Director Walter Hill has always hesitated to say that his 1981 action-thriller Southern Comfort is about Vietnam, but the movie clearly isn’t not about it. Set in 1973, Southern Comfort follows a group of Louisiana National Guardsmen who go out on a time-wasting training exercise, and soon get lost deep in the bayou, among Cajun swamp-dwellers who start out merely wary, then quickly turn hostile. The parallels between the movie and the war are plain, as a mission turns sour, and American soldiers are left with difficult strategic and ethical choices to make, facing indigenous people who didn’t invite them in and don’t want them to stay. Then, amping up the Vietnam allegory even further, Hill and his producer/co-writer David Giler arm their heroes with blanks.
Hill isn’t wrong to duck the Vietnam comparisons, though, because it does a disservice to Southern Comfort to think of it as just a metaphor. For one thing, the movie is equally notable as an exercise in genre-bending. Though the main characters are soldiers—or, more accurately, weekend warriors who joined the Guard to get out of going overseas—Southern Comfort is more like Sam Fuller’s lean, story-driven “men on a mission” war movies than any grand military adventure. It also has a lot in common with the morally complex 1950s Westerns of Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, Howard Hawks, and John Ford, where groups of people with conflicting personalities and goals try to make their way through lawless territory. And once the Cajuns start laying traps for the guardsmen, Southern Comfort becomes like a 1980s slasher film, with the soldiers getting killed in increasingly creative and gruesome ways.
Beyond its genre roots and its deeper meanings, Southern Comfort is a well-honed study of characters and setting. After the patrol gets lost, the dim-witted prankster Pvt. Stuckey (played by Lewis Smith) fires a magazine of blanks at some locals, who respond by shooting the leader of the patrol (Peter Coyote) in the head. Left rudderless, the men are divided about how to proceed, as the sarcastic know-it-all Pvt. Spencer (Keith Carradine) and the incredulous newcomer Cpl. Hardin (Powers Boothe) stand aloof from their more violent and short-sighted colleagues. Unlike the multi-ethnic “brothers in arms” version of the military in most war movies, Southern Comfort is about men of different races and classes who don’t really know or even like each other. As Hardin grumbles to Spencer early on, his cohorts are “the same dumb rednecks I’ve been around my whole life.” Hill, Giler, and their third screenwriting partner, Michael Kane, have a real feel for how these guys interact, not-so-gently teasing each other about their hobbies and their football teams, expressing contempt first through passive-aggressive ribbing, then through physical violence.
The fact that all this takes place in a swamp could be read as yet another clever extension of the Vietnam parallel—literalizing the “morass” that was the war. The setting also gives Hill an excuse to set up striking low-angle and high-angle shots of men mucking their way through shallow, misty water, while sun dapples intermittently through a thicket of tall trees. Southern Comfort has often been compared to Deliverance, due largely to the way Hill makes the location for his man-against-nature/man-against-man drama look beautiful and forbidding. (Ry Cooder’s rootsy score helps solidify the Deliverance comparison.) But the focus on where exactly Southern Comfort’s story plays out is what makes the movie more than just a tale of Vietnam-by-proxy. In a retrospective documentary included on Shout! Factory’s new DVD/Blu-ray set, Hill says that on day one of the shoot, he told his cast not to bother him with questions about Vietnam, as it related to their characters or to the film’s narrative arc. “We’re stuck in the swamp,” Hill said, “And you’re who you are.” Even if it had no other resonances, Southern Comfort would still work on that primal level.
The lone extra of note is the above-mentioned half-hour look back, featuring interviews with Hill, Giler, Carradine, Boothe, Coyote, and Smith. All the actors talk about the harsh conditions of the shoot, yet remember the experience fondly, because they felt a sense of camaraderie, and because they respected how Hill was turning this material into his own weird kind of Western, meant to “punch holes in male archetypes,” to paraphrase Carradine. And while Hill once again shrugs off the Vietnam question, he doesn’t mind admitting that every movie he makes—be it an urban crime story like The Warriors or an out-and-out oater like The Long Riders—offer variations on the same themes. “Writers and directors only know a few stories,” Hill says. “They just look for different ways to tell them.”