A squad of nine Louisiana Army National Guard soldiers convene in a local bayou for weekend maneuvers. New to the squad is Corporal Hardin (Powers Boothe), a cynical transfer from the Texas Army National Guard. He soon becomes disgusted with the arrogant behavior and attitudes of the men. A happily-married chemical engineer in his civilian life, Hardin wants no part of a date with prostitutes which PFC Spencer (Keith Carradine) has arranged for himself and their squad-mates. Nevertheless, he hits it off with the amiable Spencer, and both find themselves to be the most level-headed soldiers in their squad.
The nine soldiers set out on patrol and soon get lost in the swamp. They come across a seemingly-abandoned campsite with several pirogues. To continue onward, the Guardsmen need the pirogues. The squad’s leader, Staff Sergeant Poole (Peter Coyote), orders the soldiers into three of the pirogues. As they set out across the bayou, a group of Cajun hunter-trappers return and yell at the soldiers for having taken their pirogues. In response, PFC Stuckey (Lewis Smith) fires blanks from his M-60 machine gun at the Cajuns. They return fire with live ammunition, killing Poole and sending the squad into a frenzy as they make their way toward cover.
Sgt. Casper (Les Lannom) – the strict, inexperienced, and unpopular second-in-command – orders the squad to continue their “mission.” They discover that Cpl. Reece (Fred Ward) has brought along a box of live ammunition for hunting purposes. Casper divides the ammo evenly among the soldiers, in order to bolster their chances of defense. They reach the shack of a one-armed Cajun trapper-hunter (Brion James), who speaks only French. Casper has him arrested as a prisoner of war. The emotionally-unstable Cpl. Bowden (Alan Autry) uses gasoline to ignite some TNT inside the shack, blowing it up.
The soldiers feel increasingly threatened. Hearing the barking of dogs, the Guardsmen presume they’re about to be rescued. The dogs, however, belong to the Cajuns, who are now stalking the soldiers because of Stuckey’s actions. The Guardsmen fend off the attacking dogs, only to find that lethal boobytraps have been set for them. Pvt. Cribbs (T.K. Carter) is killed when he trips over a spear-bed built into a spring-released cradle-frame. The squad camps for the night. Over night, Bowden begins to have a serious mental breakdown,refusing to speak to anyone or move. The group decides to tie him up for the night. The following morning, Reece tortures the one-armed Cajun by dunking his head in a fetid pond. Hardin discovers this and tries to stop it. Both soldiers get in a fight to the death with bayonets, from which Hardin emerges triumphant, while the one-armed Cajun escapes into the bayou.
As a helicopter passes overhead, the soldiers frantically try to signal it. Rushing off after the chopper as it moves onward, Stuckey sinks to his death in quicksand. Having no confidence in Casper after his inept leadership, Spencer relieves him of command. They split up to search for Stuckey. Instead, Casper and Simms locate the murderous Cajuns, who slaughter them both.
Spencer, Hardin, and the now-catatonic Bowden camp for the night. The following morning, Bowden has disappeared. Hardin and Spencer hear a freight train, and proceed to follow the tracks. They find Bowden hanging dead from a bridge. The one-armed Cajun appears on the tracks overhead. In perfect English, he warns Spencer and Hardin to leave the Cajuns’ territory while they still can. He gives them directions on how to escape the bayou, since Hardin and Spencer saved him from physical assault by Simms and Reece.
Following the one-armed Cajun’s advice, Spencer and Hardin follow a dirt road and end up hitching a ride with a friendly Cajun couple. They are driven to a pig roast at a nearby Cajun village. As Spencer happily mixes with the villagers, a wary Hardin sees the arrival of the three hunter-trappers who massacred their squad. One of Hardin’s would-be-killers chases him into a shed and wounds him in the arm. Spencer suddenly shows up, firing blanks at the Cajun as a distraction, giving Hardin the chance to stab him in the groin. The other two Cajuns arrive, and Spencer runs, leading them away from the injured Hardin. Spencer, hiding around a corner, hits one of the Cajuns in the face with the butt of his M-16, knocking him out. The remaining Cajun gives chase, but as he is about to shoot Spencer, Hardin grabs him from behind. This gives Spencer the opportunity to stab him to death with his bayonet. Leaving behind the village, Spencer and Hardin slip away unseen into the swamp. As the duo moves into the swamp, another helicopter arrives overhead and seems to stay in the vicinity. They get back to the dirt road just in time to see a U.S. Army truck drive towards them. They look at each other, knowing they are finally safe.
