This horrific bayou-set kill fest is a key action-suspense film of the 1980s, and one of the finest-ever outings by director Walter Hill. SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981) is often classified as one of the innumerable DELIVERANCE wannabes of the seventies and eighties. It’s actually a none-too-disguised ‘Nam metaphor, with clueless American soldiers blundering into a strange jungle universe (the Louisiana bayou, standing in for Vietnam) and upsetting its inhabitants.
Co-writer/director Walter Hill was one of the premiere action specialists of the previous three decades. He’s still around of course, but it’s his superbly photographed, impeccably edited actioners of the seventies and eighties that continue to resonate, including THE WARRIORS (1979), 48 HRS. (1982), STREETS OF FIRE (1984), TRESPASS (1992) and this stylish and unsparing film.
Nine male National Guardsmen enter a Louisiana swamp on a training mission. Dressed in combat fatigues and carrying heavy duty firearms—but no live ammo—they antagonize a band of local Cajuns by shooting at them. Unaware that the bullets are blanks, the Cajuns respond with a gunshot of their own—a real one that takes out the Sergeant.
Initially none of the guardsmen know what to do. They squabble over a few rounds of live ammo held by the assholish Reese; he’s cajoled into giving up the bullets only when the tough southerner Hardin threatens him with a knife to the throat.
Slogging further into swampland, the guardsmen happen upon a rickety house where a French speaking Cajun lurks. They take the Cajun prisoner…and further piss off his unseen cohorts when the guardsman Bowden goes mad and blows up the house.
From there the troops are attacked by wild dogs and menaced by deadly booby traps, quicksand, falling trees and hidden gunman. Worst of all, Reese and Harden get into a fight; Reese is killed in the scuffle and the prisoner runs off. A bit later the escaped prisoner turns back up near the hanging body of Bowden, warning the two surviving guardsmen to leave the scene. But, as the saying goes, it ain’t over ‘till it’s over!
There’s admittedly not a lot of depth to this film, consisting as it does largely of pursuit and violence. But as a nightmarish chase through a surreal landscape it’s in a class by itself. Stripped-down, no-nonsense filmmaking is Walter Hill’s forte, here compounded by a facility for atmospheric horror. This may be an action movie, but it often feels downright gothic, with the beautifully photographed bayou landscapes, underscored by Ry Cooder’s low key honky-tonk music, providing an eerie counterpoint to the violent action.
And the action IS violent: this is one of the bloodiest of Walter Hill’s films (rumor has it that for years SOUTHERN COMFORT was kept off the shelves of Blockbuster Video because of the violence quotient), particularly in the final scenes, containing a pig killed and skinned (for real), a knife to the balls and a bayonet to the gut.
There are some sharp performers in the all-male cast, including Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, Brion James and Peter Coyote. None of the characters are especially memorable or unique, existing essentially to be picked off. But again, Walter Hill’s films have never been renowned for their complexity, and as an example of skilled and unpretentious action-horror SOUTHERN COMFORT represents Hill at his absolute best.
Director: Walter Hill
Producer: David Giler
Screenplay: Michael Kane, Walter Hill, David Giler
Cinematography: Andrew Laszlo
Editing: Freeman Davies
Cast: Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, T.K. Carter, Franklyn Seales, Lewis Smith, Les Lannom, Peter Coyote, Alan Autry, Brion James, Sonny Landham, Allan Graf, Ned Dowd