Walter Hill, a name which sits beside many of the 1980s more memorable franchises, heads up the sadly misconstrued survival thriller ‘Southern Comfort’, a movie which blends tension and vulnerability, with humility and artistic cinematography in an unmissable allegory of the Vietnam War.
A carefully chosen cast – all poignant supporting actors in their own right – play a platoon of reluctant National Guardsman who find themselves under attack in an unknown land on home soil, as they battle with poor supplies against an enemy they struggle to understand. After a prank is misinterpreted by the Cajun locals as an act of hostility, the platoon, who are on a routine training exercise in the Louisiana swamps armed mainly with blanks, find themselves relentlessly hunted as they struggle against the environment, infighting and their own sanity.
The tension throughout the movie is gripping, with Hill pacing his movie thoughtfully to include several set pieces which have clearly influenced many movies since. You will struggle to watch the movie without drawing parallels to more famous movies including Rambo and to some extent Predator whose group dynamics and dialogue mimic those of the platoon, and the ‘boy scout’ scenes towards the end are reminiscent to some of the perils in this movie.
The movie is violent in parts, much more so than ‘Deliverance’, a movie which ‘Southern Comfort’ is so frequently compared with, and seeing’s as each character’s carefully developed personality is key to the group’s overall survival, each visceral death ensures the emotional response of the viewer mimics the diminishing morale of the platoon. Contact with the hunters is kept to a minimum with out of focus and long distance shots being all we are given, keeping all the focus on the platoon, who, despite their frequent obnoxious behaviour seem to be innocent victims in a situation which spirals well beyond anything they deserve.
The characters are contrasting; however, when in the swamp they appear bonded, sharing a commonality which would only be apparent in an environment as alien to them as they are to each other. Their own hang-ups become apparent and ultimately costly, but however irresponsible or arrogant their attitude you are rooting for them. A meaningful dialogue, both poignant in delivering a message reflecting racial tensions of the time and petty social clashes with a dry, subtle wit is a reflection of the strong writing team hired to script ‘Southern Comfort’ and gives each character a purpose – each member of the platoon was needed to make this movie work. No cannon fodder to be found here.
I could not close the review without mentioning the attention to detail. Filmed on location, the atmosphere of the environment is faithfully captured, with many of the scenes, even within the movies most harrowing moments, dominated by the cold, isolating beauty of the Louisiana swampland. Sobering soundtracks, comprised of traditional Cajun instruments helps to draw you in ensuring that whilst viewing you too are lost within the swampland.
Overall, ‘Southern Comfort’ is a movie so many still hold in high esteem; and quite rightfully so, it is a welcome trip back to a decade when a few American movies actually were worth more than just a one night stand. If you’re already a fan, Second Sight’s Blu-Ray release containing the lengthy documentary with Walter Hill ‘Will He Live or Will He Die’ documentary is essential for wanting to know even more about ‘Southern Comfort’s’ influences and development, making this release more than just a visual upgrade. For new fans, think ‘Deliverance’ with guns and go get it!