Southern Movie 32: “Southern Comfort” (1981)

The scariest things are the ones we can’t see. That’s the basic premise of the 1981 film Southern Comfort, which is set in 1973 in the bayous of Louisiana and features a ragtag set of less-than-serious National Guardsmen trying to get from one side of the mucky landscape to the other. Something between a thriller and an action film, Southern Comfort elicits the unpleasant sensations that most of us feel at being lost and at being watched by people who may or may not be out there. Cast by an array of recognizable ’80s actors, including Peter Coyote, Powers Booth, Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, Lewis Smith, Alan Autry, and Brion James, this film offers a sharp contrast between the swamp-dwelling locals who just want to be left alone and the Vietnam-era National Guard full of disrespectful ne’er-do-wells.

Southern Comfort begins lightheartedly as groups of guardsmen gather for weekend drill. They run around in the dead leaves amid tall trees, catching up and joking with each other. While officers attempt to assemble their men, lines of guardsmen shoot blanks at imagined targets. Among them is a new man named Hardin (Powers Booth) who has come from Texas, and he makes it clear without any hint of smile that he didn’t like the Texas National Guard and doesn’t expect to like Louisiana’s either. He is ordered by his superiors, the too-serious Poole (Peter Coyote) and the goofy Casper, to gather together with second squad, who we find out have plans to meet a group of prostitutes at the end of their mission. Despite his sour disposition, Hardin is befriended by Spencer (Keith Carradine), the most likable member of the group, who tries to help him lighten up and get along with everybody.

The small squad finds out from Poole that they will be traversing the swamp to train for reconnaissance missions— basically, they’ll be walking through the swamp in full gear and without real bullets. The men, seven white and two black, are not enthusiastic about being there at all, and this slow, plodding task makes them less so.

Not even fifteen minutes into the movie, the men hit a snag. Poole declares that the map is inaccurate, that they should be able to cross the river where they’re standing, but it must’ve shifted course. Meanwhile, the swarthy Reece (Fred Ward) has walked ahead and discovers a poacher’s camp full of traps, gear, and dead animals and fish. There are also three canoes, just enough to carry the guardsmen across the river. Poole debates whether to use them, but the men signal with their demeanor that they’d rather commandeer the canoes than “walk all the way back and start over,” which is Poole’s idea. But the men win, and they pile in, after cutting the unknown person’s fishing nets.

Halfway across the water, the silly one in the group Stuckey catches sight of four men on the opposite bank. These must be the men who own the canoes, and whose campsite they have discovered. After trying to yell across the water to them that the canoes will be returned, which fails, Stuckey gets the bright idea to liven up the scene by firing a couple-dozen blanks from his machine gun at them. The men duck, and the guardsmen scold Stuckey, but the outcome is more serious than that. Back on the bank, one of the swamp dwellers raises his rifle blows Poole’s head off! The startled guardsmen scramble and turn over the canoes.

Once the guardsmen are on the river bank, they are panicked! Their leader is dead, their gear and radio are all gone, and they are likely now being pursued by men who want to kill them, too. After a minute or two of freakout, Casper takes charge and declares that they will move quickly and tote Poole’s body to the rendezvous point as planned.

Now, down to eight men, the squad begins doing what they will be doing for most of the movie: walking through the swamp in murky water this is ankle- to knee-deep. Casper declares that they will travel east, but Spencer objects, saying that the interstate is north of the swamp and offers their best way out. Yet, the men go east. Casper is in charge.

At the camp, after the men stop to eat, it is shared that Reece has real bullets. He brings them along to hunt, if he were to see something worth shooting, but by the time it is revealed, he has already loaded them into his own machine gun. Ordered by Casper to share them among the men, Reece refuses, until Hardin puts a Bowie knife to his neck and takes the gun from him. Casper disperses the bullets, two to each man, and Hardin has made a new enemy. Later that night, Reece reiterates his plan to Stuckey: get the group out of there, deliver Poole’s body to the authorities, then return themselves to kill the men who shot Poole.

