JTwo sounds jump to mind at the mere mention of Deliverance. The first is the melodious bluegrass plink from Arthur Smith’s Dueling Banjos, performed by the eponymous instrument and an acoustic guitar harmonizing with it. The second sound, much less pleasant, is the sharp, painful cry of Ned Beatty, who squeals like a pig to appease the depraved stranger who rapes him. Both are so crucial to the enduring power of John Boorman’s 1972 nightmare in the boonies that the former can’t help but evoke the latter: five decades later, that banjo tune still sounds like a warning – an omen of danger ahead, especially the kind that is off the beaten path, south of the Mason-Dixon.
It’s a version of a near-extinct America, the wildest and most dangerous traveled by the explorers of legend, that the four townsfolk of Deliverance set out to find on their ill-fated canoe trip down the fictional Cahulawassee River. Revisiting the film, on the eve of its 50th anniversary, feels like its own restless expedition into the turbulent past. When but at the height of New Hollywood, could a shocking survival thriller featuring a scene of infamous and grueling sexual violence become one of the biggest hits of the year?
Deliverance didn’t just make money and the careers of most of its actors. It also received strong reviews and earned a few major academy award nominations, even smashing its way into the best picture race. (It would lose the big one to a larger portrayal of American violence, The Godfather.) Boorman, the British genre scholar who directed Lee Marvin Point Blank’s existential noir, set the film at the intersection of prestige and exploitation. Depending on who you ask, it’s either solid studio drama shaken up with B-movie savagery, or a B-action picture with pretensions of seriousness.
Written by James Dickey, faithfully adapting his own 1970 novel, Deliverance quickly and cleanly traces its course through the ventricles of a heart of darkness. Four Atlanta businessmen reunite to bond old-school men through a wilderness adventure: self-aggrandizing macho bully Lewis (Burt Reynolds), thoughtful strummer Drew (Ronny Cox), good sports accountant Bobby (Beatty) and level-running crowd surrogate Ed (Jon Voight). Together, they will cross part of Georgia on a turbulent river destined to become a calm lake, thanks to a dam being built by the state.
Lewis, presumably named after one of America’s most famous adventurers, laments such “progress”, growing nostalgic for an America untouched by industry. “We’re going to violate this landscape,” he sighs – one of many lines of dialogue that foreshadow the hellish gauntlet to come. When Ed later notes that “No one can find us here”, he relishes the isolation of their time off the grid, unaware that he will come to regret it. A dark irony of the film is that it gives these four men an extreme version of what they are supposed to be seeking: a more primitive America, further removed from civilization than they had anticipated.
You could call Deliverance the “reputable” traditional cousin of contemporary Deep Southwestern mayhem classics like The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Boorman’s outback scarecrows aren’t quite as inhuman as the cannibalistic redneck monsters of those movies, but they’re still gruesome caricatures, fulfilling the quintessential stereotype of the rural south as an enclave of toothless cousin-fuckers. and depraved. It is a pure turf war on the banks of the river, the endless national conflict between the values of the city and the countryside which are given a grotesque visceral form. Yet while the movie made the Peach State look like a playground for inbred deviants, it also boosted tourism in the area, spurred the white-water rafting industry, and helped make Georgia the go-to Hollywood filming location it is today.
Boorman’s acting has a ruthless spontaneity, born of the clumsy nature of the exploits – all of these characters are in over their heads, figuratively and literally – and the reckless conditions of a corner-cutting shoot. and risk of injury. (The fact that there were no stunt doubles becomes shocking during the river scenes, with the film’s stars clearly collapsing from their canoes.) The most notorious moment, when Bobby is brutalized by the rapist armed, has lost none of its nauseating intensity. Its terrible hicksploitation power comes from the way Boorman dispassionately cuts from wide shots to close-ups that hide sexual violence while centering Beatty’s simulated angst. It seems like an eternity — and in fact, Reynolds later claimed that Boorman left the camera rolling for an uncomfortably long time, until he stepped in to object.
It was, of course, the film that made Reynolds a movie star. Which makes sense, because he’s downright iconic in the role, a magnetically obnoxious cowboy. Boorman takes advantage of his rugged sex appeal but also slyly subverts it, both highlighting Lewis’ brutal cruelty and ultimately reducing him to a meowing shell of himself, all his machismo drained from him by a gnarly fracture of his femur. . It’s possible to read Deliverance as an indictment of America’s obsession with traditional masculinity. Where does Lewis’ back-to-nature trial lead if not to physical and psychological destruction? And what is Bobby’s heinous ordeal but some sort of horror-movie escalation of the emasculating, shameful harassment he endures from Lewis on the rapids?
Released around the same time as Dirty Harry and Death Wish, the film also functions as an interrogation of vigilante revenge thrillers. Whatever just satisfaction Deliverance causes by putting an arrow straight through Bobby’s attacker (actor and Clint Eastwood favorite Bill McKinney) slowly dissipates in the aftermath, as our heroes relinquish all moral loftiness. , even if they earn a literal one. Open-ended questions complicate everything that follows. Was Drew shot down on the river, or is it a simple shock that sends him into the water? And is the man Ed kills on the bluff the same one who held him at gunpoint, or just another backwoods subject to his wrath and fear? In the nightmare that closes the film, it’s the guilt and uncertainty that really come to the surface, a bloated corpse floating around in Ed’s subconscious.
Fifty years after Deliverance, Hollywood has smoothed its own raging river. Boorman’s film shredding is ancient history, a quality long lost in studio thrillers. Yet the tensions exploited by the film still meander through the culture like tributaries. Which is to say, Deliverance remains relevant to a country that is eternally wringing its hand over the supposed erosion of masculine ideals and forever divided into lines of geography and topography. Rather, the film’s violent conflict feels like a premonition of today’s culture wars. And through that lens, there’s a sad added resonance to the famous stringed-instrument duel that more or less opens the film: a fleeting harmony between urban and rural America, doomed to give way to discord.