday detail that might situate the story in a familiar contemporary setting. The movies seem to take place in their own self-contained worlds, suggesting the influence of science fiction.

It's remarkable how claustrophobic The Driver and The Warriors feel, considering they're both urban stories taking place largely outside. Even more extraordinary is that Hill maintains this aesthetic in Southern Comfort (1981), which takes place almost entirely in the Louisiana bayou and doesn't feature a single interior until the last ten minutes. Along with the fairy-tale noir Johnny Handsome (1989), Comfort is the film of his most deserving of rediscovery.

The story concerns a squad from the Louisiana National Guard that ends up fighting a guerilla war with Cajun trappers when they get lost in the swamp. The "war" is entirely the soldiers' fault. After the squad steals three canoes from the backwoodsmen (and for the purpose of visiting a rural brothel, no less), the least sophisticated member of the group fires at the locals with a machine gun when they try to see what's going on. The machine gun rounds are blanks and the Guardsmen are, for the most part, boy scouts who have never seen actual combat. But how are the trappers to know this? They see soldiers attacking and they act in self-defense; it just so happens they're better fighters than the Guard because they have home-turf advantage and the will of self-preservation.

Brion James as a one-armed Cajun trapper whom the Guardsmen take prisoner
  • Brion James as a one-armed Cajun trapper whom the Guardsmen take prisoner
Some viewers, such as Roger Ebert, have read Southern Comfort as an allegory for the United States' military intervention in Vietnam. Hill has denied this, though I can understand the instinct to look for hidden meanings: the film is so deliberately elemental that it takes on the tone of a fable. Hill divulges little about the characters' lives outside of the Guard, and he begins the story in the bayou without showing any other location first. With so little context to work with, the viewer is inclined to provide his own. (Contemporary spectators might do something with the coincidence that George W. Bush was still in the National Guard in 1973, the year that Southern Comfort takes place.) But even on its own terms, Hill's mise-en-scene offers plenty to chew on. The film conjures a strange country hidden within our own, bereft of order and governed by some spirit of violence.

It doesn't take long after the Guardsmen get lost for some of them to turn savage. The group turns unstable even as an enemy looms just out of sight (as the film's IMDB trivia page notes, this theme links Comfort with Hill's screenplay for Alien). Class divisions are exacerbated, as are interpersonal rivalries. The most straitlaced member of the group, a devout high school gym coach, deems himself an "avenging angel" and commits an inexplicable act of violence. It seems as if the men will kill each other before their enemies can find them.

The film is about aspects of American culture rarely seen in movies—and not just the Cajun backwater community of Louisiana (although Hill captures some great documentary images of that world near the end of the film). Several of the Guardsmen are just as violent and tribal as the backwoodsmen they're fighting. Stripping these characters to their essences, Hill identifies a shared culture of hatred that unites a range of Americans—much like the great Samuel Fuller did in his own brutal, artful, and defiantly weird action movies.

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