During the Vietnam War, a squad of National Guardsmen including Hardin (Powers Boothe), a no-nonsense Texan; Reece (Fred Ward), a hunter; and Spencer (Keith Carradine), a sensible private take part in a military training exercise in the swamps of Louisiana. After attempting to steal several canoes and firing blanks at a Cajun, the group members find themselves being hunted by the locals. Scared and unfamiliar with the territory, the men must scramble to escape.
Southern Comfort is an American action/thriller film directed by Walter Hill and written by Michael Kane, and Hill and his longtime collaborator David Giler. It stars Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, T. K. Carter, Franklyn Seales, and Peter Coyote. The film, set in 1973, features a Louisiana Army National Guard squad of nine on weekend maneuvers in rural bayou country as they antagonize some local Cajun people and become hunted.
A squad of National Guards on an isolated weekend exercise in the Louisiana swamp must fight for their lives when they anger local Cajuns by stealing their canoes. Without live ammunition and in a strange country, their experience begins to mirror the Vietnam experience.
A squad of nine Louisiana National Guard soldiers convene in a Louisiana swamp for weekend maneuvers. Joining the squad is Corporal Hardin (Boothe), a cynical transfer from the Texas National Guard, who quickly becomes disgusted with the behavior and arrogance of the men. A professional engineer and a married man in his civilian life, he wants no part of a date with prostitutes that PFC Spencer (Carradine) has arranged for the men. Nevertheless, he is befriended by the amiable Spencer, the two seeming to agree that they are the only level-headed soldiers in the squad.
The squad sets out on patrol and soon gets disoriented. They come across a campsite with several pirogues, seemingly left temporarily abandoned. They will need to turn back unless they steal the pirogues and continue on. Making the difficult decision to do so, the squad leader, Staff Sergeant Poole (Peter Coyote) orders the squad into three pirogues and ride across the swamp. As the squad sets out, a group of Cajun trappers return and yell at the soldiers for having taken their pirogues. In response, PFC Stuckey jokingly fires blanks from his M-60 machine gun at the trappers. The trappers dive for cover and return fire, killing Poole and sending the squad into a frenzy as they make their way to safety.
Sgt. Casper (Les Lannom), the strict, yet inexperienced and unpopular second-in-command, orders the squad to continue the "mission." After burying Poole, the squad discovers that Cpl. Lonnie Reece (Ward) secretly brought along a box of live ammunition for hunting purposes. Casper divides the ammo evenly amongst the squad in order to better their chances of defense. Upon reaching the shack of a one-armed French-only speaking local Cajun hunter and trapper (Brion James), Casper orders he be placed under arrest. An emotionally unstable soldier, Cpl. "Coach" Bowden (Carlos Brown), then uses a jar filled with gasoline to burn the shack igniting the explosives inside, blowing up the house.
The soldiers begin to feel more threatened. Hearing the barking of dogs, they hope they are about to be rescued. However, the dogs belong to the Cajuns who are now hunting the soldiers because of Stuckeys actions. Fending off the dog attacks with their rifle butts, the squad begins to realize that lethal traps have been set for them. Pvt. Tyrone Cribbs (T.K. Carter) walks into one, a spear bed built into a spring released cradle frame, and is speared to death. Cribbs and Poole are buried before the squad camps for the night. In the morning, Hardin sees Reece trying to get the captured Cajun to talk by dunking his head in the swamp. The two soldiers get into a fight. The Cajun directs Hardins attention to a nearby tree and tells him to kill Reece. Hardin takes a bayonet and stabs Reece against the tree, finally killing him. The Cajun prisoner escapes and the squad buries Reece.
Spotting a helicopter overhead, the soldiers frantically try to get its attention. Stuckey becomes separated from the squad and slips into quicksand in the process. Failing in their attempt to attract the helicopters attention, increasingly angry at Caspers ineptitude, Spencer takes charge of the squad, which then splits up to search for Stuckey, to no avail. A Cajun position is spotted, and Casper fixes his bayonet to his rifle and charges, only to be shot dead. Simms arrives on the scene and breaks down over the situation, only to be shot dead as well.
The remaining trio of Spencer, Hardin and the addled Bowden (who has been disarmed and tied up) escape and camp for the night. They awaken at mornings light by a freight train and discover train tracks nearby. Bowden is hanging in a noose from the bridge, and the escaped Cajun prisoner appears on the tracks overhead. Now speaking fluent English, he warns Spencer and Hardin to leave the Cajuns territory while they still can, giving them directions on how to get out. He possibly spared Spencer and Hardin as they were the only two who came to his rescue when Simms slugged him and when Reece water-tortured him.
