Classic Review – Southern Comfort (1981)


Southern Comfort

Directed by Walter Hill

Starring Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward

Review by Jordan

Is Walter Hill the most under-appreciated director of all time? If not, he would come very close. The Warriors and 48 Hrs. proudly rest in my Top 30 Films of all Time, Streets of Fire is a rare action oddity and The Driver a cool, cult classic. Then there’s Southern Comfort, a film so remarkably tense, captivating and harsh its a crime its not more widely regarded… this is me doing my small part to rectify that.

Set in the late 70’s, Southern Comfort sees a troupe of National Guards sent into the Louisiana swamps on a routine training exercise, but when they decide to ‘borrow’ some canoes resting on the water bank this harmless expedition turns into a blood-curdling fight for survival, as the local Cajuns take to their intrusion in an extremely hostile fashion. The squad lose their map, radio and the canoes and must fight not only these invisible assassins but also survive each other if they are to make it back alive. This would be a lot easier if their rifles weren’t loaded with blanks.

In many ways the basic premise of Hill’s brutal masterpiece is similar to that of The Warriors, in that it involves a gang of men caught behind enemy lines defying the odds in order to reach safety, but this is an example of a film transcending the trappings of a genre and thriving as an unequivocally  established classic. Deliverance (1972) also seems to be mentioned regularly as a survival horror sibling, despite the fact the two really are polar opposites in the core messages they emit; in Deliverance its clear to see who the inhospitable and vile villains are, in Southern Comfort, its not quite so black and white. It is the Guardsmen who steal the canoes of the Cajuns, before firing an automatic weapon (blanks) at them in a despicable action of insult and burning down a shack; as the tagline says: ‘It’s the land of hospitality… unless you don’t belong there.’ These men certainly don’t, and they don’t help themselves.

If the first 80 minutes are enough to paint the knuckles white, the last 20 have the ability to leave you swimming in a pool of sweat with the hairs on the back of you neck standing so erect you could pierce holes in your pillow when laying down to (Attempt) to sleep. If this period of the film echos anything it is The Wicker Man (1973), Robin Hardy’s astonishing tale of justified paranoia and man’s mortal futility, and ultimately the final shot exists as fuel, encouraging the viewer’s either dark or optimistic imagination to decide the fate of those that make it (if any make it at all).

Another element that demands recognition is Ry Cooder’s intricately sinister guitar score, a composition that gradually morphs from complimenting the natural wilderness to becoming the aural incarnation of its dangers. The wilderness itself is expertly handled also, filmed to appear claustrophobic and treacherous even in its greatest clearings, an absolute necessity in creating tension and a believability of hopelessness. If the film has one flaw, it is indeed the unavoidable one that none of the characters are fleshed out to an extent a deep emotional connection can be made; we have a funny guy, a crazy guy, a new guy and a reluctant leader… the fundamentals of any war film (many claim Southern Comfort to be an allegory of the conflict in Vietnam), though while I do recognize this as a flaw I also believe taking this journey with complete strangers only adds to the increasing feeling of unease and authenticity.

Ultimately, its simple; if you are yet to see this film, do so now. Right now. I picked up a brand new copy for $3. Best investment I’ve ever made.

5 one armed ‘prisoners’ out of 5

souther comfort movie

14 responses to “Classic Review – Southern Comfort (1981)

    • Yeah it really is a shame just how unseen this movie is! Hill and his films deserve far more credit than they get, even 48Hrs doesn’t get the respect it deserves I don’t think.

  1. A fantastic review of one of my favourites (even if the pig-killing at the end always turns me over). Great to see it still being watched and appreciated for the knuckle-whitening classic that it is.

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