Survivalist Slapstick: Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) – Blu-ray review
The marketing will tell you this is a tense, terse action thriller – but it’s more fun viewed as a hilarious takedown of America’s muddled, macho part-timers.
(Walter Hill, 1981)
At school in the early 1990s, I was a member of the Combined Cadet Force – it was either that or the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. It wasn’t the endless marching or parades that I enjoyed, but the vicarious thrill of going on exercise patrols, as we hunted down “Saddam’s men” (translation: the older kids) armed with nothing more than blanks. Admittedly, I was clueless. I fell asleep on sentry duty, and nearly shot a fellow pupil in the back of the head because I didn’t empty my chamber properly. But because it wasn’t real, it was fun.
So I can sympathise with the protagonists of Southern Comfort, National Guardsmen whose hopes of a faux-military doss-around come unstuck when they accidentally cause a local war with Cajun hillbillies. Walter Hill’s film has been underrated for a long time, seen variously as a low-rent Deliverance or a laboured metaphor for Vietnam (why else is this 1981 film set in 1973?). Arguably, those criticisms have a point… but as a piece of survivalist slapstick about the ineptitude of wannabe soldiers, it’s pretty much bang on.
In Britain, there’s a grand tradition of using our equivalent of the National Guard, the Territorial Army, as shorthand for a certain breed of character: deluded dumbasses, essentially. See Mike Watt in Spaced or Gareth Keenan in The Office for good examples of the type. America sees these things as more sacred, especially when there’s a greater likelihood of actually seeing active service (say, in Vietnam), so it’s doubly funnier to see Hill puncture their pretensions.
What’s striking about Southern Comfort is how little the rednecks actually have to do. The sheer threat of something bad happening turns the lost patrol into headless chickens, travelling blind through the swamps of the Louisiana bayou without clear direction or leadership. Hostility amongst the group simmers throughout, thinly-veiled racism governs the group’s attitude to their hunters and even the would-be voices of reason – Keith Carradine’s Spencer and Powers Boothe’s Hardin – are cynical smart-arses who tend to bitch to each other about their comrades than actually taking the initiative.
The idea you can mould a close-knit group on a glorified holiday becomes a bleak, bitter joke; a counterpoint to Hill’s previous film, The Warriors, and also an extension of the class divide amongst the crew of the Nostromo in the Hill-scripted Alien. This is a filmmaker who excels in showing men under pressure, because he’s largely resistant to the idea of heroism. Given half a chance, men will behave like idiots; let them play-act at being heroes, and it’s practically certain. Southern Comfort is, in part, an explanation for why the star of Alien was a woman.
The sense of ironic isolation is exaggerated by the location, because swamps aren’t exactly the best place to put down a film camera. Hill is forced into brusque, tight shots with as many men crammed in as will reasonably fit, or else he tracks them from afar. Alongside Ry Cooder’s droll, incongruously laidback score, it creates a sense of distance that helps to replaces tension with desperate farce. Only in the final act does Hill stop joking and make the film genuinely nail-biting, but against such a surreal, unexpected backdrop that, even as it achieves narrative closure, the film continues to pose more interesting questions than is common for a straight-up action movie.