Heeding the advice, Spencer and Hardin hitch a ride with a Cajun couple who take them to a pig roast in a nearby Cajun village. As Spencer happily mixes with the villagers, a wary Hardin sees a group of trappers arriving - ostensibly in search of them. Hiding out in a shed, Hardin is discovered by the trappers, who shoot and wound him in the arm. After a violent struggle wherein the pair kill a trapper and wound another, they frantically leave the village and re-enter the swamp. As they flee, a helicopter appears overhead and they come upon an unidentified truck driving towards them. The film ends as they see that the truck bears U.S. Army markings.Keith Carradine as PFC Spencer
Powers Boothe as Corporal Hardin
Fred Ward as Corporal Lonnie Reece
Franklyn Seales as PFC Simms
T. K. Carter as PFC Cribbs
Lewis Smith as PFC Stuckey
Les Lannom as Sergeant Casper
Peter Coyote as Staff Sergeant Poole
Alan Autry as Corporal "Coach" Bowden (billed as Carlos Brown)
Brion James as Cajun trapper
Sonny Landham as a hunter
Hill first wrote the script in 1976. At one stage it was known as The Prey.
The plot of Walter Hills earlier film, The Warriors, is based on a barely similar idea, that of a group of warriors who are chased by a large number of enemies through treacherous territory in order to reach their home; in that case, Coney Island. For Southern Comfort, home is English-speaking Louisiana. The literary archetype for this film can be found in the Anabasis of Xenophon. The Anabasis tells the story of the Ten Thousand, a Greek mercenary army that had fought for Cyrus the Younger in his attempt to usurp the throne of the Persian Empire from his brother, Artaxerxes II. When Cyrus died in the Battle of Cunaxa, the Greeks were forced to march through unfamiliar territory in what are now the countries of Iraq and Turkey while frequently being attacked by the people living in those regions.
According to Walter Hill he and David Giler had a deal with 20th Century Fox to "acquire and develop interesting, commercial scripts that could be produced cheaply. Alien (1979) was one of them, and Southern Comfort was another. We wanted to do a survival story, and I’d already done a film in Louisiana."
They hired a writer to do a draft which Giler and Hill then rewrote. According to Hill, "No studio wanted to make it, but an independent guy showed up who had a relationship with Fox. Liked it, said he would finance it."
The movie was shot in Louisiana over 55 days in the Caddo Lake area outside Shreveport. Hill:
We were very aware that people were going to see it as a metaphor for Vietnam. The day we had the cast read, before we went into the swamps, I told everybody, People are going to say this is about Vietnam. They can say whatever they want, but I don’t want to hear another word about it."
The film is supported by an atmospheric soundtrack by longstanding Hill collaborator Ry Cooder. The song "Parlez Nous a Boire," sung during the scene in the Cajun village at the end of the film, was performed by Cajun musician Dewey Balfa. The film includes many actors, including Fred Ward and Peter Coyote, who had one of their first big roles here.
Powers Boothe was cast after Hill and Giler saw him play Jim Jones in the mini series Guyana Tragedy.
Hill said the concept of Keith Carradines character "was that he was one of natures aristocrats - graceful, confident of his own ability and able to separate himself from other people with an amusing remark", whereas the character played by Boothe "is much more the rational, hardworking, self made individual" and as a result "just cannot believe the nature of the situation at first" whereas Carradines can.
Hill later said he enjoyed the experience of making the film but that it was tough:
I was very proud of the actors in it. It was a tough movie to make, and they put up with a lot. They would probably tell you they put up with a lot from me. [Laughs.] But they really did it without complaint. And I just thought I was very fortunate to have the cast that I had. Jesus, it was a hard movie to make... I think when you see the movie you can see that this one wasn’t nightclubs in Vegas. But it was just very hard locations to get in there. Very hard to shoot. I remember so many times we’d only have a few minutes to set the camera because the bottom of the swamp would give way. And so, for your camera positions, you had to stage and shoot very quickly in many cases. It just was hard, and the weather was miserable. However, I will say this: If you choose to go make a movie in a swamp in the middle of winter, you probably deserve what you get. [Laughs.]
Walter Hill said the film was "not a simple action movie where the people chasing the other out there is bad":
It is clearly in a sense the kind of fault of our guys for getting into this situation. In the collective group, there are individuals who are not as highly evolved as the others. And the answers to the dilemma, I mean both natures noblemen, those of higher character through some innate quality. And you have people that operate on a sliding scale downward to the brute level in their response to the situation that they have gotten themselves into. All of which I think is a kind of, war is terrible. Its a wartime situation. With mixed results and accompanying paranoia even by those who are the best and the brightest of the bunch... None of us are quite as good or bad as we construct them. Southern Comfort is trying not to be an easy drama.
Walter Hill later said he was "always amazed" by the reception to the film. "The American reception was a real kind of nothing. But it was very nicely received around the world."
He added that the movie "didnt make a fucking nickel anywhere. Foreign domestic, anything... I was proud of the film... But I was disappointed in the lack of response. It was a universal audience failure... Usually you can say they loved it in Japan or something. I dont think anybody loved it anywhere."
On the Rotten Tomatoes website the film has received a positive reception from critics with an overall rating of 88%. Roger Ebert rated it 3 stars, stating that it is "a film of drum-tight professionalism" but criticizing it for making its characters "into larger-than-life stick figures, into symbolic units who stand for everything except themselves."