Southern Comfort (1981) a (very) belated review

It’s been a while since last I posted some of my old blog entries.  Here is my (very belated) review of Southern Comfort, originally posted on July 27, 2010.  I have updated and clarified some of my thoughts:

For the most part, I love the films of director Walter Hill.  To the very casual movie-goer, his name probably doesn’t evoke much of a reaction, but his first seven films as a director, starting with his 1975 feature Hard Times and working his way to 1984’s under-appreciated Streets of Fire, this man was…well…on fire.  Those films firmly tread on the concept of myth and his characters, both heroes and villains, were always larger than life.  Today, he may be better known as the producer of the Alien films, and yes, he is listed as a producer on the highly anticipated Prometheus.

Coming out in 1981, Southern Comfort appeared the year before Mr. Hill’s biggest hit as a director, 48 Hours.  I recall, albeit vaguely, it was at best a modest success.  A few of the critics pointed out that the film was very similar, at least thematically, to the 1972 film Deliverance.  In fact, if there was a reason to dismiss Southern Comfort, that was it.  Deliverance, both the novel and the subsequent film, were (and still are) considered classics.  And when you decide to tread in the shadow of classics, you damn well better bring your “A” game.

I don’t know if I saw the film when it was originally released, but if I did, the only lingering memory of it was the climax, and this could well have been a result of a subsequent televised viewing.  Being a fan of Mr. Hill’s and seeing the film being shown on a cable channel (uncut), I set the DVR and, some four or five months later, I’ve finally had a chance to see the film all the way through.  It was the last of those seven original Hill films left for me to see, and I was eager for the opportunity to gauge it against my favorite Walter Hill films (The Driver; The Warriors, and the already mentioned Streets of Fire).

So, how did it stack up?

Not all that badly, as it turned out.

To begin, yes there are strong echoes of Deliverance throughout Southern Comfort.  And, to be very blunt, Deliverance is the superior film.  Far superior.  If similarities in themes between films bother you and you’re also a fan of Deliverance, there is a good chance that you may not enjoy this film.

Like Deliverance, Southern Comfort presents us with a group of weekend warriors (in this case, they quite literally are weekend warriors…they’re National Guardsmen).  As with Deliverance, our group travels off into the dark places just outside civilization.  And as with Deliverance, the group faces off against both the forces of nature and the shady locals.  This place is their playground, and our protagonists are clearly out of their element.

The biggest difference between the films is that while Deliverance was a story about self-confident city folk who head out to the woods with their brand new shiny state of the art hunting gear (in other words, they are poseurs) and find themselves quickly in over their heads in their rural location, Southern Comfort delivers more of a parable of the United States’ war in Vietnam.  The “weekend warriors” head out to the woods on a training mission and are equipped with fearsome weapons…all loaded with blanks.  They intrude into a land with its own rules, where the people speak their own language and have their own culture.  As the terrain shifts and these testosterone filled individuals get lost, things quickly become muddled.  The National Guard group unit we follow are barely a cohesive unit.  The individual members push things this way and that and, ultimately, the troubles they encounter are of their own making.  Going along with the whole Vietnam analogy, they have no real mission other than survival and the enemy is literally as much a part of the scenery as the deadly swamps they’re stuck in.

Powers Boothe, a sadly under-appreciated actor, simmers in the role of Cpl. Charles Hardin.  While his actions within this film aren’t always right, he more than anyone else becomes aware of the gravity of their situation.  Keith Carradine plays Pfc. Spencer, a good-natured “city boy” presented as almost the polar opposite of the more intense Hardin.  In this case, the near opposites form a strong bond and they eventually realize they have to work together or fall apart.

Southern Comfort, in the end, is an enjoyable Walter Hill film, again provided the similarities to the superior Deliverance don’t become too big a burden to the viewer.  While the action comes in spurts, the tension is well maintained and the dialogue is very snappy.  A highlight is the building, and final, confrontation between Boothe’s Hardin and Fred Ward’s Cpl. Lonnie Reece while the movie most fumbles with the way, way too-fast decomposure of Cpl. ‘Coach’ Bowden.

Still, the film is very much worth a look.