Don’t you love it when you discover a film you’ve never heard of and you end up loving it? It is even better when that gem you’d never heard of also features a cast you adore. Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort is one of those gems. Made in 1981 it was part of deal Hill had with Fox to come up with simple films that could be made for cheap. This is one of the two projects he created, the other being the 1979 masterpiece Alien. Hill’s survivalist thriller was released without fanfare and has sadly remained that way.
The plot is semi based on a true story, although it never acknowledges that. Southern Comfort has a group of nine Louisiana National Guard troops on a training exercise in the swamps of rural bayou country. Shortly into their 24 hour mission, the troops discover that their maps are out of date and there is a river in the way of their goal. Despite a few protests, the guards decide to steal a couple of canoes from the local Cajun settlers. The Cajuns catch up to the troops, and after a misunderstanding the Cajuns open fire on the troops. Now without a map and with no real ammo, the troops have to survive in an unfamiliar land against an angry enemy.
One of the things I instantly fell in love with was the cast. A story of underdogs against more powerful enemies is perfect for a cast made up of acting underdogs. The film stars Powers Booth, Keith Carradine, Fred Ward and Peter Coyote, even in the 80s these guys were underdogs and that hasn’t change. Booth and Carradine are the leads and both are as charismatic as ever, they are intelligent and grounded men stuck in a situation they don’t really belong in and they are easy to sympathise with. Despite this, they are still the ultimate bad-arses and deliver the hurt when it is required of them. Booth especially is an imposing force and his fight scene with Fred Ward is so 80s it’ll have you fist pumping the air and wishing you had a mullet.
I’m not overly familiar with Walter Hill’s work, but I’ve seen enough to confidently say Southern Comfort is his best work. The plot is similar to that of The Warriors, with our heroes trapped on one side of the city (in this case swamp) and required to fight to the other side, all due to a misunderstanding. However, Hill has anchored Southern Comfort in the real-world and his thriller plays out like an eerie Vietnam war film. The finale is where his direction really starts to shine, the tension builds to great heights and Hill’s editing, cinematography and music choices all brilliantly add to it.
Where Southern Comfort falls down is in how standard the story plays out. It is essentially a slasher film, with our troops slowly getting bumped off one by one by a sneaky enemy they can’t see. It makes the film predictable, most viewers will see the twists and turns from a mile away. Another disappointing element was the lack of sacrifice the characters make. It often feels like our characters are getting an easy ride through the swamps, when push comes to shove they are barely challenged and it often feels like they are invincible.
Southern Comfort is an undervalued action thriller that has sadly gone missing. It isn’t the best in its sub-genre, nor is it overly brilliant story-telling. However, Hill makes brave choices with his direction, editing and with the selection Ry Cooder’s outstanding score. These choices could have hurt the film, but instead make it unique and stylistically different from anything I’ve seen. It is short, it is intense and most of the elements work, all of this makes Southern Comfort a film worth seeking out.