It’s a question that seems to get thrown around more than any other variant of ‘What’s your favourite ________ movie?’ The war film is often seen as the apex when it comes to confrontational and thought-provoking art, as it focuses on the camaraderie amongst our fellow sentient flesh bags in the midst of unpredictable horror, forcing the audience to consider how they’d be thinking, feeling and reacting if it were them and their own buddies in that very same shitpit. Do you appreciate the unforgiving, sugar-free brutality of Saving Private Ryan, or are you more in favour of the rousing, epic scale heroism of the likes of The Battle Of Britain or The Dirty Dozen? Whether it’s sombre and graphic or facetiously chipper, the war film always speaks to us on the most primal of levels, as it’s the most primal situation a human being can be thrust into.
My personal favourite falls slightly outside of what is strictly considered to be a war movie, in that it depicts a fictional conflict that is nevertheless allegorical of the very real and notorious American occupation of Vietnam. By keeping the theatre of warfare within the realms of the United States and showcasing how merely one careless act can escalate into full-blown carnage, director Walter Hill created a dark, intelligent picture that provided a critique of gung-ho cavalierness and disrespect of other people’s homelands, while retaining the dynamism and entertainment factor of the best kinds of action films.
The place is Louisiana, the year 1973. Taciturn cynic and El Paso native Corporal Hardin (Powers Boothe) has just been transferred from the Texas National Guard to the Louisiana National Guard, and his first day in the new outfit falls on the start of weekend manoeuvres in the local bayou. With the exception of the laid-back, intelligent PFC Spencer (Keith Carradine) and the tough-but-fair leader Staff Sergeant Poole (Peter Coyote), the squad are, by and large, a bunch of douchebags. Arrogant and mean-spirited, they display a racially-charged contempt for the Cajun inhabitants of the swamps they are about to traverse, and spend the majority of the time bitching about having to sacrifice their weekends for the Guard (a duty they chose entirely of their own volition) and swaggeringly anticipating the crew of prostitutes with whom they’ve organised a rendezvous at the endpoint of their assignment. For Hardin, that end cannot come fast enough.
The group come across a collection of pirogues (basically a dugout tree-trunk that Cajuns fashion into canoes), unceremoniously steal them because they have no other way of crossing the water on the map, and very smartly taunt the local trappers who own the boats once they get caught red-handed. The squad’s resident mega-twat, Private Stuckey, decides to fire his standard-issue blank cartridges at the Cajuns whilst throwing slurs at them, much to the amusement of his asshole friends. About half a minute later, the Cajuns return fire. With live rounds. And this is when all hell breaks loose. The boys are now stuck in unfamiliar territory, surrounded by some very (understandably) angry and violent guerrilla locals, their complacent machismo soon giving way to abject fear as they realise they’ve just fucked with the wrong bulls.
Filmed in winter, the movie perfectly captures the coldness of war both literally and figuratively, the bayous shrouded in a chilling fog that confines our heroes in alien terrain whilst obscuring their view of the enemy, who knows the surrounding arena only too well. With Ry Cooder’s creation of roots-rock magic as the original soundtrack, the atmosphere is simultaneously terrifying and intimate, the pathos divided expertly amongst the immediate guardsmen and intangible Cajun hunters. You can’t help but hope for the best outcome for our fatigued scoundrels whilst also telling them to go fuck themselves, as you wouldn’t want anybody rummaging around in your backyard and firing airguns at you either.
The film dissects the utterly paranoid pointlessness and arrogance of Vietnam without ever being on the nose, showing the guardsmen as largely idiotic and ignorant but never anything less than human, and shining an empathic light on their shadowy Cajun adversaries. After all, they are pissed off and agitated, having what amounts to a bunch of glorified jocks rampaging around their home stealing, committing vandalism and assault, and shouting horribly bigoted things at them. Hardin & Spencer want no part of the conflict, but circumventing that isn’t an option if they wish to make it home alive. Desperately striving to drill some sense into their more delusional, bullying-inclined teammates, they reluctantly take up arms against the residents, attempting to mediate violence and intimidation when the squad ends up taking a P.O.W. into interrogational custody, a Cajun trapper (the legendary Brion James, otherwise known as Leon from Blade Runner) who was just trying to go about his usual day gathering food from hunts and tending to his homestead on the edge of the bayou.
With outstanding performances, beautiful cinematography, and Cooder’s haunting swamp strings supplemented by the appearance of acclaimed Cajun music ensemble The Balfa Brothers, Walter Hill expertly scaled down the traditionally operatic medium of the war drama into a hybrid of action thriller and psychological horror, one that starkly and movingly examines friendship, surviving the wilderness and the clashing of cultures with an effect that has been second to none ever since it came out. It bafflingly made $0 upon its release, and to this day it only has a cult following, which is a melancholy state of affairs as it’s easily one of the greatest movies ever made. See it right now.