SOUTHERN COMFORT is in short supply in this intense, uber-Guy Movie, an unflinching, no-holds-barred survival saga from director Walter Hill. Written by Hill, David Giler and Michael Kane, aced across by an excellent cast, the film failed to find an audience in 1981 (too grim?), but has a solid following among fans of the director. Tough stuff from one end of its 106 minutes to the other.
1973. A nine-man squad of the Louisiana National Guard are on maneuvers in the bayou. Bugs aren’t much of an issue, as it’s winter-time, but the bleak environment has more than enough man-made hostility on tap. The fractious unit “borrows” boats from some local poachers, then compounds the insult when the dimmest redneck bulb in the group shoots blanks at the Cajuns. The return fire is real, and the panicked weekend-soldiers are mercilessly pursued through the swamp by the vengeful civilians. Mistakes pile up, leadership changes hands. No radio, out gunned and lost, the odds get steadily worse as boobytraps, falling trees and unleashed Rottweilers leave hospitality back in civilization.
A rugged 55-day shoot in the cold locations (Caddo Lake on the Texas-Louisiana border) tasked cast and crew with miserable conditions, reflected in the fine photography from Andrew Laszlo and foreboding score composed by Ry Cooder. Hill’s keen-edged handling of action and actors was on a roll (Hard Times, The Warriors, The Long Riders, 48 Hours), and the script gives the cast plenty of hardass dialogue ammo to bang back & forth between them.
Command and discipline struggles quickly give the squad added quandary, with laconic newcomer ‘Hardin’ (Powers Booth) and sardonic ‘Spencer’ (Keith Carradine) bonding as sensible and decent types against thuggish ‘Reece’ (Fred Ward) and religious maniac ‘Bowden (Alan Autry, acting here as Carlos Brown). The compact, rough-hewn Ward (38, moving up a notch here) and the imposing Autry/Brown make formidable opponents for the likable Carradine and the laid-back powderkeg Booth. Booth, 32, had just won an Emmy playing Jim Jones in Guyana Tragedy, and this was his first major co-lead. He nails it to a tee, the camaraderie formed with Carradine has the audience rooting for these guys to somehow pull through.
The others, all of them doing fine work: Les Lannom, Lewis Smith, Franklin Seales, T.K. Carter and Peter Coyote. The unamused Cajuns include Brion James and Sonny Landham.
Even budgeted at a lean $7,600,000, the film didn’t get traction. Hill reflected: “The American reception was a real kind of nothing…didn’t make a fucking nickel anywhere. Foreign domestic, anything… I was proud of the film… But I was disappointed in the lack of response. It was a universal audience failure… Usually you can say they loved it in Japan or something. I don’t think anybody loved it anywhere.” It did actually gross around $5,000,000 in the States. *
* Hill: “Jesus, it was a hard movie to make…very hard locations to get in there. Very hard to shoot. I remember so many times we’d only have a few minutes to set the camera because the bottom of the swamp would give way. And so, for your camera positions, you had to stage and shoot very quickly…the weather was miserable. However, I will say this: If you choose to go make a movie in a swamp in the middle of winter, you probably deserve what you get.”
Booth: “The actors would clamber out of the muck just in time to get back into it. The situation was even harder on the crew. They’d set up a camera platform and it would slowly sink into the bayou. Or with a tripod, one leg would sink. And how can actors hit their marks in two feet of water?… I have to give Walter Hill credit for making the three months as endurable as possible. We didn’t lose our senses of humor until late in the shooting. Taking two weeks off at Christmas time helped keep our sanity.”