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. Itís actually a
none-too-disguised ĎNam 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. Heís still around of
course, but itís 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 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
Initially none of the guardsmen know what to do. They
squabble over a few rounds of live ammo held by the assholish Reese;
heís 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 prisonerÖand 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
ainít over Ďtill itís over!
Thereís 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 itís in a class by itself.
Stripped-down, no-nonsense filmmaking is Walter Hillís 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 Cooderís 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 Hillís 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 Hillís 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