Deliverance. 1972. Directed by John Boorman. Screenplay by James Dickey, based on his 1970 novel of the same name.
Starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox, Ed Ramey, Billy Redden, Seamon Glass, Randall Deal, Bill McKinney, Herbert ‘Cowboy’ Coward, Lewis Crone, Ken Keener, Johnny Popwell, John Fowler, Kathy Rickman, & Louise Coldren.
Warner Bros./Elmer Enterprises.
Rated 18A. 110 minutes.
Truly, despite the praise he does certainly get, I do feel John Boorman is an underrated director. There are some of his films which are heralded properly. Others are not. I’m one of the ten people on the planet who loves Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, even if he hates it himself. Then there’s The Emerald Forest, a film I never knew existed until it popped up for a special screening while I lived in Ontario, and one that surprised me after the credits rolled. There’s also Zardoz, which is not particularly great, but it’s weird, unconventional, sports Sean Connery in a mind boggling outfit, plus it tries to tackle an interesting science fiction topic regardless of the end result. On top of that, though, is the weight of Excalibur – possibly the King Arthur tale to end all King Arthur tales, featuring an enjoyable cast, excellent visuals, and a great story. Also, can’t forget The General, a true tale of Martin Cahill starring Jon Voight and Brendan Gleeson. So while he has a few films, including more than I’ve listed, which people seem to love, Boorman has his fair share of misunderstood titles, too.
Now, certainly Deliverance doesn’t, and never will, fall into the category of his films which people don’t give enough respect. However, I’m not sure people take the time to appreciate its masterpiece qualities. Too many will only refer to the infamous “Squeal like a pig” scene, which I’ve included above linked from YouTube. While that is definitely the most intense scene, as well as holds a particularly weighty significance, the film is so much more. It is one of the ultimate city dweller vs. hillbilly movies out there. Perhaps its greatness is due in part to the novel of the same name by James Dickey, published in 1970. Even more than that, the screenplay was adapted by Dickey himself. So I’m always keen on a story that gets shaped into a film by the same author. Add in a talented main cast, a raw and beautifully gritty aesthetic, luscious landscapes caught in perfect frames, and you’ve got Boorman’s greatest work in cinema.
A group of friends head out to the wilderness for a weekend excursion, in the forest, on the water. Canoes and gear in tow. Lead by the survivalist Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the group consists of mild mannered Bobby (Ned Beatty), easygoing Ed (Jon Voight), as well as Drew (Ronny Cox). When first they arrive in hillbilly central, Drew befriends a young boy, clearly the victim of inbreeding, and they play “Dueling Banjos” together; afterward, though, Drew tries to shake the boy’s hand and receives the cold shoulder. Brushing off this early, strange incident, the men head further to find someone to drive their vehicles down to the end of the river where they plan on canoeing.
Except the vast Appalachians hold many horrors. And when the city men run into a couple disgruntled mountain men their weekend outing goes from wild to worrisome. Once an act of hideous physical violence is committed against Bobby, the equal act of violent retribution by Lewis propels the four friends into not a fight for their lives, but for their very humanity.
If they’re lucky, they’ll see the city again. Someday.
“We‘re going to rape this whole landscape,” Lewis (Reynolds) sadly tells his friends in the opening moments of the film; he’s referring to the destruction of beautiful natural spaces to create man-made, artificial spaces. So when the mountain men take the city boys hostage and one of them proceeds to rape Bobby (Beatty), these words echo through our ears. The rape of Bobby is a metaphor – it is the mountain, the landscape fighting back by proxy.
Also, early in the movie we see Ed (Voight) unable to kill an animal. Later he’s confronted with one of the mountain men and similarly can’t bring himself to shoot the bow’s arrow, which demonstrates the idea that Ed sees all life as sacred or precious, even in a case where he’s being hunted alive; this is the fundamental difference between Ed and Lewis, but most importantly between Ed and the dangerous men in the woods.
One of the most impressive contrasts in the entire film is near the end, after Ed and Bobby are sitting down at a table with a crew of old folks. They all start to eat, as Ed comes in last. He sits down and tries to put his best face on, but bent over his ready meal Ed cries a little, almost bursting out in front of everyone. It’s because Ed finds himself back amongst the civilized, even if they’re still down South, out in hillbilly county. Such a stark difference from the other mountain people he’s met out there, and that’s sort of what hits him – how certain people can be so hateful, disgusting, evil, while other people in the same area are welcoming and hospitable.
The acting in Deliverance is part of why the film works. If lesser acting talent were employed, Boorman would never have gotten the resonance out of this plot and story that’s intended. Reynolds is always a treat, especially in many of his early movies. But above all else, it is the performances of both Beatty and Voight which make the whole thing so special, and definitively powerful as one of the best films of the 1970s.
Voight provides us with one of the best characters because, as I mentioned, the contrasts and parallels through which we watch the character of Ed are a large reason for the movie’s excellence. Via Ed we see the city vs. rural battle, as well as a very human quality. With all the nastiness, from the mountain men and later the city boys themselves, there is a thread running through Deliverance concerning humanity – what it is, how one holds onto it in times of terrifying strife and pain, how we cope with the inhumanity of others, and more. On the other side of that there is Beatty’s character Bobby, whose sexual assault is the catalyst for murder; though, I would say definitely justified. But in his case the idea of justice also comes into the situation, whether or not murder can be justified under certain circumstances. Also, Bobby represents an idea of manhood – the covering up of Lewis killing the mountain men initially is supported by Bobby, as he quips “I don‘t want this gettin‘ around.” A lot of themes happening here intertwined with the characters, with the construction of masculinity hovering around heavy after the rape. So having quality actors such as Voight and Beatty in the meatiest roles is a huge success. There’s a range in these two which lends itself to the thematic elements present, and in turn we also get two iconic performances viewers will never forget easily.
A landmark film of the 1970s. 5 stars. From a more fearless time of filmmaking, both in terms of technique and also of story, Deliverance absolutely delivers the goods. There are too many amazing moments in this film to list them all one by one, but hopefully I’ve covered some of the best, most inspiring aspects of this amazing and brutal movie. John Boorman will be remembered most for this, no matter how many great pieces of cinema he delivers. The examination of city life, and justice, versus rural backwoods style living and their draconian forms of so-called justice; the performances of Jon Voight and Ned Beatty particularly; and Boorman’s capturing of nature, while unnatural things happen within it – all these aspects make up the cinematic classic that is Deliverance. Perhaps the most perfect movie about men surviving in the backwoods. Either way, tread lightly. Though this is a solid movie with tons to offer, it isn’t always easy to watch.