Bayou Kill Me

Fiona’s emotional reaction to Walter Hill’s SOUTHERN COMFORT was so extreme I’m a little scared to show her any other Hill films. From jolting and gasping at each bit of violence, to demanding I hold her hand for the suspenseful climax, this was more the kind of thing I expect from the missus when we’re out at the movies (the loud “SHIT!” during JURASSIC PARK when surrounded by small children was a good moment).

The other reaction I think of is my friend Paul Duane’s, who sees the movie as a brilliant riposte to Boorman’s DELIVERANCE, a film he has big problems with. I can understand those problems — DELIVERANCE’s mountain men can be seen as xenophobic caricatures, unmotivated evil forces embodying a wild otherness in contrast to the citified heroes — but I have a harder time seeing Hill’s film as the antidote.

But let’s consider: Hill’s troop of national guardsmen are a flawed bunch — they’re the cause of their own misfortune, provoking the Cajun backwoodsmen in a number of ways, and escalating the situation at every turn, until it’s too late to back down. True, the two main characters, Keith Carradine and Powers Booth, gradually become very sympathetic, but it’s easy to see their opponents’, admittedly extremely hostile, point of view.

Still, I always felt Boorman was somewhat critical of his macho holidaymakers. They don’t DESERVE their fates, but they seem to be presented as trespassing fools, quite ignorant of the forces they’re trifling with. Boorman is pretty weird — he told Michel Ciment that nobody who was in tune with nature would break his leg the way Burt Reynolds’ character does in this film. I always found that a peculiar attitude: you hit a rock, you break your leg, is the way I see it. But at any rate, Boorman doesn’t wholeheartedly take his heroes’ side, and I never felt he expected us to view the rustic characters entirely through their eyes. Their attitude to the banjo-playing kid is unpleasant: “Talk about genetic deficiencies-isn’t that pitiful?” In fact, he then surprises them with his musical skills, the first of many surprises they’re in for, and the only pleasant one.

Hill and cowriter David Giler go all-in making their national guard goons dumb and nasty, to the point where they risk the viewer disengaging. We were happy to see most of them killed, except it was so unpleasant. And their attitude to their enemy is to persistently underestimate them.

Of course, Hill & Giler set their story in 1973, eight years before its release date, for a reason. It’s a Viet Nam movie that avoids certain controversies by avoiding Viet Nam. But the mistakes/crimes committed by the guardsmen relate quite closely to the mistakes of that war. Going where you have no business going, for a start. Using the locals as a resource, regarding them as subhuman, failing to communicate with them, terrorising them, torturing them. Also, making a war film in which Americans fight Americans is certainly interesting. You could say the film is simultaneously provoking and dodging a series of questions about its meaning.

All this is presented via Hill’s unconventional coverage and cutting, which has a lot to do with the film’s striking intensity. A bear trap is triggered, and snaps TWICE, for emphasis. Hill doesn’t neglect the atmospheric landscape, but he tends to fragment the conversations into disconnected heads — but he maintains coherence. His style seems like a precursor to the later, shittier action films, but looks refreshing now. (You can see Hill’s influence as exec producer on ALIENS, I think, which has a lot in common with this, and the presence of Franklyn Seales also reminds us of Carpenter’s THE THING from around the same time.)

During the film’s last section, the surviving “heroes” wash up in a Cajun town, where the suspense builds around the question of whether they’re safe here. The sequence last long enough that we become pretty sure they’re not, although the prospect of the whole citizenry going 102,000 MANIACS on us is floated then abandoned. In fact, we never see what the reaction of the locals would be to the murderous attacks by the original gang of wild men would be, which is very slightly a cop-out. Having stoked our paranoia about these friendly-seeming but othered folks, Hill leaves the question hanging. Probably they’re fine, but I think it’s best we leave…

SOUTHERN COMFORT stars Wild Bill Hickock; Alexander Haig; Gus Grissom; Jimmy Smith; Nauls; Perfect Tommy; Bufe Coker; Keys; Slug a tough; and Leon Kowalski.

9 Responses to “Bayou Kill Me”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    Good points, David, similar to the entry in VIETNAM WAR FILMS, Co-editor Jean-Jacques Malo. Had I run that film in my last Viet Nam War class, it would have added to the anonymous complaint made against me by an unsatisfactory student that I was anti-veteran, unpatriotic, and using non-American material. I guess he was referring to Graham Greene’s THE QUIET AMERICAN and films made in Viet Nam showing the other side’s perspective.

  2. Hill has always insisted that Southern Comfort isn’t a Viet Nam film, but it’s sure hard to see it as anything else.

  3. Great song!

    Southern Comfort is so exuberantly kick-ass in a very American way that it might get a pass, but there does seem something subversive about restaging the war at home. Though, come to think of it, First Blood does the same. Though it;s not as noxious, I guess, as the Rambosity that followed.

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    Also, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK.

  5. Shouldn’t the citizenry go TWO thousand maniacs? Going ten thousand maniacs seems to imply singing.

  6. Well, there IS music and dancing…

    Corrected.

  7. See what Fiona thinks of 48 hours and its action scenes. There’s a brilliantly edited action scene involving the hero and some punks towards the beginning of streets of fire. One of my favorite movies about a Vietnam vet is rolling thunder. It’s well written, but I can’t help but feel that Walter Hill would’ve done a better job directing it.

  8. Schrader felt that John Flynn’s handling of Rolling Thunder pushed it into fascism, whereas his script was merely ABOUT the vigilante impulse.

    I haven’t seen 48HRS since it was newish, so it’s time to revisit it. I found Streets just kind of flashy trash, and couldn’t take The Driver or The Warriors seriously.

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