Walter Hill’s Cajun siege picture, for a long time barely registering on the cultural radar, for cinephiles now sits nicely in the highly influential late 70’s-early 80’s period of Hill’s filmography. At once a retelling of the wolfpack themed pictures Hill nearly perfected around this time ('Alien', 'The Warriors', 'The Long Riders'), but also sharp allegory to American foreign policy, 'Southern Comfort', like all of Hill’s films resonates on multiple levels – historical and social commentary, cinematic legacy and a good old fashioned movie thrills.
Southern Comfort (1981) dir. Walter Hill
Starring: Keith Carradine, Powers Booth, Fred Ward, T.K. Carter, Peter Coyote
By Alan Bacchus
Southern Comfort comes at the end of a unique period in the Walter Hill’s career, the 70’s cinematic mentality of character-based genre films with a socio-political conscience. After penning a number of early 70’s thrillers, including Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway and after his directorial debut in 1975’s Hard Times, Walter Hill engaged in an impressive run of four films from 1978 to 1981, The Driver, The Warriors, Alien (only written and produced) and Southern Comfort. Each of these pictures influential and memorable in their own ways, but with Southern Comfort unfortunately left off the radar.
In the Shout Factory Blu-Ray special features Hill is self-analytical enough to admit Southern Comfort retells the same story he’s written into many of his other pictures, a pack hunting group of soldiers playing cat and mouse with a largely unseen enemy in a claustrophobic isolating environment. It’s easy to see how the basic elements of Alien and The Warriors get transplanted into Southern Comfort. And yet Hill and his picture exemplifies why this kind of cinematic recycling is essential to the audience’s enjoyment of the film.
Hill’s grey-shaded heroes are comprised of National Guardsmen on a weekend training mission, with each character fitting their archetypal requirement: Peter Coyote as the commanding leader who is killed off early by the gun of a Cajun local; Keith Carradine as the ‘everyman’ who comes to take the lead for the group once the formal chain of command falls apart; Fred Ward and Lewis Smith as the antagonizing brats whose kill-or-be-killed superiority attitude comes at odds with the humane/moralistic side of the group; and T.K. Carter and Franklyn Seales, black men who feel out of place in the often racist white power struggle at play.
Instead of the gang-infested streets of New York or the dark metallic confines of a space ship, Hill’s alien environment here are the swamps of the Louisiana Bayou. Immersive realism is the visual palette employed, Hill’s actors trudge through the muck and water for the entire film, presumably beaten down by the arduous Lousiana heat as well. DP Andrew Laszo and the film’s production designers aid in creating a palette of muted browns and greens, rich compositions framed from the hanging branches of bayou cypress trees down to the eerie still waters of the swamp itself.
It’s a familiar journey and escalation of events which begins with a standard military exercise and quickly turns into real-world battle both internal and external to the group. Hill at times relies too heavily on these archetypal relationships to push the conflict. But Hill’s expertly assembled group of players feels like a who’s who of 1980’s character actors admirably chews every line delivered with gusto. The film also has the misfortune of sitting in the shadow of Deliverance (1972) and First Blood (1982), two superior elemental thrillers made with even greater authenticity and more intense cat and mouse action.
But Hill’s intense third act finale, wherein survivors Carradine and Booth find refuge in a Cajun township and engage in one last fight for survival, is a marvel of visual storytelling and one of the best technically-crafted sequences in his filmography. Ry Cooder’s thumping zydeco jiggy creates a pulsing musical rhythm against which Hill creates his thrilling final confrontation. The scene is influenced from the best of the Western genre sundown showdowns of heroes and villains, and edited with the same Peckinpah-influenced montage style pace of editing Hill would repeat in many of his films. By the time Keith Carradine blows away the terrifically-mustached Sonny Landham at the end our fingers are nails-deep into our armchairs with tension.