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SOUTHERN COMFORT(director/writer: Walter Hill; screenwriters: David Giler/Michael Kane; cinematographer: Andrew Laszlo; editor: Freeman Davies; music: Ry Cooder; cast: Powers Boothe (Charles Hardin), Keith Carradine (Spencer), Les Lannom (Casper), Fred Ward (Reece), Carlos Brown (High School Coach Bowden/Cpl.), Lewis Smith (Stuckey), T.K. Carter (Tyrone Cribbs, drug dealer), Franklyn Seales (Simms), Peter Coyote (Sgt. Poole), Brion James (Trapper); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: R; producer: David Giler; 20th Century Fox; 1981)
“Fails to deliver all that’s promised.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Walter Hill (“The Driver”/”The Long Riders”/”Red Heat”) directs with passion this offbeat action drama about the Louisiana National Guard out on a weekend training exercise and finding everything go wrong. It plays out as an allegory for America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, as it effectively uses the bayou to evoke an eerie mood of doom for strangers playing dangerous games in a place where they don’t belong and coming there without enough firepower to win (they fire blanks). David Giler and Michael Kane wrote the screenplay along with Hill, meaning it to be an arty looking action pic with a damning anti-war message. It also seems like another Deliverance, that again shows the rednecks in the sticks as uncivilized brutes and that there’s a large divide between them and the city slickers who only take in nature as a weekend recreational activity rather than as a way of life.

In 1973 a platoon of nine weekend warriors from the Louisiana National Guard head into the bayous for a routine training maneuver and get lost in the swamps. They are led by gung-ho Sergeant Poole (Peter Coyote). One of the outspoken wise guy grunts, Spencer (Keith Carradine), promises them a walk in the park to a whorehouse. In their rush to get laid, the citizen soldiers pilfer some canoes belonging to the local Cajun trappers. When they are spotted, one of the dummy soldiers opens fire with the blank ammo and the Cajuns return the fire with live ammo. The sergeant is killed and the leaderless group, now under the shaky command of Casper (Les Lannom), take a Cajun prisoner and Corporal Bowden (Carlos Brown) blows up his cabin. The only soldier with live ammo is the volatile Reece (Fred Ward). This brings out other Cajuns, who chase the guardsmen through the bayous and without being seen annihilate them one by one, guerrilla style, until there are only two survivors, Spencer and Charles Hardin (Powers Boothe). The climactic scene has the survivors stuck in a seemingly friendly Cajun village, that has no telephones. They are in the midst of a celebration, as there’s Cajun dance music, a roast pig on a spit and beer. But Spencer and Hardin will be tracked here by the Cajuns in their canoes and the city boys must overcome their backwoodsmen adversaries or perish.

Ry Cooder’s rich score plays throughout, enhancing an already evocative mood.

Hill stays safely within the action pic formula to make a competent pic that’s stylishly haunting, a visual treat, and energetic. But the filmmaker can’t take it past its limitations as a mainstream action pic, as it fails to deliver on all its promises to tell us more about Americans who fight and the characters seem more like symbolic figures than real flesh and blood. When the soldiers take off their macho masks, there’s nothing revealed to make us think this film tapped into the American psyche.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”