The next morning, a couple of the guys from the squad leave the group and run ahead on reconnaissance. They find a trapper’s shack and decide that the man they see outside of it is one of the men who killed Poole. Some of them remind the group that they really couldn’t see the men clearly, from that distance, but the sense of vengeance in the smaller, more aggressive group waves that off.

Once the guardsmen descend on the bearded man, who has a knife against their guns, he only has one arm and appears only to speak French. One of the soldiers Simms punches him in the face, and Reece and Stuckey go in his shack to look around. There, they find food and supplies, including guns and ammunition, to get them across the swamp. However, for some reason that no one can explain, Bowden, who the others call Coach, goes inside the shack next, paints a red cross across his bare chest, comes out, and blows up the entire structure. Now, for a second time, an arbitrary and senseless action by one of these undisciplined men leaves them stranded. They find themselves once again without resources, and now in addition to having a dead body to carry, they also have a prisoner to guard.

Walking once again, with no map or compass and disagreement about which way to go, the guardsmen begin to understand what deep shit they’re in. First, they encounter eight gutted rabbits hang in the trees – one of them remarks, “There’s eight of us” – then they are attacked by three Rottweilers that appear from the woods. Not long after shaking off the dogs, Casper almost walks them right into a bunch of bear traps, and while they are still reeling from that scare, another soldier named Cribbs walks into a booby trap that comes up and buries wooden stakes into his chest. They are now down to seven.

At this point, bewildered by the situation with his new unit, Hardin suggests to Spencer that he take over leadership of the group, ousting Casper. Spencer’s answer is not to volunteer him for the court martial, and moreover, “Fuck you.” That night, as Casper attempts to make a homemade grenade, the men continue to bicker and quarrel, especially because Coach appears to have gone mad. He sits stoically and refuses to speak. It is agreed that because he is big, strong, and now crazy, it would be better to tie him up, too, along with the prisoner/trapper.

When the daylight comes again, Hardin discovers Reece torturing the bound, one-armed trapper by holding his face in the muddy water to demand answers about what is going on. Hardin tells him to stop, but Reece refuses. The two men fight, at the urging of the trapper (who suddenly knows how to speak English). Though Reece first stabs him in the melee, Hardin stabs Reece full force with a combat knife and kills him as the trapper runs off into the fog. Now, they are six.

Stuckey then freaks out and wants to come after Hardin, but the others hold him back. Hardin orders the men to bury the three corpses. The others halfheartedly protest in the pouring rain but do it anyway.

When they resume walking, three of the exhausted half-dozen are ready for mutiny, and Casper loses control of the group, which follows Spencer north. Stuckey protests, but a defeated Casper tells him to come along. And they pull Coach in tow.

Now under Spencer’s leadership, the guardsmen come under a more obvious kind of guerrilla attack from the bayou hunters. The other signs they have passed could have been explained away as normal occurrences – the sounds of the night or a hunter’s hanging rabbits – but seeing men sneaking through the swamp nearby, then discovering the dug-up bodies of their friends tied to a tree secure their knowledge of what is happening.

After navigating a barrage of falling trees that seem to be pushed onto them, a sign of hope arrives: a helicopter! The guardsmen shout and try to wave down their would-be saviors, but Casper points out after it leaves that there was no place to land anyway. However, Stuckey runs wildly into the swamp after the helicopter— and falls into quicksand. Now, they are five.

Not knowing that Stuckey has been swallowed by the swamp, the men break into two pairs – Coach doesn’t count – to look for him. Casper and Simms go together, and Hardin and Spencer keep Coach with them. Casper and Simms soon encounter the hunters sneaking among the trees, and Casper sends Simms away to attempt an offensive by himself. Affixing his bayonet and charging valiantly, Casper makes an attempt, but the hunters gun him down easily. Left alone, a whimpering Simms stands against a tree, saying over and over, “I’m not supposed to be here,” until one of the hunters guns him down, too. Now, they are three.

That night, Hardin and Spencer prop the almost-catatonic Coach against a tree, and rest themselves against a fallen trunk nearby. They share a few brief personal details, until Hardin remarks, “Since they got the trapper back, they must be hunting us just for fun.” Spencer wants to know what they should do next, and Hardin tells him, “I want to live.”

