in Review

Southern Comfort (1981)

Powers Boothe has died and I’m sad I haven’t heard much about it. I get it, so many actors and musicians die so frequently. It’s impossible to properly honor them all. Therefore, I thought I’d try my best by talking about my favorite Powers Boothe performance in the grossly underrated 1981 survival thriller Southern Comfort.

Powers Boothe was never a big movie star. The native Texan was far better known on the small screen. A talented stage actor, Boothe rose to prominence at the age of 32 starring as real-life cult leader Jim Jones in the 1980 CBS miniseries, Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones. The performance won Boothe an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Special and started his career as an intimidating and brooding screen presence.

Boothe found later success with supporting roles in popular films such as; Red Dawn, Tombstone, Nixon, and Sin City, but this doesn’t compare with his TV roles. In 1983, Boothe starred as the title character in Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, the first drama series on HBO. He also played the conniving Noah Daniels on 24, Cy Tolliver in the Walter Hill produced Deadwood, Lamar Wyatt in Nashville and most recently Gideon Malick in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Boothe had a knack for playing authority figures. With his thick brows and impressive fivehead, he was the general and/or politician and/or government agent you didn’t want to piss off. He could convey a great deal with no more than his screen presence. All of these could as well be said of Boothe in my favorite of all his performances as the cynical Corporal Charles Hardin in Southern Comfort. One of Boothe’s few prominent leading roles (at least second billing).

Southern Comfort was a film made during writer/director Walter Hill’s most fruitful years. Between 1979 and 1982, Hill directed his four best films with The Warriors (1979), The Long Riders (1980), Southern Comfort (1981) and 48 Hours (1982). It was also during this period that Hill and his occasional writing partner David Giler rewrote a script known as “Starbeast” and turned it into the 1979 sci-fi classic Alien.

If you’re not familiar with Hill’s style, his work draws heavily from the western genre. Hill himself has gone on record as saying “every film I’ve done has been a Western,” furthering explaining “the Western is ultimately a stripped down moral universe that is, whatever the dramatic problems are, beyond the normal avenues of social control and social alleviation of the problem, and I like to do that even within contemporary stories”.

Labeling Southern Comfort as a western feels appropriate, but more specifically, Southern Comfort owes a lot to a previous Hill film, The Warriors. Both films are about a group of men fleeing from enemy territory after a gross misunderstanding. In The Warriors, it’s a gang falsely accused of assassinating a prominent figure. They are pursued by rival gangs in enemy territory and must find their way back to Coney Island. In Southern Comfort, it’s the Louisiana National Guard being chased through the bayou by mad Cajuns after a soldier jokingly fires blanks at them. Where I think The Warriors is more stylish and fun, the characters in Southern Comfort have more substance and the film is more suspenseful.

Southern Comfort begins with a squad of nine members of the Louisiana National Guard assembling for weekend maneuvers in the heart of swamp country. It’s interesting to note these are members of the National Guard and not everyday soldiers. These guys aren’t expert trackers or killing machines. Corporal Hardin (Powers Boothe) is a transfer from the Texas National Guard and is a happily-married chemical engineer. Another character, Corporal Bowden (former NFL quarterback and future Fresno Mayor Alan Autry) is a High School football coach. These are regular guys, they don’t even have real bullets in their guns. Which makes the situation they are thrust into that much more intense.

Other prominent characters are Private Spencer (Keith Carradine) who, along with Boothe is the film’s co-lead, Fred Ward as tough guy Corporal Lonnie Reece, and Peter Coyote (a year before his memorable performance in E.T.) in the small but pivotal role of Staff Sergeant Crawford Poole. The character types are familiar but believable. There’s the tough guy, the dumb guy, the dumb crazy guy, the dumb tough guy, the tough, tough guy, etc. What makes these characters work so well is how they react to the madness that surrounds them.

Often in thrillers or action movies, I find myself raising my finger, asking “why would they do that?” but for the most part, the actions of these characters make sense. Even the catalyst (as silly as some might see it) I find completely believable. Trudging through the swamp, Sgt. Poole, suggests they “borrow” some pirogues (small boats) without asking the nowhere-to-be-seen locals. As the squad makes their way across the water, the Cajuns appear from the land and Private Stuckey (Lewis Smith) aka “the dumb crazy guy” jokingly fires off some blanks. The Cajuns respond by firing real bullets and killing Sgt. Poole. Shit just got real.

