When I was in my late teens, my buddies and I, fans of Walter Hill’s recent hit 48 Hours (1982), somehow stumbled upon his earlier not-such-a-hit Southern Comfort (1981). I’m thinking it was shown on cable, and/or had come out on video, but the upshot is I watched the film several times, and loved it. Action films per se aren’t usually my thing, mostly because the vast majority of them are so formulaic, and on top of that, as a general rule, I find onscreen violence for its own sake (fist fights, gun play, explosions) exceedingly boring without, at the very least, some sort of angle to make it interesting. Walter Hill ALWAYS brings such angles to the table. In fact, 48 Hours was a great example — it hybridized two different genres, comedy and the police thriller, in a way that ended up being extremely influential. It’s not Hill’s fault that now there are a million comedy-buddy-cop-movies. He can take pride in having created the template.
Southern Comfort has a million such angles: a Louisiana bayou location; exotic Cajun culture, a moody Ry Cooder soundtrack. And it has the only kind of macho hero I’m interested in: one who has palpable brains. Actors with this quality are rare enough that I can easily rattle off the ones I like: William Holden, George C. Scott, Tommy Lee Jones. With such heroes at the center of the picture, whether it’s present in the script or not, you can at least project some kind of higher battle onto whatever’s transpiring. It not just “man vs. man” but “man vs. society” (usually the dregs of society) in such pictures. For me, Powers Boothe had this quality, and in Southern Comfort, you don’t have to project it, Hill’s script is all about it.
The film is about a unit of Louisiana National Guardsmen who are sent out on maneuvers in the bayou, and, through a combination of arrogance, ignorance, and ineptitude, run afoul of local Cajun trappers…with fatal consequences. And so this is another reason the movie is a favorite of mine: one of my favorite story structures is the “And Then There Were None” scenario. We meet a diverse group of people who are thrust together for whatever reason, and then, just as we are getting to know and like them, one of by one, a malevolent force picks them off. The formula is generally used to good effect in disaster movies and war pictures. It’s also used in slasher movies, generally to much worse effect, because the whole concept hinges on character; if it’s poorly written and acted, the structure has no impact. In Southern Comfort, Hill not only wrote a riveting script, but put together a terrific ensemble cast. In addition to Boothe, it’s Keith Carradine, Peter Coyote, Fred Ward, T.K. Carter, Alan Autry (billed as Carlos Brown), Les Lannom, et al as the Guardsmen; Brion James stands out as one of the Cajuns.
For the most part the Guardsmen, stand-ins for the human race, are all idiots. It requires a certain suspension of disbelief — that a group of guys from Louisiana would be so ignorant of this cherished local culture, and so lacking in respect of people on their own home turf. By “respect” I don’t just mean manners, but also a healthy fear and wariness of those with superior skill. The Cajuns have lived in these parts for generations. They know every inch of the terrain, whereas the Guardsmen are hopelessly lost, the proverbial Babes in the Woods. The Cajuns live off the land as trappers. THEY LAY TRAPS. And the nearest law is very far away. But the Guardsmen provoke them needlessly, steal their boats, scare them with their machine guns (which only fire blanks, but the locals don’t know that). It seems very much a metaphor for Vietnam (and Hollywood hadn’t yet fully rolled out Vietnam as a genre. That would come during the second half of the decade.) It also anticipates by a decade some real life domestic run-ins like Ruby Ridge.
Aloof and above all these assholes are Boothe and Carradine, who manage to keep their wits about them and emerge from the ordeal with their hides intact. Boothe was an inspired choice, one not every producer or casting director would have been smart enough to make. At the time, he was best known for his Emmy-winning performance as Jim Jones in the CBS tv movie The Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980). He had been so good in that part, so creepy and chilling, it was hard to imagine he could ever be a hero in anything, let alone ever be anything but Jim Jones ever again. But, when we saw him in his many subsequent roles, a palpable decency came to seem one of his fundamental qualities. A strong, silent type with a thoughtful nature. (Although, with that dark brow, he could still play a villain, as in in his memorable turn as Curly Bill in 1993’s Tombstone).
At any rate, despite the many things I’ve seen him in over the years, Boothe’s role in Southern Comfort will always be the one I think of first. It’s not a part that required much emotional range or anything, his character is merely sensible and stoic, but I like what the character represents, and how Boothe inhabited that character, in an old fashioned Hollywood kind of way. He passed away yesterday at age 68, of what we are told were “natural causes”. (Not too natural, 68 is pretty young). He was always a welcome sight on screens big and small and will be missed by fans like me.