Southern Comfort (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Feb 15, 2024
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
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Southern Comfort (4K UHD Review)


Walter Hill

Release Date(s)

1981 (February 27, 2024)


Cinema Group Ventures/Phoenix Films (Vinegar Syndrome)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: B+
  • Extras Grade: B+

Southern Comfort (4K UHD)

Buy it Here!


Southern Comfort was co-writer/director Walter Hill’s fifth feature film, and in some ways, it synthesizes everything that he had done prior to that point. He had made his debut with the small-scale character study Hard Times, and his sophomore feature The Driver stripped storytelling down to its bare essentials. After that, he moved on to more epic forms of storytelling with The Warriors and The Long Riders. While the actual scale of both of those productions was still relatively small, the scope of the storytelling wasn’t. The Warriors embraced Greek myth, and essentially retold Xenophon’s Anabasis by way of the New York City of novelist Sol Yurick. The Long Riders was western mythmaking of the highest order, revolving around two of the most storied figures who ever set foot in the real American west: Frank and Jesse James. With Southern Comfort, Hill dropped the mythological elements, once again paring his storytelling back to its bare essentials. Yet it’s still every bit the same kind of odyssey that The Warriors was, with a group of individuals trapped behind enemy lines while desperately trying to get home. The difference this time was that Hill exchanged myth for allegory.

The original script for Southern Comfort was written by Micheal Kane, but just like with Alien two years previously, it ended up being substantially rewritten by Hill and his Brandywine Productions partner David Giler. This time, however, they did receive screen credit for doing so. (The convoluted tale of what happened with the credits for Alien is a story for another day.) As the opening title card indicates, Southern Comfort is set in the Louisiana bayou during 1973, and the choice of date is no accident. Those were the waning days of the Vietnam War, and while Hill has gone back-and-forth in admitting this fact, Southern Comfort is a pretty naked Vietnam allegory.

The story follows a group of National Guardsmen on training maneuvers in the bayou who quickly end up over their heads against a seemingly more primitive enemy. They’re undisciplined weekend warriors who don’t take anything very seriously, including the blank ammunition that they’re carrying. When they “borrow” some boats to cross the water and one of them takes a seemingly harmless pot shot a group of Cajuns, the Cajuns don’t know that the bullets aren’t real, and the so-called warriors quickly end up becoming the hunted against a foe who knows the territory far better than they do. Southern Comfort’s impressive cast includes Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, Franklyn Seales, T.K. Carter, Lewis Smith, Peter Coyote, Carlos Brown, and Brion James. (Watch for a mustachioed Sonny Landham as one of the impassive Cajun hunters.)

Whether involuntary draftees sent to Vietnam against their will or voluntary National Guardsman in the bayou who don’t take their responsibilities seriously enough, either way, they find themselves frustrated by their inability to deal with an enemy who lacks their equipment and their training, but knows the turf better. In asymmetric warfare, the local guerrilla fighters often have an advantage that superior technology can struggle to overcome (a lesson that the United States military still hasn’t quite learned all these decades after the Vietnam War ended). Of course, in this case the Guardsmen’s weaponry is impotent due to the fact that their ammunition isn’t real, but even after they get their hands on some genuine ammo, the end up wasting it because they’ve already lost the psychological battle at that point. Southern Comfort ends up becoming a war of attrition, and since these paper soldiers weren’t that dedicated to their mission in the first place, they don’t stand a chance against the locals who genuinely believe that they’re defending their own homes against invading forces.

Unsurprisingly, that also means that the Guardsmen end up being as much of a threat to each other as anything else. The male camaraderie that forms the core of so many different Walter Hill films is at its most uneasy in Southern Comfort. Everyone has a different opinion about what they need to do in order to escape the bayou, and they end up grouping into opposed factions that struggle to coexist. Eventually, that tension reaches a boiling point. Even the nominal heroes Spencer (Carradine) and Hardin (Boothe) form an alliance that’s precarious at best. When survival is at stake and discipline is lax, warfare can quickly devolve into every man for himself. Yet while Spencer and Hardin do manage to stick together despite their differences, the ending of Southern Comfort offers little real comfort for them.

