The Walter Hill Collection: Southern Comfort Review
Louisiana, 1973. A group of National Guardsmen – plus Corporal Hardin (Powers Boothe), over from Texas – are on a weekend exercise in bayou country. Most of the squad are trigger happy, prone to shooting blanks as a joke, and looking forward to the services of some hookers at the end of it. However, this goes too far when they antagonise some of the local Cajuns. Blanks are fired and they shoot back...killing the Staff Sergeant (Peter Coyote). With their commander dead, and their compass lost in the swamp, the remaining men have a fight for survival on their hands.
The film that Southern Comfort is always compared to is Deliverance. Even the trailer makes the comparison, which is one that Southern Comfort lives up to. In the ranks of films about men trying to survive in rugged countryside, and not be killed by the locals, I'd say it runs Boorman's film a close second. Overtones of Vietnam – presumably the reason for the setting in the recent past – are certainly there for the taking. This is the kind of film that Walter Hill does best: essentially a genre B movie, but told with a muscular economy (though it's a little longer than some of his films, just into a three-digit running time), mixing its intrinsically macho subject matter with an intriguing degree of stylisation. As with The Warriors and The Long Riders, we have a collective, group, protagonist rather than a lone one, though as the film develops Private Spencer (Keith Carradine) and Hardin come to the forefront. A cast of well-chosen actors round out the principal cast: among them relatively early appearances from Fred Ward and Peter Coyote, and also T.K. Carter (who has made a lot of films, but is best remembered for this one and The Thing the following year). As the chief antagonist, Brion James – always an effective heavy - makes a strong impression behind a thick beard and a just-as-thick Cajun accent.
Shot entirely on location, Southern Comfort was a gruelling experience for its cast and crew, and some of that physicality comes across on screen. Andrew Laszlo's photography, often utilising the mist in the swamps, is first-rate. Ry Cooder's score, making tremendously atmospheric use of his slide guitar, is excellent as well. Freeman Davies's editing adds a lot to the film's impact.
With a film like this, you expect it to pay off in its action scenes, and it does. Hill brings off a suitably nasty scene with a mantrap and a dog attack. The sequence near the end, with the two survivors (I won't reveal who they are) in a Cajun village is a masterclass in cross-cutting, building up tension despite the surface jollity – singing, dancing, zydeco music. (Viewers should be advised that this sequence contains footage of animal slaughter.) The ending is abrupt and somewhat open-ended, undercutting any triumphalism with something potentially more menacing.
The next film Hill made was 48HRS, a sizeable hit best remembered for being Eddie Murphy's debut. It remains one of the best films Murphy has ever made – and the attention given to him means that Nick Nolte's contribution is often overlooked. It was a sizeable hit, and put Hill on the A-list of directors,. Meanwhile, Hollywood was changing, and the results were not always happy for Hill.
Part of the StudioCanal catalogue, Southern Comfort is reissued by Optimum as part of their six-film Walter Hill Collection box set. The disc is a DVD-5 encoded for Region 2 only.
The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. It's a better transfer than those of some of the earlier films in this set, solid and strongly coloured. There is some grain, but nothing untoward, and shadow detail is good.
Southern Comfort was released in cinemas in mono, the last of Hill's film's where this was the case. That mono soundtrack is the one on this DVD. It's just fine, with dialogue, music and sound effects well balanced. No doubt if the film were made now, a 5.1 mix would make much use of the ambience, but Southern Comfort was made a few years before Dolby soundtracks became ubiquitous and we have to respect that. I'm more bothered by the fact that Optimum seem to have a policy of not providing any subtitles on their English-language DVDs.
The theatrical trailer is 4:3 and runs 2:02. It's very much an “in-the-tradition-of” piece, dropping the names of Deliverance, Midnight Express and Apocalypse Now in its first thirty seconds. Also on the disc are trailers for other Optimum releases: Don't Look Now, The Killing Fields and The Deer Hunter.
8 out of 10
9 out of 10
8 out of 10
1 out of 10