When nine Louisiana Guards trek into the bayou and one of them foolishly antagonises the Cajun locals, a straightforward navigation exercise turns into a terrifying fight for survival.
Southern Comfort (1981) comes from the same production stable as Alien (1979) but, unlike its famous sibling, it was neither a commercial success nor has it garnered cult status. With a simple plot — the hunters becoming the hunted — and the striking backdrop of the bayou, it’s surprising that Southern Comfort didn’t make more of an impact; and it hasn’t been given a second chance with a critical re-evaluation. Looking for possible explanations, one might point a finger at the script, which has a slight stage play quality about it, the relentlessly close-in nature of the bayou, a ‘macho action’ story with guns that mostly fire blanks, and the odd choice of needlessly setting a contemporary story in the preceding decade, which accentuates the Vietnam War resonance for a movie that isn’t about the Vietnam War.
While Southern Comfort is not a Vietnam War film, and the bayou is not the jungle of South East Asia, the terrain and group interactivity has unavoidable resonance with the Vietnam War sub-genre. Southern Comfort is a film about male relationships, male bonding, macho stupidity, and bad leadership. It’s also a story about stupidity, arrogance, and a ‘bunch of city boys’ out of their depth in an unfamiliar landscape, one populated by locals with an innate suspicion of outsiders. This follows the tried and tested ‘city folk’ in the countryside scenario that includes films like Deliverance (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Wrong Turn (2003). In these stories fun seekers, holiday goers and people innocently passing through are forced into contact with a tight-knit rural community, which results in a violent showdown.
The drama unfolding in Southern Comfort — much like the horror stories using similar plots — sees city people (the film’s audience) pitted against the barbaric ‘other’: often portrayed as inbred and ‘backward’ country folk. In this landscape the alien ‘other’ are dominant. They are the hunters and the visitors are the prey.
The dynamic in Southern Comfort begins with tensions within the group: between the officers and men, and class distinctions between ‘red necks’ and middle class Guardsmen. Interestingly, there are no significant female roles in this film, which is something that would be much less likely today. Not just because the National Guard would include many more women but because it also cuts out the dynamic of gender tension.
Southern Comfort is a celebration of a value based friendship and a warning about unexpected danger lurking within the wilderness.