Often unfairly compared to Deliverance (1972), Southern Comfort is a spare, lucid drama about a platoon of National Guardsmen on weekend manoeuvres through Louisiana swampland in the winter of 1973.
The guardsmen of Bravo Team are carrying dummy ammunition – except for Reece (Fred Ward), a macho wild man with itchy fingers and scrambled brains who wouldn’t go anywhere without live ammo.
The ordeal begins when the guardsmen, lost in the shifting winter waters of the Atchafalaya Basin, “borrow” a few canoes from Cajun hunters and leave behind an explanatory note, not realising that the Cajuns are fiercely territorial and probably can’t read English anyway.
When the hunters appear as the men are paddling away, an unreconstructed shitkicker named Stuckey (played with wild-eyed energy by Lewis Smith) gleefully fires off a salvo of blanks. The Cajuns return the fire with real bullets – killing off the one good soldier in the team, squad leader Sergeant Poole (Peter Coyote).
What starts out as a dumb prank turns into an excruciating, slow massacre, and a movie that begins as a satirical rendering of basic training takes us straight into the heart of darkness.
Inexperienced and scared, the reservists make a bad situation worse when they seek shelter at the home of a French-speaking trapper (Brion James), and blow up his house using dynamite.
As the reservists die in the swamp, one by one, the level-headed Spencer (Keith Carradine) and a transfer from Texas, Hardin (Powers Boothe) try to hold their own and maintain some sense of order and control.
The men’s trespassing on a terrain and civilisation that they barely comprehend carries echoes of Vietnam, but director Walter Hill is less interested in grandiose allegory than in the dynamics of a male group under pressure and the readiness of their resort to violence.
The endless thicket of wetland trees becomes a nightmarish purgatory, as dense with threat as the dark woods of Victorian gothic literature.
A sustained climax, in which the men’s ordeal converges with a lively feast and zydeco barn dance in a Cajun village, is as fascinating for its ethnographic detail as it is chilling in its uncertain menace.
Rifleman Lee Spencer
Rifleman Charles Hardin
Rifleman Lonnie Reece
Rifleman Cleotis Simms
Rifleman Tyrone Cribbs
Rifleman Earl Stuckey
Corporal Claude Casper
Sergeant Crawford Poole
Rifleman Nolan Bowden