On the next dim morning, the guardsmen wake up to a noise— they’ve been sleeping right under a railroad bridge! The two wake up quickly and make a dash for the passing train. It seems at first that they are leaving Coach behind, but then there he is, hanging by his neck from the end of a rope. And atop the bridge is the one-armed trapper, armed with a rifle, who tells them in English spoken with a thick Cajun accent how to get out of the bayou.

But Hardin still wants answers: “You mind telling us what’s going on?”

The trapper replies, “It’s real simple: we live back in here. This is our home, and nobody don’t fuck wid us.”

When Hardin lobs a follow-up question about how Coach died, the trapper responds with a shot aimed right between his feet and an admonition: “If I was you, I’d quit asking questions and haul ass. My buddies, they not nice like me.”

The two remaining guardsmen take the trapper’s advice, and after more walking, find a small bridge where they see a flatbed pickup truck passing by. The Cajun couple in the truck seem leery but friendly and offer them a ride into the next town, on the back with two large pigs in cages. After a quick ride, they arrive in a tiny bayou community where a party is going on. Hardin asks if they have a telephone, the Cajun tells him that they have electricity but no phone, that he will take them somewhere with a phone later. They’re staying for the party, whether they like it or not.

Hardin senses that he and Spencer are still in danger while the hunters can get to them, but Spencer seems satisfied to stay and party for a bit. There’s food and girls and Dixie beer. Meanwhile, outside, a a few men kill, gut, and roast the pigs. Hardin is obviously uneasy, and finds that he has good reason to be when he sees the boatload of hunters arrive. Spencer is less concerned, and accepts an offer from one of the girls to dance to the raucous music.

Wisely, Hardin senses that some bad stuff is about to go down, and he tries to make a break for it, but one of the hunters stands in the road with a rifle. What follows is a wild montage that cuts back and forth among scenes: a wild and smiling girl dancing to zydeco music, the pigs being butchered, and the two guardsmen playing a killer game of cat-and-mouse with the hunters. Finally, Hardin and Spencer emerge, traipse through the swamp once again, and last we see them, they stumble up an embankment with a convoy truck in sight. The slow-motion ending implies that they escape alive.

In line with the imdb rating of 7.2 and the Rotten Tomatoes score of 88%, Southern Comfort is a good, but not a great movie. For its day, it had a strong cast, and the premise of the story is rife with tension. I don’t know many people who would relish being lost in a Louisiana swamp with angry Cajuns hunting them.

However, the commentaries about the South in Southern Comfort are more complex than they might seem. The film makes a point of emphasizing that there is a major difference, even in Louisiana, between the “city boys” – the ones in the National Guard – and the self-reliant people who live in the swampy backwater. For the most part, the guardsmen are “guys,” but they are no match for the hunters. Furthermore, it is made clear that the reckless and disrespectful city boys are the problem, encroaching on the rural people’s homes and property. And finally, we see toward the end of the film what a rich and happy culture these supposedly uncivilized people have, in areas that most Americans would consider to be undesirable and inhospitable. In Southern Comfort, we can’t reduce the Cajuns to hapless buffoons or to ruthless killers and villains. They have been the victims of trespassing, theft, kidnapping, and – to their understanding – attempted murder, and are reacting to those ongoing crimes. It is the “civilized” people who can’t seem to behave civilly.

Outside of the societal conflicts that drive some of the tension in Southern Comfort, another very Southern motif is present: Man versus Nature. The guardsmen contend nonstop with the unforgiving swamp, in a similar way that William Faulkner’s nameless protagonist contends with the Great Flood of 1927. In the South, a place that has a close relationship with Nature, otherwise capable men are sometimes forced by the failure of manmade tools and structures to deal with its overpowering presence. Without the compass and the radio, the men in Southern Comfort are helpless. All they can do is keep walking, using the sun as a guide. And when they are finally “saved,” we know that they have been saved because we see signs of mainstream society – helicopters, trucks, bottled beer – returning to their lives.

Southern Comfort may not be a great movie, and its portrayals of the people of Louisiana may not be completely accurate, but it is a reasonably good document of Southern culture— as popular films go.

To find and read more Southern Movie posts, click here for a full list. 

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