Southern Comfort (1981)
Southern Comfort (1981)

Genre: Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 46 min.

Release Date: September 25th, 1981 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Walter Hill Actors: Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, Franklyn Seales, T.K. Carter, Lewis Smith, Les Lannom, Peter Coyote, Brion James, Sonny Landham

 


 

I

n 1973, a gathering of Louisiana National Guards arrives in a remote forest for training. Most are undisciplined, rowdy, and disrespectful, engaging in horseplay and showing general disregard for the sergeant in command. Private First Class Spencer (Keith Carradine) has even arranged for prostitutes at the end of the line in Catahoula, for when they emerge from the primordial swamp.

A platoon of nine soldiers, designated Bravo Team, is assigned an overnight recon and patrol mission, during which they must travel in file formation, with maximum use of cover and concealment, and stay alert. But by daylight, they’re already lost. When they come across a collection of canoes, clearly belonging to the indigenous people, they borrow them to traverse a bayou. Having left a note, they’re certain the owners will understand.

But just as they make their way across the water, the Cajun locals return, staring curiously at the departing vessels. Stuckey (Lewis Smith), the most foolish of the lot, jokingly shoots at the onlookers with blanks from his machinegun, inciting return fire that kills Sergeant Poole (Peter Coyote). Having lost their map and radio in the ensuing dash to shore, the remaining soldiers, led by Captain Casper (Les Lannom), load their weapons with real bullets and mull over how to handle the situation. The unpredictable redneck hunters are still roaming the wilderness and setting traps for their prey, while tensions are high amongst the troops; Corporal Charlie Hardin (Powers Boothe), Tyrone Cribbs (T.K. Carter), Reece (Fred Ward), Simms (Franklyn Seales), and Corporal “Coach” Bowden (Carlos Brown) frequently argue over orders and maneuvers.

It’s difficult not to compare “Southern Comfort” to “Deliverance,” due to the setting and antagonists. The thrills are certainly similar, arriving from overconfident, underprepared men wandering into a scenario that turns unexpectedly hostile. But “Southern Comfort” brings a welcome differentiation in the notion of military proficiency (or deficiency) – following orders, observing rank, and maintaining calm – while their precarious circumstances continue to deteriorate. In many ways, it also reflects the horrors of Vietnam, with foreign terrains and unseen enemies (later portrayed with matching severity in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon”). Panic and insanity soon overtake discipline and training; human minds aren’t always prepared for war, even on a small scale. And care is taken to establish that the villains aren’t specifically evil; they’re merely provoked into defending their domain.

“There comes a time when you have to abandon principles and do what’s right.” The environment is perfect for a survivalist thriller, with swamps and fog and dangerous natural elements, while the consistency of suspense is entirely competent. The acting is also convincing, except for Carradine, who doesn’t come across as realistic in the role of the voice of reason. He’s too easygoing and collected. If the purpose is to portray militaristic incompetency with inexperienced leadership always at the ready, the character designs are fine. But fear and paranoia are the predominant factors affecting their stratagems – and yet most of the squad members succumb to reckless ineptness first. The formula actually serves as a sharp template for horror films, with dwindling numbers getting picked off one by one. Excessive behaviors and rash decisions fuel the crumbling of teamwork and morality, until only the strong remain. And even when the survivors reach a momentary point of safety, it’s something of a façade, like the twist endings that populate modern slashers – though here, the finale is superb, not condescending.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10