In an interview, director Walter Hill said of this movie's development: "David Giler and I had a deal with Fox; we were supposed to acquire and develop interesting, commercial scripts that could be produced cheaply. Alien (1979) was one of them, and Southern Comfort (1981) was another. We wanted to do a survival story, and I'd already done a film in Louisiana." That movie was Hard Times (1975).
The use of the phrase 'Southern Comfort' as the title of the film, which was meant ironically, had to be cleared by the Brown-Forman Corporation, who own the rights to the phrase (they make the liqueur of the same name).
This film has been likened to the earlier movie Deliverance (1972) which was made and released about nine years earlier. Some movie posters for this picture even ran a tagline saying "Not since "Deliverance"...". Southern Comfort (1981) is actually set in 1973, which is in the same era as Deliverance (1972). Whereas that movie was set on the Cahulawassee River, this film is set in the Louisiana Bayou.
Filming the movie on location in the Louisiana swamps proved to be a very rough and rigorous ordeal. It was so cold and wet almost every day that many cast and crew members came down with the flu during the shoot.
Writer-director Walter Hill later said he was "always amazed" by the reception to the film: "The American reception was a real kind of nothing. But it was very nicely received around the world." He added that the movie "didn't make a fucking nickel anywhere. Foreign domestic, anything . . . I was proud of the film . . . But I was disappointed in the lack of response. It was a universal audience failure . . . Usually you can say they loved it in Japan or something. I don't think anybody loved it anywhere".
This movie's storyline is similar to the director Walter Hill's previous film at the time, The Warriors (1979). In both movies, characters have a journey to find their way home encountering various dangerous obstacles, a hostile environment and aversive enemies along the way.
Director Walter Hill later said he enjoyed the experience of making the film but that it was tough: "I was very proud of the actors in it. It was a tough movie to make, and they put up with a lot. They would probably tell you they put up with a lot from me. [Laughs.] But they really did it without complaint. And I just thought I was very fortunate to have the cast that I had. Jesus, it was a hard movie to make . . . I think when you see the movie you can see that this one wasn't nightclubs in Vegas. But it was just very hard locations to get in there. Very hard to shoot. I remember so many times we'd only have a few minutes to set the camera because the bottom of the swamp would give way. And so, for your camera positions, you had to stage and shoot very quickly in many cases. It just was hard, and the weather was miserable. However, I will say this: If you choose to go make a movie in a swamp in the middle of winter, you probably deserve what you get".
Walter Hill said the film was "not a simple action movie where the people chasing the other out there is bad . . . it is clearly in a sense the kind of fault of our guys for getting into this situation. In the collective group, there are individuals who are not as highly evolved as the others. And the answers to the dilemma, I mean both nature's noblemen, those of higher character through some innate quality. And you have people that operate on a sliding scale downward to the brute level in their response to the situation that they have gotten themselves into. All of which I think is a kind of, war is terrible. It's a wartime situation. With mixed results and accompanying paranoia even by those who are the best and the brightest of the bunch... None of us are quite as good or bad as we construct them. Southern Comfort is trying not to be an easy drama".
According to Walter Hill, the concept of Keith Carradine's character "was that he was one of nature's aristocrats - graceful, confident of his own ability and able to separate himself from other people with an amusing remark", whereas the character played by Powers Boothe "is much more the rational, hardworking, self made individual" and as a result "just cannot believe the nature of the situation at first" whereas Carradine's can.
This is a "collective hero" movie, in which the protagonist actually consists of nine people acting (more or less) as one. Writer-director Walter Hill has used this gimmick frequently; other movies he has made that work this way are The Warriors (1979) and The Long Riders (1980)_.
Walter Hill has said of the Vietnam war metaphor/allegory associated with this movie: " . . . that was just our story. And we were very aware that people were going to see it as a metaphor for Vietnam. The day we had the cast read, before we went into the swamps, I told everybody, 'People are going to say this is about Vietnam. They can say whatever they want, but I don't want to hear another word about it'."
The military rank breakdown of the nine soldiers on the weekend assignment is as follows: The unit consisted of two people with the rank of "Sergeant", one of them a "Staff Sergeant", three persons with the rank of "Corporal", and four personnel with the rank of "Private".
The amount of time that the military unit was spending for the weekend maneuver was "forty-eight hours" and this is mentioned in the movie's trailer. Director Walter Hill later directed a picture called 48 Hrs. (1982) which was actually Hill's next picture after Southern Comfort (1981).
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In one part of the movie the cajuns set a trap that includes falling cypress trees, even though the filming was being done deep in the cypress swamps of Caddo Lake there were no trees available for this scene because cypress is a protected species of tree. Plastic trees were trucked into the swamp to shoot the scene.
The movie uses a plot device common to some of the movies written and/or directed by Walter Hill where the leader of a group is eliminated in the first act, whereby the leadership and security of the team is thrown into disarray by the loss of its head. Such Hill pictures using this story element include Aliens (1986), The Warriors (1979), and Southern Comfort (1981).