According to Walter Hill he and David Giler had a deal with 20th Century Fox to “acquire and develop interesting, commercial scripts that could be produced cheaply. Alien (1979) was one of them, and Southern Comfort was another. We wanted to do a survival story, and I’d already done a film in Louisiana.” I had done a movie in Louisiana a couple of years before [Hard Times 1975], and it had a Cajun sequence. As is the origin of so many things I was involved in, my writing and producing partner David Giler said, “You know, those Cajuns strike me as interesting, tough guys.” I said, “Yeah, they are.” He said, “Well, let’s do some kind of adventure story.” And we were interested in the National Guard for some reason. We had both of us spent the Vietnam years in a foxhole in Hollywood, and the National Guard somehow loomed larger in the picture in those days. It was always perceived as a way to avoid the draft. It’s, I think, a more legitimate calling at the moment, they’ve been serving in Iraq and things like that, and they’re much better trained, they’re much more like real soldiers now than back in those days. After Michael Kane wrote a draft, the studio didn’t like it. David and I rewrote it (At one stage it was known as The Prey.), the studio still didn’t like it. We messed around with it some more and we did some other things. It was put in what we call turnaround. We found some finance for it, not a lot, and we put it together and went off to Louisiana and did it. The film was financed by the Cinema Group. This was a company headed by William J. Immerman, whose head of production was Venetia Stevenson, daughter of director Robert Stevenson. The Cinema Group had raised a fund of $30 million to make movies, half of which was private, the other half which was publicly raised. Southern Comfort was their second film. (Take This Job and Shove It was their first.)
Powers Boothe was cast after Hill and Giler saw him play Jim Jones in the mini series Guyana Tragedy. Hill said the concept of Keith Carradine’s character “was that he was one of nature’s aristocrats – graceful, confident of his own ability and able to separate himself from other people with an amusing remark”, whereas the character played by Boothe “is much more the rational, hardworking, self made individual” and as a result “just cannot believe the nature of the situation at first” whereas Carradine’s can.
BEHIND THE SCENES/INTERVIEWS
Oh, that motherfucker! He yelled all the fuckin’ time! He was like John Huston with a cigar, and he would go, “Damn it, Smith! Hold your gun like a man or I’ll take it away from ya!” And he’d do it with a bullhorn in front of 150 people. He was on my ass for the whole movie ’cause I was a rookie. The technical part of the job was new to me and it’s difficult to hit your mark wading through a swamp. Working with Walter Hill is like having General Patton as your director. He’s tough, but you know he loves you. It turned out to be a wonderful experience; because it was a crash course in professionalism. He was tougher on me than anyone, for sure. He took a big risk with me and wanted me to succeed. – Lewis (Private Stuckey ) Smith on Walter Hill
Fred had been in a couple of movies. He’s from East Texas. Tough guy, but he’s one of those tough guys that he’d been in the army, he’d gone to Europe on the G.I. Bill, he’d discovered art. I’m making it sound kind of funny, but he was from a very tough, working-class kind of life. He has a very fine sensibility, but at the same time he so understands the roots of this kind of guy. – Walter Hill on actor Fred (Corp. Reece) Ward
“It was unbelievably tough,” said Powers Boothe. “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.”
Peter Coyote & Powers Boothe Talk Southern Comfort
Interview with Director Walter Hill
Southern Comfort is one of your only contemporary films not set in an urban locale. At the time, was that something you were looking for — a change of pace?
WALTER HILL: No, I don’t think so. It was no more complicated than I was looking for a good story to tell, and this one appealed to me and I thought I could do a good job on it. It was hard to get it made the studio didn’t want to make it. So many of my films have the logos of big studios on the front, but they’re backporch movies negative pickups and special financing.
You’ve said that you didn’t intend Southern Comfort as a Vietnam allegory, but surely that must have at least occurred to you when you were conceiving and shooting it.
HILL: Well and I’ve said this before I told the cast when we were getting ready to rehearse it, “A lot of people are going to say this thing’s a metaphor for Vietnam, and we should forget that and tell the story the best we can.” I think it’s a bad idea to try to make a movie about an abstraction. Inevitably, its allegorical truth, if you will, will show. You know, this was just post-Vietnam; it was quite a rough ride for our country, and maybe some of those things needed to get a little more airing out. But I didn’t set out to create a metaphor, I set out to tell a story.
The scenario actually has a lot in common with The Warriors, being about a group of fighting men who have to make their way through hostile territory which goes back to classic Western themes as well. Was that something you were conscious of?
