Walter Hill is more than just a gifted director of action films. His best work explores the male psyche with an ambition you don’t often see in the action genre: beneath the action scenes and pulp plots, films like The Warriors, 48 Hrs. and Hard Times show how men can come into conflict over differing interpretations of what it is to be a man, even when they are allied for the same purpose. His most unique exploration of the male psyche and its many facets is Southern Comfort: ostensibly a survival thriller in the Deliverance vein, it shows how different types of men respond in unique ways to a life-and-death situation.
The protagonists of Southern Comfort are a group of National Guardsman executing a training maneuver in the Louisiana swamps. Despite the even-handed leadership of commanding officer Poole (Peter Coyote), the group is often at odds with each other due to their differing personalities: the group’s ranks include sarcastic yet mellow Spencer (Keith Carradine), by-the-book prig Bowden (Alan Autry), standoffish new guy Hardin (Powers Boothe), mean jokester Stuckey (Lewis Smith) and Reece (Fred Ward), a good ol’ boy with a bad temper.
The group run into trouble when they discover their maps are out-of-date due to recent storms and they decide to borrow a couple of abandoned canoes. The rural Cajun trappers who own the canoes spot them, sparking Stuckey to pull a joke where he fires off some blanks in their direction. This prank has a tragic outcome that leaves the men on the run in unknown territory. They try to fight their way back to civilization as their ranks dwindle and their foes get ever more ruthless.
The result is bracing stuff that blurs genre boundaries as it uses its simple but crafty plot as a springboard for commentary on a variety of ideas. Southern Comfort is often singled out as a Vietnam War allegory. Hill denies this idea but there’s a lot in the film that lends itself to such a reading: the Guardsmen could be seen as a microcosm of the American forces in the Vietnam War, ill-prepared to contend with an enemy that has the advantages of home territory and guerrilla-fighter ruthlessness. Even worse, they are hobbled by ill-prepared leadership and outdated thinking: Spencer or Hardin show instincts that suggest either would be a better leader for the group but the chain of command stifles their individualistic mindsets and causes them to recede from a leadership role.
However, a more interesting reading of Southern Comfort lies in how it depicts the different ways that men to a dangerous situation like warfare. Following this idea, the Guardsmen show a variety of examples of the masculine persona in crisis: men like Bowden lose their sanity when the rules disappear, men like Reece are allowed to let their inner beasts out and some like second-in-command Casper (Les Lannom) cling to their ideals of leadership and order long after the situation have rendered them useless. Only those adaptable, like Spencer, or independent enough to think outside the box, like Hardin, have the necessary ability to work outside their definition of their own masculinity.
However, you don’t need to indulge in such readings to enjoy Southern Comfort. On its most basic level, it functions as a well-calibrated adventure yarn. Hill and his co-writers supply a nicely textured ensemble of characters to populate the tale and smoothly ratchet up the tension as the story progresses, pacing it with an array of clever plot twists. Hill’s confident direction results in several exciting setpieces – a dog attack, a mano-a-mano knife fight – until the film builds to a nerve-wracking finale that plays like a blend of Hitchcockian suspense and Peckinpah-esque brutality. Andrew Laszlo’s cinematography captures both the beauty and the starkness of the swamp locale and Ry Cooder’s ace score gives it the right rootsy musical backing.
Hill also excels in his choices of cast, resulting in a film where the performances give flavor and dimension to an already exciting plotline. Carradine’s low-key charm serves him well (his deadpan dialogue deliveries are effortlessly brilliant) while Boothe offers a more prickly but no less compelling opposite to counterbalance his work. Ward steals a few scenes with his snarling turn as the meanest of the bunch and Autry is alternately scary and darkly funny as the wild card of the group, prone to panics and ill-timed breakdowns when things get rough. Look out also for cult favorite Brion James in a small but memorable role as a Cajun who is captured and becomes an unwilling guide for the Guardsmen.
In short, Southern Comfort is not only a great Walter Hill film but perhaps his most complex. The multifaceted storyline functions as action film, thriller, black comedy and sometimes even a horror film. It is rich enough to give offer plenty of ideas but ambiguous enough to give you the room to process those ideas for yourself – and a film with that unique duality is worth treasuring.