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Southern Comfort (1981)

September 29th, 2006 · 1 Comment

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A Louisiana National Guard unit led by Peter Coyote set off on a training exercise through the bayou backwoods. They’re joined by a corporal from El Paso (Powers Boothe) who was kicked out of the Texas National Guard and has a general distaste for rednecks.

Also along for the maneuver is a sharp wit (Keith Carradine) who has arranged some female companionship for the weekend warriors. T.K. Carter plays a dope dealer, while Alan Autry is a straight laced football coach. Fred Ward, who would soon go on to many blue collar hero roles, was cast as a corporal with a serious Don’t Fuck Wit’ Me attitude.

In the middle of nowhere, Coyote realizes their route has transformed into a marsh. Rather than go around, Ward suggests they borrow some Cajun’s pirogue canoes. Coyote balks, but Ward and several others don’t let military chain of command deter them. Once on the water, they spot three Cajun hunters on the shore. Autry tries to communicate their intentions, but a yahoo (Lewis Smith) decides it would be funny to fire on the strangers with the blanks loaded into his M-60.

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Not only are the hunters not amused, they’re armed with real buckshot, and return fire, killing one of the Guardsmen before disappearing into the swamp. With their map and radio lost and a very limited supply of live ammo, the men try to make it back to civilization. Divisions quickly open up, and they discover the hunters are following them.

Directed by Walter Hill, from a screenplay by Michael Kane and Hill & David Giler, Southern Comfort was compared to Deliverance on its release, but it’s really a superior example of the action thriller sub-genre you could call Ten Little Indians. Alien (which Hill & Giler script doctored and produced) would be the epitome of this formula, where characters are stranded in a remote location, then killed off one by one.

Instead of being a formulaic thriller, the film takes place in 1973 and issues a subtle critique on Vietnam. On several occasions, the lost unit has the opportunity to communicate with the locals (though Carradine’s high school French is mostly incompatible with Creole). Instead, they are led awry by a trigger happy moron, a psycho out for payback, and by a green sergeant (Les Lannom) intent on interrogations and contraband seizures in the middle of the swamp.

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The script does a brilliant job of breaking down each of the patrol’s men psychologically, and has them react to live combat in different ways. Carradine and Boothe find themselves the only rational men left, but the latter doesn’t want to risk a court martial by taking command, while Boothe has too much contempt for the military to issue orders. Another member of the unit goes nuts, one proves to be a coward, while another loses control of his emotions at the wrong time.

Ry Cooder composed and performed a sparse but effective blues guitar score, while the climax – where the two survivors make their way to a crowded picnic, complete with Creole cooking, music and dancing, only to discover they’re not out of the woods yet – is handled just beautifully by Hill. Hollywood routinely exaggerates the hick factor when making rural movies, but Southern Comfort was made by intelligent adults with a real affinity for Cajun country and culture.

The late Brion James is featured as a one-armed coon ass taken prisoner by the unit. The way his person and property are treated by each of the men pretty much seals whether they have the composure to make it out of the situation alive. Highly recommended.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Barney // Jan 4, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    I saw this at Fort bragg, NC back when it first came out. I was a Sargeant in the 82nd Airborne Division about 20 years old. It was awsome then and I still consider it to be one of the best low budget/B type movies that I have ever seen.
    I Was sent to guard units off and on to train their soldiers during there anual 2 week training stints. This movie is a great representation of what I had to deal with. The real guard units actually brought Army trucks Full of beer to the woods with them. They were like boy scouts.
    I am fairly sure that a sequel was actually made. I cannot remember the Title. But, if memory holds true, it was set somewhere in Pensylvania and was a sort of rematching of southern guard units and northern guard units. personal vendeta stuff and strictly off the military records. I have been looking for it with no luck. Maybe I am wrong about the sequel.
    Still, Southern comfort is an old favorite of mine.Deffinitly worth watching!

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