HILL: Oh, yeah. You could say it was cowboys and Indians; you could say it’s the Israelites and the Egyptians, I guess. I said once that all my movies are Westerns I make these kind of half-assed jokes, they get written down and it sounds like I’m more serious than I am about it. There’s a kind of truth to it, but it would be just as useful to say I like stories that are biblical or Old Testament, or something like that. That’s kind of what Westerns are tales from the Old Testament.
Filming in the actual bayou must have been pretty rough. . .
HILL: Southern Comfort may be the most physically difficult movie I’ve ever done. Just to get the camera setups in the swamp, we built a little platform that was very unstable, so we’d only have about 15, 20 minutes to stage and shoot, try to get a couple of takes and move on. It was very, very tough on [cinematographer] Andrew Laszlo, who did an unbelievably good job. Andy died this past year, and it was a terrible loss. I thought so much of him, not only as a cameraman but as a man; he had gone through an enormously difficult time during WWII, lost almost all of his family, came to the United States with a nickel in his pocket and became a cameraman. He was a gentleman, and a very strong person.
But Southern Comfort seems to be one of those situations where the shooting conditions give it a texture it wouldn’t have necessarily have otherwise.
HILL: Oh, absolutely. I think the weather conditions probably helped everybody. It’s a tough movie. It’s a tough-minded movie. But at the same time, in a perverse way, I think I had kind of a good time making it. I certainly was given a great deal of freedom to make it.
Did the actors go to any sort of boot camp to prepare for their roles?
HILL: No; we didn’t have that kind of time or budget. We were very nickel-and-dime on this thing although we were very fortunate to get the money we got, so I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. But no; we meant to have a two-day rehearsal, but it turned out we just did a read-through, and I don’t believe we even used the second day.
I want to say something about Franklyn. He was a wonderful actor. He’s probably best remembered for The Onion Field, he gave a wonderful performance in that. I met him, I told him it wasn’t such a great part, but he said, “No, I can do something with that.” He was an openly gay person, which was very rare about 1979, 1980. The crew, this was Deep South, and I said, “If you have some problems, you come to me and I’ll take care of it.” He said “No, I can take care of myself. I’ve had a lot of problems in my life. You don’t worry about me, you worry about anyone that messes with me.” And he was a tiny guy. And there were some problems, there were some incidents where somebody ridiculed him or something. I wasn’t there, I heard about it. And he was a fearless person. Franklyn was, I think, the second person I knew who died of AIDS and he was a wonderful actor, a great guy. – Walter Hill on actor Franklyn (PFC Simms) Seales
How did the cast take to their military roles?
HILL: Good. They all stuck with it pretty well; they were tough guys. When I think of what we put them through, and how difficult and miserable the shoot was. I’m amazed we had such a positive group. On most of the movie, there was a kind of good-humored spirit, maybe because we couldn’t believe how horrible it was. We had to drive forever to get to the location, so you sat there kind of comatose in the morning you couldn’t believe you were really gonna go out there again. And then when you ended the day, you thought, “Jesus. Thank God I survived this one.” And then everybody would head to the bar.
While Southern Comfort is largely an action-thriller, there are several scenes that are straight out of a horror film. Was that something you were interested in exploring?
HILL: Well, I thought I’d give it a try. The fear of the unknown and what’s out there in a foreign place, but a foreign place that’s close to home, is a doubly unsettling type of feeling.
There’s one moment in particular, when the trees are collapsing on the soldiers, that almost seems supernatural; you figure the Cajuns couldn’t pull that off themselves.
HILL: They’re very clever and resourceful, the Cajuns. They know their territory very well.
It almost feels as if nature itself is rebelling against the soldiers.
Or is that analyzing it too deeply?
HILL: No, I always say this: The oldest, truest thing about what we do for a living is, trust the tale, not the teller. When it comes to the exact meaning of something, what’s true for you is true. I’ve said this before: Movies are voyages of discovery, not creation and imagination. I’m not conscious of “Oh, I’m creating a world” or whatever; you just have to find it and keep your mind open to the possibilities of what will register in the correct way.
How was it dealing with the actual Cajuns who worked on the film, and how did you get them involved?
HILL: We just went out and interviewed. We had Cajuns as technical advisors and permanent staff; they were our liaison into that world, and they were terrific. We were always worried about the… nowadays we would say “political correctness” of the piece, which wasn’t a phrase in those days, but that turned out to be entirely a straw man. A couple of people wrote letters to some Louisiana newspapers after the movie came out, but that was it. With the vast majority of the Cajuns I’ve ever known. I’ve never had a confrontation with somebody who said, “Hey, you have not done right by our people,” or anything like that. They’re very proud of their culture and their special ways, and I felt kind of honored to be around them. As someone who likes to make Westerns, when you run into these guys, it’s wonderful to think that culture still exists.
