Saturday, 23 February 2013

Southern Comfort (1981)

Spencer: "Why d'ya paint the cross on your chest?"
Coach: "It's part of the joke"
Spencer: "What joke?"
Coach: "It's a Corporal joke, Private"

BBC2 treated us last night/this morning to an all too rare screening of this classic, a survival film, which has always been overshadowed by the inferior Deliverance in my opinion.

The 70s really was a golden age of uncompromising film making from Hollywood, and Southern Comfort is perhaps that era's last gasp, before the style over substance aesthetic of the Simpson and Bruckheimer 80s. It's a simple premise on the surface; a deeply unsettling and murderous game of cat and mouse plays out between some indigenous Cajun settlers and a small unit of National Guard, who have foolishly taken their canoes to cross the Louisiana bayou whilst on maneuvers. Underneath the surface, I guess its a fairly plain allegory of Vietnam and the US foreign policy, a theme that is further exemplified by setting the action in 1973.

Walter Hill, Michael Kane and David Giler's script may occasionally feel a little heavy handed and clunky at times but it pretty much has to be when dealing with such heightened situations. Where the film truly excels is in Walter Hill's masterly direction. Hill, a natural protege of Peckinpah, builds tension and suspense so expertly that your eyes drift to the treelines in the background, just knowing that something awful lurks there and is likely to jump out and ambush our 'heroes' any second. Indeed, their are several jump out of your seat scenes and, as to be expected from his Peckinpah tradition, when the violence comes, it is bloody and matter of fact. That Hill keeps the unit's hunters largely hidden throughout - save for Blade Runner's Brion James as a one armed trapper they take captive - is further testament to his sure grasp of menace and tension. But perhaps the best testament to his ability, is the fact that you barely notice that the plot is essentially the same as the one from his previous film The Warriors, albeit with a US folk horror/American Gothic spin. Both films focus on a small band of 'warriors' must travel through unfamiliar and dangerous territory, avoiding attack from pursuers, to reach home. Literary scholars may find these themes originate from Greece's Anabasis of Xenophon, which told the story of the Greek mercenaries The Ten Thousand who, after fighting the battle of Cunaxa, were forced to cross the territories of modern day Iraq and Turkey facing attacks from the local tribes as they passed. Clearly, Hill knows his Greek mythology and history!

Southern Comfort has a great and utterly convincing ensemble cast of at the time relatively fresh faced American talent including Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward and Peter Coyote to name but a few. It also has a brilliantly atmospheric score from Ry Cooder and the final gripping scenes, played out to the accompanying Cajun folk song Parlez Nois à Boire amidst scenes of revelry and animal slaughter in the village, put me in mind of The Wicker Man in terms of its queasy mix of tradition, joviality and violence.

As I said, it's better than Deliverance and well worth catching. BBC2 appear to be spoiling us on Fri nights/the small hours as next week they'll be showing the excellent They Shoot Horses Don't They? Do not miss it!

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