The original is Xenophon's Anabasis about the Ten Thousand, a collection of Greek mercenaries who were part of Cyrus the Younger's force in his failed attempt to wrest the crown of Persia from his brother, Artaxerxes. When Cyrus was slain in battle, the Ten Thousand were left deep inside Persia surrounded by treacherous enemies, their leaders killed by betrayal. Their only hope was to fight their way home "to the sea" through parts of what now constitute Iraq and Turkey.
Director Walter Hill's first and more famous version of Xenophon's tale is the 1979 cult classic The Warriors about a NYC teenage gang trying to get back to their home turf on Coney Island. Having been falsely accused of murdering the visionary leader of another gang, the Warriors are pursued by the police as well as the rival gangs through whose territory they must pass.
Southern Comfort was also directed by Hill and featured one of my favorite actors, Powers Boothe, along with Keith Carradine, Peter Coyote, Fred Ward, and Alan Autry ("Bubba" from "In the Heat of the Night" television series, credited as Carlos Brown). Southern Comfort was seen at the time, 1981, as a metaphor for the American experience in Vietnam but so was Star Wars and practically every other movie that came out in the '70s and early '80s. In fact, though I've never seen it, some have suggested that Saturday Night Fever is the quintessential Vietnam allegory.
The movie is set in Louisiana (location filming around Shreveport) in 1973. A squad of Louisiana National Guard soldiers, "Weekend Warriors", set out on maneuvers which take them into the Cajun backcountry. Faced with a long and unexpected water crossing, the nine soldiers decide to steal three pirogues they find on the bank. The owners of the pirogues show up while the soldiers are still only a hundred yards or so from the shore. One member of the squad foolishly fires his blank-loaded M16 at the Cajuns as a joke. The Cajuns do not find it amusing and fire back, killing one soldier. Thus begins the struggle of the rest of the squad to survive and get back "home".
Watching Southern Comfort, more than Vietnam, I was reminded of Deliverance. The movie features some Cajun music near the end, especially "Parlez Nous à Boire", which is a song I am familiar with from my BeauSoleil CD that can be translated as "let's talk about drinking and not about getting married". Most of the soundtrack is intense, evocative acoustic work by the great Ry Cooder whose music I've been listening to for forty years now.
As was the case with Deliverance, the conflict is a clash of cultures and of views of reality. Those from outside cannot understand the events that transpire. It does not make sense to them. While the soldiers appear to be well-equipped for their mission, their inability to comprehend the world in which the natives live puts them in peril.
While it is true this is somewhat like the lesson we should have learned in Vietnam, the application is much broader and more general. We are, for the most part, insulated from life and death. Most people cannot skin a squirrel for food let alone have any idea about butchering a hog as depicted in a naturalistic scene in Southern Comfort. Our elders do not die with us but with strangers in nursing homes and sanitized hospitals. Even our pets are euthanized with syringes by strangers. We think human behavior can be explained and controlled by economic and social science theories.
Before one of the soldiers is killed he laments, "I didn't do anything wrong. I'm not supposed to be here." That encapsulates the view held by the vast majority of citizens of First World nations. We think if we only do the right, legal, socially-acceptable thing, if we are good people, nothing bad will happen to us. Our enemies need only be convinced of our good will and good intentions. We can reason with them.
It would be nice if it were true, but it is not connected to reality. The truth is that civilization has overcome barbarism only by force and violence. The thugs on the street, the gang members, the third-world invaders, the drug cartels, and the Islamic militants will listen to our reason and perhaps engage in dialogue with us only until we turn our backs, until we drop our guard, until they have the advantage. They are not interested in our intentions but in their own wants, needs, beliefs, and goals. They are not interested in sharing or compromising when they can simply take what they want by overwhelming us, outvoting us, beating us or killing us. They like our rules of civilized conduct, of compassion, mercy and respect so long as those rules bind and restrain us, for they do not intend to be bound by them.
Beyond being an engaging, well-done film with a good story -- which it is, Southern Comfort shows us something that we have mostly forgotten, that, in fact, some have never known. With threats on our borders, enemies within our gates, and conflicts escalating around the world, it's time to learn.