Hill opted to drive that message home shortly before that point by openly mimicking Apocalypse Now while the pair have their final confrontation with their hunters. He intercut this fight with scenes of wild boars being slaughtered for a Cajun celebration, borrowing the same approach that Francis Ford Coppola used for Willard’s final confrontation with Col. Kurtz. (Just like with that film, the animal slaughter in Southern Comfort is quite real, giving everything an uncomfortably Cannibal Holocaust kind of vibe, so caveat emptor if you’re sensitive to that kind of material.) It’s an interesting moment, because while Hill loves his mythmaking, he generally avoids open symbolism like this. Visual tropes to evoke a particular vibe, yes, but explicitly connecting two different events in order to draw a comparison between them, no.

Regardless of what Hill may have said publicly at the time, this allusion to Apocalypse Now leaves no doubt that he intended the misadventures of the National Guard in Southern Comfort to be allegorical. The nation’s wounds from the Vietnam War were still fresh at that point, and Southern Comfort isn’t shy about rubbing salt into them. If it’s a fable, it’s a cautionary one. Yet if recent history has proven anything, it’s that America still doesn’t grasp the inherent futility of asymmetric warfare. Southern Comfort may be a product of a specific time and a place, but its core message is as relevant now as it was back then.

Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo shot Southern Comfort on 35 mm film using Panavision Panaflex cameras with spherical Panavision lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. This version is based on a new 4K scan of a preservation interpositive that was originally created back in 2001, with everything cleaned up and graded for High Dynamic Range in HDR10 only. (Vinegar Syndrome was unable to locate the original camera negative, and it’s feared to be lost at this point.) Interestingly enough, while most of any remaining damage to this element has been removed, the digital restoration team was careful to leave in any flaws that existed from the production itself. The optical work in Southern Comfort was far from perfect, so there’s a few white flecks on the screen when the opening “Louisiana, 1973” title appears. Those were part of the original optical, and they’ve been left alone here. Similarly, during the step printed slow-motion finale, there’s quite a bit of debris visible in the optical effect, and it’s also been left alone. That’s as it should be, and it’s nice to see that level of care being taken in order to preserve the experience of watching Southern Comfort on film.

Otherwise, while the overall level of fine detail can’t match what could have been achieved with a scan of the original negative, it’s still as sharp and clear as it can be. There are a handful shots that look like they were derived from later-generation dupe elements, but it’s not clear if that was due to damage on the IP, or if those were cut into the negative that the IP was struck from. The only minor issue is that the HDR grade does push the saturation levels a bit too far at times, with the opening 20th Century Fox logos looking far too red, and the skin tones also look too ruddy in a few shots. It’s definitely a part of the HDR grade, because those colors all look more natural on the Blu-ray version from the same master. Still, it mostly affects a few shots early on, with the rest of the film looking more balanced overall. That caveat aside, this is a beautiful presentation of Southern Comfort, and it’s the best that the film has ever looked on home video.

Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. It’s a solid mono track, with no noise, distortion, or other artifacts of note. It sounds fairly robust, too, with some heft to the sound effects and dynamic impact during moments like the cabin explosion. There’s not much deep bass, but there’s still some sonic depth here. Ry Cooder’s iconic score also sounds as good as it can in mono. An isolated music track would have been a nice bonus feature since there never was an official soundtrack release, but it's unknown if the master trapes even exist at this point in time.

Vinegar Syndrome’s Limited Edition 4K Ultra HD release of Southern Comfort is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film, as well as most of the extras. It’s branded as a part of their Vinegar Syndrome Ultra line, and it’s being offered in a deluxe magnetic box and slipcover set that was designed by Tony Stella. This release is limited to 8,000 units, and it’s only available on Vinegar Syndrome’s website and from a few select retailers. The discs are in a black amray case with a reversible insert that includes a 20-page booklet with an essay by Brian Brems. There’s a slipcover over that, and then all of it is housed inside a rigid magnetic box that includes yet another 40-page booklet with essays by Nicolas Rapold, Justin Peres Smith, and Matt Lynch. It’s beautiful packaging. The following new and archival extras are included:


  • Audio Commentary with Walter Chaw


  • Audio Commentary with Walter Chaw
  • Battle in the Bayou (HD – 17:26)
  • Behind Enemy Lines (HD – 26:02)
  • Soldiers, Not Mailmen (HD – 17:17)
  • Into the Unknown (HD – 15:00)
  • Making Southern Comfort (HD – 27:12)
  • Still Gallery (HD – 5:46)
  • Video Trailer (Upscaled SD – 2:09)