Speaking of political correctness, did anyone raise objections about the graphic hog-slaughtering scene?
HILL: The studio thought that was excessive, and I did take it down a bit. But we thought it was very important to show an indigenous culture and, as I used to put it, “where the bacon comes from.” It’s all part of the world they live in. Most of us eat meat, but we’re very separated from the process. To be connected to it, to get a deeper understanding of where we are in the world and how it all works, is not a savage experience at all; it’s kind of humbling, I think. Now, one bone of contention with that sequence was that there were a couple of Europeans on the crew, and they did not think the Cajuns slaughtered the hogs the right way, and that the European way preserved the flavor of the meat better. This was beyond my level of knowledge or understanding, but there was a spirited debate between Andy Laszlo, who was Hungarian, and a guy from Belgium, with the Cajuns, and the Cajuns said, “Well, this is the way we do it!”
You mentioned at the screening that you’ve thought about retelling Southern Comfort from the Cajuns’ point of view; have you seriously considered a new version?
HILL: No. What I was saying was that you could make the movie from their point of view, and it would be just as interesting. There’s a legitimacy to the debate that would probably go on among them. It’s not all the Cajuns who are against [the soldiers] , it’s a few whose fishing lines are violated, and as the retaliation goes on, realizing they probably will be held responsible, there’s that idea of, “If we knock off the witnesses, we’ll escape.” I always say that a violent act has consequences, and the ripples often go very wide. In Southern Comfort, it starts out as a stupid prank by one guy, the other side doesn’t know it’s a prank and there has been a violation before that, and suddenly it gets out of control.
The movie treats violence seriously, but when it first came out, it was marketed like a slasher film.
HILL: The studio didn’t know what to do with it. They also had the tagline “Not since Deliverance…”, which we thought was horrendous. If there’s anything I believe, it’s that movies should stand on their own and not try to be the caboose to some other film. But again, when you’re part of these kinds of negative-pickup deals, you’re a caboose to the studio. You’re not what they worry about the most. Now, it’s nice to get released and be a part of the dance, but it’s just not the same thing.
Looking back at Southern Comfort today, seeing it again at the screening, how do you feel it holds up?
HILL: Oh, I couldn’t say. As far as I can see, for what I was trying to do to the best of my memory, I thought it looked pretty good, and it obviously played very well to the people who were there. Anytime you direct something and you get an audience that likes it, you’re very pleased. At the same time, it did not find an audience in g this country when it came out; that was t disappointing. But you don’t make a movie’ like this because you think it’s going to make a fortune; you make it for other reasons. And it’s very flattering that years later, people still want to look at it.
What do you recall about your role in SOUTHERN COMFORT?
Brion James: It was the hardest movie I ever made as far as being physical. It was cold and freezing in that swamp. Carradine and the other ones, they wore wet suits under the clothes, I never wore one. I was miserable, but it worked for the movie. I played a local Cajun trapper. It’s the only accent I ever had to learn. I’m a parrot. I can pick up an accent and just do it. That one I had to study, and a real Cajun taught me how to do it. So, I did this Cajun patois, bastardized French. It was very different, it was like a southern black French.
I have heard that Walter Hill, the director of that film was known as a taskmaster.
Brion James: We called him the emperor. He’s the most loyal guy in Hollywood. He hired me for that, and for other films. Walter Hill’s one of the most loyal guys in town. Not too many guys do that.
LOCATIONS The movie was shot in Louisiana over 55 days in the Caddo Lake area outside Shreveport. Hill
The film is supported by an atmospheric soundtrack by longstanding Hill collaborator Ry Cooder. The song “Parlez Nous à Boire,” sung during the scene in the Cajun village at the end of the film, was performed by Cajun musician Dewey Balfa. The film includes many actors, including Fred Ward and Peter Coyote, who had one of their first big roles here.
Keith Carradine as PFC Spencer
Powers Boothe as Corporal Charles Hardin
Fred Ward as Corporal Lonnie Reece
Franklyn Seales as PFC Simms
T.K. Carter as Private Tyrone Cribbs
Lewis Smith as Private Stuckey
Les Lannom as Sergeant Casper
Peter Coyote as Staff Sergeant Crawford Poole
Alan Autry as Corporal “Coach” Bowden (billed as Carlos Brown)
Brion James as Cajun Trapper
Sonny Landham as Hunter
Walter Hill/David Giler