The Best War Movie Not About a War

Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort was a potshot at conventional action movies that spawned a new genre of horror.

Early in Walter Hill’s 1981 film Southern Comfort, a squad of rock-jawed, dim-witted American soldiers hold a one-armed civilian at gunpoint, interrogating him in a language he doesn’t understand. One of the soldiers cracks the man across the face with a right hook while  another whips together a makeshift molotov cocktail and lobs it into his meager shack, setting it pointlessly ablaze. The sequence is harrowing and if you happened on it while channel surfing you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d stumbled into a Vietnam film— the village-torching scene from Platoon, maybe, or the more jarring portions of De Palma’s Casualties of War. Here are the invasive, bullying American soldiers, steamrolling their way through the jungle and here, right on cue, is the havok they’ve needlessly wrought. But here, in this case, is Louisiana.

Hill’s film follows a group of Louisiana National Guardsmen out for a leisurely training exercise in the thick of the swamp. Led astray by an outdated map, the soldiers commandeer a few Cajun pirogues left untended by local hunters, who return to find the apparent theft in progress. One of the would-be soldiers decides to fire off a few training blanks in the direction of the hunters as a joke, but punch line comes at the expense of the Staff Sergeant’s life when the locals fire back with live rounds. The squad scrambles to shore to find cover, looking about as frantic and undisciplined as you’d expect, and, with only a handful of real bullets among them, the eight survivors take stock of their situation. They’ve ignited a swamp war.

As the largely unseen locals begin picking off Americans one by one with increasing ferocity — sicking a pack of dogs on them, littering the swamp with bear traps, even orchestrating Indiana Jones-style wood-spike boobytraps — the action starts to feel more like a horror film than a war movie. For this reason, Southern Comfort has been compared to Deliverance, whose throbbing danger-in-the-woods menace terrified audiences nearly a decade earlier. But despite the similarities it seems clear, especially in retrospect, that Southern Comfort is very much its own animal. For one thing, the allegorical dimension — all of that stuff recalling the horror of the Vietnam War, which still lingered in the popular imagination in the early eighties — lends the action a provocative charge, politicizing a genre exercise by suggesting a connection between a bunch of amateur Guardsmen and the soldiers sent into war without adequate preparation.

And yet, even as an exercise in horror, Southern Comfort is nothing short of an exemplary — a classic of the genre that’s languished unappreciated for too long. The film was a critical and commercial flop in its day, and only now, as it arrives on home video from Shout Factory, is its reputation beginning to be resuscitated. The movie’s sense of atmosphere alone is worth the price of admission: Hill transforms the swamp into a steaming, puke-green cesspool of fear and twisted masculinity. Our so-called “heroes” making slow progress through the ankle-high waters becomes a parody of their march toward death. It’s great stuff. And Hill, true to form, saves the best for last: Southern Comfort’s climax, a cross-cut chase set in the midst of an authentic Cajun barbeque, reaches a fever pitch in the spirit of Apocalypse Now, replete with symbolic animal slaughter.

Southern Comfort disappeared from theaters at home and abroad about as quickly and quietly as it had arrived, with box office returns too modest to make an impact but not dismal enough to be memorable disaster. But while it may not have made much of an impression upon its initial release, the film seeped into popular culture in less obvious but not less indelible ways. You can feel it, to be sure, in the sweltering jungle at the heart of John McTiernan’sPredator, in which a battalion lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger finds itself hunted by a largely unseen foe. (A mid-film impaling in Southern Comfort, in particular, has a direct echo in one of Predator’s grizzliest deaths.) And you feel it, too, in the manic forest scramble of The Blair Witch Project, which makes good use of Hill’s arsenal of tricks to conjure fear out of noises and trees. Southern Comfort was never destined to be a hit. But its influence, and its legacy, clearly looms large.

Photos by 20th Century Fox / Everett Collection