The commentary features Walter Chaw, senior film critic at Film Freak Central and author of A Walter Hill Film: Tragedy and Masculinity in the films of Walter Hill. When discussing the squad construction of this film and a few others, he admits that Extreme Prejudice is his own personal favorite Walter Hill movie, so he’s definitely an authentic Maximum Walter Hill fan. Chaw covers the themes of Southern Comfort and how it fits into the rest of Hill’s filmography, arguing that Hill is often misread. He feels that the one thread in all of Hill’s work is a frank examination of masculinity, both in terms of its strengths and its weaknesses. If anything, the Vietnam allegories in Southern Comfort have caused people to overlook the broader themes in it. Chaw also talks about the cast and offers a few practical details about the making of the film, but he’s far more interested in analyzing what Southern Comfort reveals about Walter Hill, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The interviews on the disc are all new ones. Battle in the Bayou is with Walter Hill, who says that he would have been comfortable being a contract director under the old studio system, but his career developed in a different direction. In 1979, he started developing scripts along with his partner David Giler, and Southern Comfort was one of the results. He admits that he’s given conflicting answers about the Vietnam allegories in the film, but that you should never trust directors because they’re bullshit artists. He also offers a few stories about making the film, saying that the unforgiving bayou locations made it one of the most difficult shoots that he’s ever done, but he has nothing but praise for Andrew Laszlo, editor Freeman A. Davies, and Ry Cooder.

Behind Enemy Lines is with Davies and assistant editor Lisa Zeno Churgin. (The two were interviewed separately and then cut together.) They both offer some background information, including how they became involved with Walter Hill, and their experiences making Southern Comfort. (Since they were in a relatively comfortable hotel room, the shoot was much easier for them than it was for the rest of the cast and crew.) Soldiers, Not Mailmen is with costumer Dan Moore, who worked on Brubaker in an uncredited capacity and had to learn the job on the fly. He ended up doing fourteen films for Hill starting with The Long Riders, working as both costumer and costume designer. Into the Unknown is with Wayne Byrne, author of Walter Hill: The Cinema of a Hollywood Maverick. He talks about the characters in the film and how their personalities affect the way that the story develops, but he thinks that the swamp itself is also a character—nature is the true villain in Southern Comfort. He feels that it’s more of a horror movie than a combat film.

Making Southern Comfort is an archival featurette that was originally produced for the 2014 Shout! Factory Blu-ray release of Southern Comfort. It includes interviews with Hill and Giler, as well as actors Keith Carradine, Peter Coyote, Lewis Smith, and the late great Powers Boothe. They were all recorded separately, so they end up tap dancing back and forth on the question about Vietnam allegories. Coyote also reiterates the objections that he made to Hill about the stylized slow-motion violence in the film—something that Hill also mentions in Battle in the Bayou. Lewis says that all of Hill’s movies are westerns, and that Southern Comfort is just a western in the bayou, a point that’s echoed by the rest of the interviewees (Giler says that Hill would shoot nothing but westerns if he had a choice in the matter). They all discuss the challenges of shooting on location, noting that it was wet, cold, and miserable, but at least they didn’t have to deal with as many reptiles since they were there during the winter. On the other hand, their physical misery does show in the final film, and that helps its authenticity. (For anyone who thinks of Coyote as being a mild-mannered individual, wait until you hear his reaction to the trained dogs that were used for the attack scene in the film).

There’s also a Still Gallery offering some behind-the-scenes photos, production stills, and publicity materials like posters and lobby cards, plus a home video trailer for Southern Comfort. There’s just one significant extra that hasn’t been included here. The 2012 Region B Blu-ray from Second Sight in the U.K. had an extended interview with Hill titled Will He Live or Will He Die: Walter Hill on Southern Comfort. That was also included on the 2022 Region B Blu-ray from Turbine Medien in Germany, and their set offered an alternate full-frame 1.33:1 version of the film to go along with the matted one. Other than that, this is pretty much the definitive release of Southern Comfort. The video quality is significantly improved even on the 1080p Blu-ray, let alone on the 4K UHD, and the set itself is gorgeous. Even if there’s going to be a standard version later (and there’s no guarantee of that), it’s well worth picking up this Limited Edition now while you still can.

- Stephen Bjork

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