Walter Hill is one of the manliest directors of my lifetime, or any lifetime. He’s made a career out of telling tales of gunslingers, cops, criminals, and loners, and I instinctively respond to his particular brand of tough guy cinema. Southern Comfort is one of my favorite efforts from Hill, a totally nasty and rather disturbing tale of backwoods terror; it would pair extremely well with Deliverance on a double bill. Released in 1981, the film was co-written by Hill, Michael Kane, and David Giler, and features a surly and macho cast consisting of Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, Peter Coyote, T.K. Ward, Franklyn Seales, Lewis Smith, Les Lannom, Brion James, and Sonny Landham, and concerns a group of Louisianan Army National Guard members who are doing routine weekend combat drills in the bayou, and who become the prey of a band of local Cajuns who aren’t impressed with fatigue-clad and rifle-toting visitors in their backyard.
After a misunderstanding leads to a murder, all hell breaks loose, with the added twist that the good guys are carrying guns loaded only with blanks. This is a rather terrifying actioner, with a final sequence of violent confrontations that definitely get the blood pumping and the pulse racing. Setting the film during the latter portion of the Vietnam War also added a level of subversive topicality to the narrative, while the film has a purposefully grimy visual style courtesy of cinematographer Andrew Laszlo, which stressed the damp and grubby environment. It genuinely hurts when people get shot and stabbed in this movie; not a moment in the fleet running time is wasted. Despite the film not making much money in theaters, it has certainly attained the label of cult classic, and was somewhat recently released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory. Apparently, the Iranian government heavily edited and altered the film’s narrative for release in that country, turning it into an anti-American military statement.
Review by Nick Clement