Louisiana, 1973.

El Paso chemical engineer Hardin (Powers Boothe) is a rifle marksman for the Texan Guard on weekends. But, having had enough of their tight regime, he turns up at the neck of the Louisiana bayou, where a group of National Guardsmen are preparing for a routine training exercise which will take them through the local swamps.

Following a terse introduction from take-no-shit senior officer Poole (Peter Coyote), Hardin is introduced to the rest of his team: a bunch of cynical wasters whose libidos are greater than their desires to encounter anything resembling combat. Indeed, one of them � Spencer (Keith Carradine) � has already arranged for a posse of prostitutes to meet them in Catahoula at the end of their exercise.

What Hardin witnesses is certainly a far cry from what he�s used to. This mismatched bunch of war-shy rednecks are the last people you�d want protecting your homeland borders. Imagine Dad�s Army with hard-ons and bad attitudes. We get uptight Movember victim Casper (Les Lannom), Mexican prankster Stuckey (Lewis Smith), morally decent but seriously disturbed giant Bowden (Alun Autry), hot-headed Simms (Franklyn Seales), Reece (Fred Ward) who "gets the impression he�s in a dime novel", along with the token black guy � and, by default, butt of jokes � Cribbs (T K Carter).

"Civilians in peace, soldiers in war" is their motto; "beating up college kids and tear gassing niggers" is their reality.

Poole rounds up his misfits and, to the best of his ability, marches them into the forage. Before long it becomes apparent that the map he�s reading from is useless. So it appears to be serendipity when they stumble upon discarded canoes that will ferry them across an unpredicted stretch of river.

Following a minor group debate (bolstered by the suggestion that it would be nice to reach the promised hookers by evening time), it�s decided that they should take the canoes and leave a note for the benefit of their owners. Shortly afterwards, as Poole�s men are midway across the river, the Cajun hunters who own the canoes turn up on the river bank. While Poole and Bowden try to reassure them as to the safety of their property, Stuckey thinks it hilarious to play a joke on them: he fires his machine gun in their direction. Unbeknownst to the hapless locals, the Guardsmen don�t carry live ammunition � he�s shooting blanks.

This provokes an unexpected and extreme response, the hunters retaliating by shooting Poole�s head off. Panic ensues, the Guardsmen lose the canoes and scramble frantically to the other side of the river.

But now they�re lost in alien territory without a compass (it went missing in the water) or leader. Casper elects himself as officer-in-charge, but it�s a thankless task: these men are fraught. They�re disorientated, scared and soon to be at the mercy of the French-speaking, swamps-savvy huntsmen.

A disastrous encounter with a fisherman in the woods leads to the group reluctantly accepting Hardin as their unofficial leader � but can they make it to the interstate as he suggests, or will the locals get the better of them?

Walter Hill�s 1981 film was designed as a low budget action film working on the principle of being "stark drama". In the hands of Hill and his co-screenwriters Michael Kane and David Giler, it becomes a dark thriller which easily incorporates themes of racism, counter-culture ignorance to rival the moral fable experienced in the superficially similar DELIVERANCE, masculinity, the depersonalising nature of group behaviour and so much more.

While the film has been accused of being an allegory for America�s involvement in the Vietnam War, Hill maintains ambiguity on this matter (see below) � but it is interesting, and potentially controversial, to read the action in this manner. Even if you don�t subscribe to that line of subtext though, this is a marvellously ambient and template-setting thriller. Very stark, very raw, very true.

The all-male cast is brilliant. Hill, who had scored a massive hit a short while earlier with the classic THE WARRIORS, knows how to coax career-best performances from his interesting cast too.

The dialogue is hard-boiled, of course, but at least it�s imbued with clear character traits and not just a paper-thin action movie script a �la PREDATOR. This is intelligent filmmaking masquerading as violent fantasy.

The bayou cinematography is beautifully ominous, as is Ry Cooder�s legendary score. The pace is near-perfect, and the ending � well, the last 20 minutes just tip everything over the edge and transform SOUTHERN COMFORT from being an excellent film and into being a fucking exceptional one.

If you were around in the mid-80s when video rental first took off in the UK, you�ll no doubt know all of this already. SOUTHERN COMFORT was one of those early "rites of passage" video releases that everyone hired out numerous times, spoke about in school etc � you know, along with THE EVIL DEAD, MAD MAX 2, BRONX WARRIORS, THE WANDERERS etc �

But you�ve never seen it look like this.

SOUTHERN COMFORT makes its UK blu-ray debut (indeed, I believe this is the film�s worldwide BD premiere?) courtesy of Second Sight.

Their region B encoded disc presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, enhancing the picture for 16x9 television sets in an MPEG4-AVC 1080p HD transfer. Flesh-tones and colours are natural; edge enhancement and DNR are both kept in check, ensuring a trustworthy rendition of the original film elements. The film has never looked better, or more detailed. I was literally struck by how clean and real the film looked.

English audio is provided in a solid, evenly balanced lossless English stereo soundtrack. Optional English subtitles for the Hard-of-Hearing are well-written and easy to read.

An animated main menu page contains pop-up menus, including a scene-selection menu allowing access to the film via 16 chapters.

Robert Fischer�s 2012 documentary "Will He Live or Will He Die" is the only extra feature. However, it is an excellent one.

In it, Hill sits in an attractive garden setting to give a rare onscreen interview on the film. While he refuses to answer to suggestions that the film is an allegory for the Vietnam War � even revealing that he threatened to sack anyone involved in its making who admitted to such allusions in press interviews � he offers a wealth of retrospective information elsewhere. He calls the film a "displaced Western", speaks of its themes of morality, and describes the swamp-set shoots as "physically miserable". But, crucially, he says he wouldn�t change a thing.

Hill is relaxed and affable as he professes to still like the film�s casting and speaks well of each of his actors, even the infamously �difficult� Carradine � "a deceptively naturalistic actor".

The documentary is split into several chapters - The Swamps, The Actors, The Job of the Director and so on � and runs for 44 minutes. It is a perfect accompaniment to the main feature.

The blu-ray retains the original iconic poster artwork as its cover, and comes in a nice Steelbook packaging.

SOUTHERN COMFORT is a classic of its era and a film that still merits a wide audience to this day. It can easily be taken as being allegorical, irrespective of what its director does or doesn�t say, but regardless it remembers to thrill with equal amounts of dense atmosphere and tense action along the way. And gore!

It�s wonderful to see it being given such rich treatment on Second Sight�s HD disc.

Also available on DVD.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Second Sight Films
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review