Walter Hill’s savage survival drama Southern Comfort (1981) sends a platoon of weekend warrior National Guardsman into the Louisiana swamps for a training exercise: not just strangers in a strange land but urban good ‘ol boys with no understanding of the world they’ve blundered into.
To the Cajun swamp folk, the trappers and hunters living on the fringes of society, these men are invaders who trample their camps and steal their boats. And when one of the soldiers lets loose a burst from his weapon, laughing like the class bully after humiliating the new kid, these shadowy swamp dwellers defend themselves, becoming a guerilla strike force waging a war of terror on the utterly unprepared toy soldiers. They don’t know that it’s just blanks in those guns but it likely wouldn’t matter if they did. They’ve been attacked and they will respond. Wise guy Keith Carradine and new guy Powers Boothe are the only soldiers smart enough to understand that they are way out of their depth after their commander (Peter Coyote) is killed.
Set in 1973, you can’t miss the Vietnam allegory: underprepared American soldiers get lost in the foliage and outmaneuvered by a guerrilla army coordinating a campaign of terror while remaining hidden in the jungle. Hill doesn’t overplay the symbolism and he keeps the focus on the dynamics of undisciplined battle virgins tearing their unit apart from fear, arrogance, and a misplaced sense of vengeance.
It also shares DNA with Deliverance, another film about city boys with guns who take their sense of ownership and entitlement into the wilderness, threaten the locals, and end up hunted by them. But where John Boorman’s primal thriller turns his Appalachian backwoods men into brutal outlaws who take pleasure in stalking the city invaders, Hill and Giler keep their Cajun soldiers hidden, seen as figures in the distance or blurs running behind the trees, ghosts on the fringes of sight. Ry Cooder’s eerie and haunting score only intensifies the paranoia as the city boys flail around lost in the swamp.
Fred Ward, Lewis Smith, and T.K. Carter are other members of the dwindling squad and Brion James (Blade Runner fame) co-stars as a one-armed Cajun they take captive.
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Southern Comfort [Blu-ray+DVD Combo]
Southern Comfort [DVD]
The Blu-ray+DVD Combo Pack from Shout! Factory presents the new HD master on both discs but the Blu-ray of course features superior clarity and richness of color. Both are clean, strong images while the Blu-ray shows off excellent detail. New to this release in an original 27-minute featurette with new interviews with actors Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Lewis Smith, and Peter Coyote and, on low-resolution video via Skype, director Walter Hill and producer David Giler, who collaborated on the script with Hill.