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January 12th, 2009

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12:05 pm - This doesn't mean we're engaged or anything
I compared Southern Comfort to Alien, as an iconic film. There is an even closer thematic link to Aliens; two of the three writers of Southern Comfort worked on the script for Aliens (Walter Hill and David Giler). Many of the themes in Southern Comfort are strongly reprised in Aliens, both films are described as metaphors for American involvement in Vietnam, and both are more widely applicable as commentary on the familiar real life experience of high-tech western invaders being taken apart by committed locals.

I rewatched both films this weekend, and I've been running in my mind a fan video you could make cutting between similar scenes in the two films, to the tune of 'History Repeating' by the Propellerheads. Very similar picture composition. I think to make it perfect you'd also put some Deadwood in there (also co-scripted by Walter Hill, and with the same actors).

Anyway. Southern Comfort is a real bee in my bonnet, and I'm not sure if anyone else is interested, but I have to work these ideas out a bit in a post.

In Southern Comfort, a group of Louisiana National Guard get lost in the bayou and manage to antagonise some locals. Despite being equipped with lots of guns, they find these aren't much help, and their leaders are revealed to be idiots. The local hostiles are embedded in the environment, vicious, committed, dreadful. Only two of the protagonists get out alive, and that barely, and only as a result of the bond they form.

This storyline is followed quite closely in Aliens, although Aliens has a more complex plot - also the marines are more likeable and competent than the Guards (and Bishop and Newt are added to the mix).

The relationship between Ripley and Hicks is one of the best things about Aliens. Corporal Hicks is a great character I think, protective without being overbearing, quietly competent, and I like the way the relationship between him and Ellen Ripley develops in a very low-key way - they never kiss or anything, and they only exchange first names a few seconds before Hicks passes out from his injuries (never to regain consciousness if Alien3 is to be believed). And yet I think it is an excellent model of a loving relationship.

Anyway, watching the two films together, and seeing parallels between them, has made me re-evaluated the relationship between Spencer and Hardin in Southern Comfort. Last week when I was posting about Southern Comfort I said it was not a romantic relationship. I now think I was being dishonest with myself, because I didn't want people to think 'Oh, there she goes again, making everything slashy'.

In fact I think it is intended to be romantic, in certain ways, and also as redemptive. Spencer and Hardin are both privates in the platoon that gets lost in the bayou. Spencer (Keith Carradine) is a long-standing member of the company. He is very intelligent, but he doesn't try, doesn't engage, just uses his brains to make stupid dirty jokes. Hardin (Powers Booth) is a newcomer. He is clever but he's not as intellectual or as popular as Spencer. He has fought his way up from very deprived circumstances in Texas, and his strongest characteristic is the desire to fight to live.

In the film, and I think this is quite subtly done, Hardin constantly pushes Spencer to become the man he can be. His motive is utterly selfish - he knows that only Spencer can get them out alive, so he pushes Spencer to take on the responsibility. Spencer won't risk court-martial. The two men fight about this, and we see them in subsequent shots standing far apart, not looking at each other. But Spencer can't stay mad with him. After Hardin knifes another soldier to death Spencer is all 'Well, I'm sure you had your reasons'. LOL. Eventually Hardin forces Spencer to operate at the level he is capable of.

I think there is an even more hidden dynamic in the film, which is that during the film Spencer falls in love with Hardin (as Hicks does with Ripley). Towards the end I think this is more or less acknowledged between them, and Spencer takes on the responsibility to keep Hardin alive. So Hardin kind of heartlessly uses Spencer, but at the same time this forces Spencer to evolve into someone quite different and better.

Towards the very end of the film, when most of the platoon are dead or missing, Spencer (now in charge) splits them up into search parties. Now, what he should have done is put Hardin in charge of the other party, because he's the only one who is capable. Instead he goes off with Hardin, and sends all the incompetent ones off together to get killed, which they do. Rewatching it, I can see what Spencer is doing - he only cares about Hardin. So he doesn't evolve into a good person, or a great leader, but he does at least wake up from his sleep.

Incidentally, Hicks ends up alone with Ripley at the end of Aliens without this rather shameful manoeuvring.

I like Westerns and war films because they reveal bare bones moral issues, without any sanctimonious crap. These are real moral questions which I think we have to face - to what extent is a strong person morally obliged to exert themselves to be what they can be? To what extent must they protect the weak? To what extent can personal love take precedence over responsibility for the group?

(8 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:January 12th, 2009 12:21 pm (UTC)
three of the two writers of Southern Comfort

[User Picture]
Date:January 12th, 2009 01:00 pm (UTC)
Hrrumph, so much for trenchant analysis

PS thanks I have edited

Edited at 2009-01-12 01:10 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:January 12th, 2009 01:25 pm (UTC)
Imagined fan video as a form of criticism and analysis is great, and makes me want to be an academic so that I can make my students do it.
[User Picture]
Date:January 12th, 2009 01:48 pm (UTC)
That's a good point - it's a means of thinking non-verbally about a film. Fun too. I just wish I had the least ability to create the video so you could see what I meant.

There's a great parallel between the Marines finding the colonists hung up as prey by the aliens, and the Guard finding a load of gutted rabbits hanging up in the trees. One for each of them. Spencer asks their cajun prisoner 'Q'est ce que c'est la?', 'Lapins'.
[User Picture]
Date:January 12th, 2009 04:03 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen Southern Comfort, but I now want to!

And I agree completely about the relationship between Hicks and Ripley - it's portrayed in a subtle and very adult way, unlike most of its ilk. For many years, I refused to re-watch Alien 3 because I felt betrayed by the callous way in which Hicks and Newt had been killed off. I hated that Ripley was robbed of her future after she had fought so hard for it.
[User Picture]
Date:January 12th, 2009 04:09 pm (UTC)
It took me a long time to get through that bombshell at the start of Alien3. As it is, I think it's a fairly good film, and the horrible start is of a piece with its harsh tone. But I'd love them to make a revisionist Alien film - the Ripley in Alien 3 was 'just' another clone for instance - which redresses the loss.

ETA - another good thing about Southern Comfort is that it takes a hard line on capture and torture of 'enemies'. The reason Hardin, who is by no means a good person, knifes his colleague, is because he can't stand watching him (more or less) waterboard the prisoner they have captured.

Edited at 2009-01-12 04:21 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:January 12th, 2009 07:22 pm (UTC)
To me, the relationship between Hicks and Ripley is not a romantic one but a parental one, as the two adopt Newt. There's a key scene when Newt and Ripley are trapped in the lab, when we see that Hicks' instinct is to save Ripley, while Ripley's is to save Newt.
[User Picture]
Date:January 12th, 2009 07:31 pm (UTC)
They definitely are parental to Newt. Having just watched it, virtually every shot with them seems to reflect that model you describe: 'Hicks' instinct is to save Ripley, while Ripley's is to save Newt'. For instance the first time they all go into the lab, Hicks steps between Ripley and the glass jars, without looking at her.

But I do think that Hicks has a romantic admiration for Ripley - I mean, who wouldn't anyway?

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