Walter Hill's Deep South survival tale is now available on Blu-ray for the first time, so why not join us in revisiting this classic Vietnam War allegory?
Walter Hill was once called the John Carpenter of action movies. Like Carpenter he began his career with an impressive streak of now classic features – The Streetfighter, The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs. – and like Carpenter he has since found himself making increasingly indifferent movies that resemble low-rent pastiches of his early work.
Back in the day, Hill, who in the flesh is a smouldering mass of quiet machismo, was a dab hand at existential action vehicles that always seemed to transcend the genre. Hill himself insists that all his films (with the exception of his lone foray into comedy, Brewster’s Millions) are essentially westerns.
Indeed, he plays down the common assertion that his greatest achievement as a director, 1981's Southern Comfort, is the much-touted Vietnam allegory it so clearly is. It’s typical of Hill to cold shoulder the critical intelligentsia that took him to their bosom in the late '70s and early '80s but the facts expose Hill's mischievous denials.
Southern Comfort’s tale of a Louisiana Army National Guard squad who fall foul of Cajun hunters is set in 1973, the tail-end of the Vietnam War. The film mirrors the grim fag-end of that destructive conflict while the various home-made booby traps set by the hunters are straight out of the Viet Cong handbook.
The war of attrition that is undergone by the guardsmen and the confusion with which they deal with it is also reflective of the experiences of US troops in Southeast Asia. As one National Guardsman says before feeling the full blast of a Cajun shotgun, "I’m not supposed to be here."
On its initial release Southern Comfort was viewed by many as a riff on John Boorman’s back-country nightmare Deliverance – the tagline 'Not since Deliverance...' says it all – but the similarities are tenuous.
For an action film Southern Comfort is atypically talky, relying on engrossing performances, most notably from Peter Coyote's doomed leader to Keith Carradine's somewhat smarmy sergeant to, best of all, Powers Boothe's voice-of-reason everyman.
Despite being dialogue-heavy for much of the runtime, Hill manages to ratchet up the tension for the film's dramatic conclusion. Hill is a fan of quoting Howard Hawks' assertion that the best starting point to defining drama often boils down to 'will he live or will he die?' and he makes this dictum play out for all it’s worth here.
Early claims to Hill being the heir apparent to Sam Peckinpah’s slo-mo action crown are also well founded upon viewing Southern Comfort, but the hellish denouement in a Cajun town is more a triumph of visceral cross-cutting. Hill jigsaws scenes of animal killing (perhaps intentionally reminiscent of Apocalypse Now) with furious native dancing, frantic fiddles and brief but bloody violence to create a nightmarish cacophony of sound and slaughter.
Even when our two remaining heroes make it to the sanctuary of a rescue convoy, no relief or bravado are displayed, such has been the extent of their traumatic ordeal. Echoing Vietnam one last time the last men standing are anything but victorious. The price of their excursion into foreign territory has been both physically and psychologically devastating.
Southern Comfort is out now on Blu-ray courtesy of Second Sight Films.