Southern Comfort

Written for this week's list (1/15 - 1/21) at

Walter Hill conceived of SOUTHERN COMFORT, one of the most anti-American films ever released by a Hollywood studio, in the mid-1970s, around the end of the Vietnam War. That brutal, senseless conflict lasted two decades and left no one satisfied; in the United States, responses to its conclusion ranged from relief to resignation to cynicism about this country’s use of imperial power. Hill long denied that SOUTHERN COMFORT was intended as an allegory about Vietnam, despite recognizing even before the film went into production that many viewers would interpret it that way. Regardless of why Hill made the film, it certainly reflects America’s diminished self-image of the mid-70s in its unwaveringly negative depiction of the U.S. Armed Forces, and this makes it a valuable as a cultural document. Unfortunately, most spectators didn’t recognize this when SOUTHERN COMFORT was released in the first autumn of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which came to power, in part, through the manipulation of sentimental feelings about what America represents. Seen from a 40-year remove—when Donald Trump’s presidency has again inspired many Americans to regard their country with shame and dismay—the film seems courageous, even cathartic in its blunt critique of all-American hubris, aggression, and paranoia. It takes place in the Louisiana bayou sometime in 1973. A squad of National Guard soldiers, almost all of them hot-headed jerks, get assigned to weekend maneuvers in an endless stretch of swamp. They soon get lost, and, during a stand-off with a bunch of Cajun hunters, one soldier opens fire on the strangers with a round of blanks. The Cajuns, reasonably taking this as an act of aggression, declare war on the Guardsmen; over the next couple days, the soldiers’ situation goes from bad to worse, with nearly all of them falling prey to the backwoods trappers and their own in-fighting. SOUTHERN COMFORT exhibits the same economical storytelling and fine-calibrated suspense as Hill’s earlier THE DRIVER and THE WARRIORS, but the abstract quality of those films is replaced here by a concrete sense of anger. More impressively, Hill delivers his anti-American anger through narrative elements familiar from countless American action movies, making the film a genuinely subversive one.