The squad tries to race back to shore and explain themselves, but the Cajuns disappear. The battle has begun. From here, there’s a divide between the men on how to respond. Half of the squad wants to seek revenge for the death of Poole, while the other half wants to get the hell out of there. Spencer (Carradine) finds himself as the voice of reason while Reece (Ward) is on the extremist side. Hardin (Boothe) finds himself somewhere in between. He’s no sissy, but he ain’t no dummy either. This is one of the great things about Boothe’s performance. He conveys such a mysterious presence. You want to trust him, but you’re also scared of him. In other words, he’s the film’s wild card.

Paranoia sets in as the men try to navigate their way through the swamp. They stumble upon a backwoods shack where they meet a one-armed Cajun trapper (Brion James) and interrogate him. Of course, the man only speaks Cajun French and refuses to help. Again, half of the men are convinced this trapper was one of the men who shot Poole, but with no way to prove it they tie him up and take him hostage. Bowden, the football coach, loses control of his emotions, paints a red cross on his chest and burns down the trapper’s shack. Despite, the fact there was guns and food inside. A divide in the group continues to grow.

It’s around this time the men discover Reece (Ward) has a few actual bullets and he is forced to split them among the group. Still, it isn’t much and most of the men end up wasting their ammo on blurs in the trees and noises they hear in the calm of the bayou. Slowly but surely, the men each meet their maker courtesy of their unseen enemy.

At the time of the film’s release, many believed the film to be a metaphor for Vietnam. Though Hill refutes this claim. I’m not a veteran and have little to no knowledge of what it’s like to serve in the armed forces, but I could imagine how this film feels believable. Just the idea that you’re in the middle of nowhere, scared, unable to see anything coming at you with no foreseeable end. It’s a terrifying thought. The film intensifies this idea by never giving the audience a clear look at who’s hunting them. Again, all you ever see are blurs of people and random blasts of gunfire. It’s almost as if these men are fighting ghosts or the elements themselves. There’s a great sense of hopelessness.

Most men are picked off by gunfire, but a few others meet different fates. Pvt. Cribbs (T.K. Carter) is killed by a spear-bed trap, Bowden (Autry) is hung, and perhaps most terrifying, Stuckey sees a helicopter flying over the trees only to stumble into quicksand and slowly be dragged under the earth. Though not all the deaths are inflicted by the Cajuns or the swamp. After Hardin (Boothe) finds Reece (Ward) torturing the Cajun trapper, the two end up fighting each other with the bayonets from their guns. Hardin comes out victorious, but he doesn’t feel much like celebrating.

Eventually, all that’s left of the nine-man squad are Spencer (Carradine) and Hardin (Boothe). Cold, tired, and broken, the two stumble onto a dirt road where they meet a Cajun couple willing to give them a ride to town. The two men agree but feel uneasy when the couple instead takes them to a pig roast in the woods with all the locals. The vibe is jubilant with music and food. Spencer loosens up but Hardin can’t relax. They never met the men who tried to kill them, they could be any of these people, and surely enough, Hardin encounters them.

Hardin tries to flee the gathering but finds Cajun hunters at every perimeter. He tries to hide in a dark house but is still pursued. He finds himself cornered in a room where he is faced with a Cajun with a rifle. The Cajun raises his rifle and Spencer comes in at the last minute to distract the shooter. Then comes one of my favorite acts of retaliation in movie history. Powers Boothe knifes a man in the nuts. Yup. The two men then take out all the men who killed their unit in grisly fashion and flee the party. They catch up with their helicopter and make it home. But at what cost?

The film is a razor sharp thriller. The setting is atmospheric, Hill’s direction is tight, the acting is first class and I can’t say enough about the film’s chilling score by legendary guitarist Ry Cooder. It’s a survival film of the highest caliber and a must see for fans of the action, thriller, or military genre. And the film wouldn’t have been half as good without the presence of Powers Boothe. R.I.P. Powers, may you go on to knife angels in the nuts in Heaven.

The swampy gates of Heaven.