Walter Hill’s best films are gritty, no frills explorations of the violent conflict between men, be it the lone gang that has to run a dangerous gauntlet through New York City in The Warriors (1979) or a veteran cop’s relentless pursuit of a ruthless escaped convict in 48 Hrs. (1982). He is also interested in how people forge close bonds under extreme circumstances and this is certainly true of Southern Comfort (1981), a little-seen action film about a squad of National Guardsmen that become lost in the rural bayou country of Louisiana and run afoul of the local Cajun people.
It’s 1973 and the National Guard are out on maneuvers. In his typical economic fashion, Hill introduces a squad of nine men and immediately establishes conflict between some of them, like Staff Sergeant Poole (Peter Coyote) warning recent transfer Corporal Hardin (Powers Boothe) that he won’t tolerate any kind of insubordination. PFC Spencer (Keith Carradine) is a racist and PFC Stuckey (Lewis Smith) is an arrogant prick that gleefully fires his weapon at one of his fellow soldiers (the gun has blanks). They talk tough but as Spencer confides to Hardin, they’re basically a good group of guys.
The squad’s arrogance proves to be their undoing. First, they take three boats that don’t belong to them. Then, when they spot a few Cajun men on the shore, they show nothing but contempt with Stuckey opening fire with his gun full of blanks as a joke. The Cajuns respond by killing their squad leader and all hell breaks loose. This squad of National Guardsmen now have to navigate treacherous terrain against well-armed locals that know it way better than they do. The rest of Southern Comfort plays out as a battle for survival in classic Hill fashion.
Hill establishes the squad a dysfunctional group from the get-go and it only gets worse once they are stuck in the bayou as the men bicker amongst each other. There is even genuine distrust, like when Reece (Fred Ward) refuses to share the box of live ammunition he squirreled away before they set out on their mission. Southern Comfort takes a fascinating look at a group dynamic and how it breaks down under extreme circumstances as one-by-one the Guardsmen are picked off by frighteningly enigmatic antagonists. As the film progresses, they become tired, scared and frustrated by their predicament while some of them crack under the pressure.
Powers Boothe plays one of Hill’s trademark protagonists – a man of few words and who prefers to let his actions speak for themselves. Hardin is an anti-authoritarian type, preferring to go his own way but when it comes down to it his instinct is to survive and help those around him. He’s smart and wisely respects his opponents.
Keith Carradine’s Spencer starts off as something of a crass opportunist but as their situation gets more serious he steps up and becomes one of the few rational voices along with Hardin. He and Boothe make a great team with the former being the chattier of the two and so they play well off each other in their initially contentious relationship that evolves into grudging mutual respect – a common trait among many of Hill’s films.
In a film like this, where the characters are at the mercy of an inhospitable environment, the setting becomes another character – one that we become immersed in as Hill sets a wonderfully atmospheric mood with the opening credits playing over beautiful yet foreboding footage of the bayou while Ry Cooder’s evocative score plays on the soundtrack. The squad constantly slogs through swampy water and danger lurks behind every tree. What makes this environment even more daunting is that it is seemingly never-ending as these men become increasingly lost and disoriented.
Walter Hill made Hard Times (1975) and it had a Cajun sequence in it. Writer David Giler said to the director, “You know, those Cajuns strike me as interesting, tough guys.” The director agreed and Giler suggested that they make an adventure story incorporating them. Hill wanted to do a survival story and had already made Hard Times in Louisiana. Michael Kane was hired to write a draft, but the studio didn’t like it. The project was put into turnaround. Giler and Hill did some more rewriting of their own and found independent financing. The two men had a deal with 20th Century Fox to acquire and develop “interesting, commercial scripts that could be produced cheaply,” as Hill said in an interview. The studio ended up distributing the film.
During the two-day cast rehearsal prior to principal photography, Hill told his actors, “A lot of people will perceive this to be a metaphor for Vietnam. I don’t like to make movies about metaphors … Let’s just go make a movie about guys caught in a situation.” Hill shot Southern Comfort in the swamps in the Castle Lake area outside of Shreveport six days a week for nine grueling weeks. He said, “And just to get out there took this enormous drive, we had to get up four in the morning to be ready to shoot at the crack of dawn.” He remembered that the cast didn’t complain much during filming because they knew what they were all getting into and were in good physical shape. Hill recalled that it was “as tough a movie as I’ve ever done … So often you would get a camera position, you had to get a shot in a couple of minutes before the soft bottom sunk.”
Southern Comfort didn’t cost much but the studio also didn’t spend much promoting it because the subject matter wasn’t deemed all-that commercial. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “The strength of the movie is in its look, in its superb use of its locations, and in Hill’s mastery of action sequences that could have been repetitive.” However, in his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Mr. Hill chooses to photograph his material so self-consciously and so prettily, with lots of slow-motion stuff and superimpositions, that you automatically reach for a bottle of aspirin.”
Unlike many other backwoods movies where the locals are portrayed as dumb hillbillies, Southern Comfort presents the Cajuns as proud people with their own vibrant culture and thriving life nestled away from modern society. Hill doesn’t judge them and does a nice job of immersing us in their culture towards the end of the film so that they are no longer some faceless enemy in the bayou. If anything, it is the arrogant, aggressive Guardsmen that are at fault here and responsible for their own fate. After all, they took what wasn’t theirs and provoked the locals on their own turf.
The cruel irony of Southern Comfort is that infighting and the unforgiving terrain does more to decimate the squad than the local Cajun hunters. At the time, the film was seen as a commentary on the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War – something that Hill has not denied but downplayed. Like the U.S. Army, this squad of National Guardsmen are completely out of their depth and at the mercy of an environment they aren’t equipped to deal with and facing an opponent they don’t understand. Today, we are still mired in war with our troops at the mercy of an equally imposing environment, making Southern Comfort as timely today as it was back in 1981.
Markowitz, Robert. “Visual History with Walter Hill.” DGA.
Rizov, Vadim. “Tough Little Stories: Director Walter Hill at 92Y Tribeca.” Filmmaker. January 29, 2013.
Zelazny, Jon. “Kicking Ass with Walter Hill.” Hollywood Interview. December 8, 2012.