Title: Deliverance (1972)
Director: John Boorman
Cast: Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox.
Mention the word Deliverance to most people and their initial response is to relay two of the most spine chilling pieces of dialogue you are ever likely to hear: ‘You got a purty mouth’, and ‘Squeal like a pig boy’. Men feel especially uncomfortable when reminded of the sexual violence visited upon Ned Beatty’s helpless city slicker Bobby by a hideous slack jawed Hillbilly, in what is still a deeply disturbing sequence. Yet, Deliverance is so much more than this.
Based on the novel by poet/novelist James Dickey, Deliverance is the story of four well heeled Georgia suburbanite men who decide to take a weekend canoe trip along the fictional Cahulawasee river, to experience the rural woodland before it is to be destroyed to make way for a dam. Their quiet canoeing weekend is thrown into disarray after they come under attack from the local mountain men.
The group is led by the brash Lewis (Burt Reynolds) who seems to have no fear about upsetting the locals. Jon Voight plays the quiet pipe smoking Ed, who appears ill equipped to deal with negotiating the unforgiving landscape. Ned Beatty plays the piggy type character of Bobby and the excellent Ronny Cox rounds out the group as the sensitive guitar playing Drew.
British director John Boorman creates an uneasy tone from the get go. Introducing the viewer to the magnificent rural Georgia landscape, the four leads explain their weekend plans in a jovial voiceover which carries a hint of the menace to come as the opening sequence concludes with footage of demolition and destruction of the local environment. Their presence can be interpreted as the representation of all encompassing modernity, which can be viewed as raping the landscape. The locals response to this abomination, can be read as taking vengeance on the modern suburban man who are cogs in the ever turning ferris wheel of progress.
Lewis drives recklessly through the wilderness in a four wheel drive vehicle, tearing up the landscape. Ed casts a curious eye on the locals, appearing rather effete and superior with his wooden pipe. The locals are represented in what would appear to be a rather unkind fashion. The hillbilly’s are all dirty, incoherent, ignorant and genetically deficient looking. This probably put many people off visiting rural Georgia for many years in the same way that Midnight Express put potential holidaymakers off visiting Turkey.
Before their canoeing adventure/nightmare begins, we are treated to the best sequence of the entire film: The Duelling Banjos. While gassing up at a makeshift station, guitar wielding Drew, notices a genetically deficient boy sitting on a porch with a banjo on his lap. They begin to trade pieces of music and the resulting explosion of joy that is The Duelling Banjos, hints at a potential sense of community between the rural and the urban people. This notion that they have more in common with each other than they initially realize, is killed before it even has a chance to grow. When Drew offers to congratulate the strange looking boy on his virtuoso banjo playing with a handshake, the boy looks away and refuses to acknowledge him. The hand of friendship is rejected.
Legendary director of photography Vilmos Szigmond captures the wild beauty of the Chattooga river as the two groups of two coast along in their canoes, swilling beer and even fishing with a bow and arrow in Lewis’ case . All is seemingly well, until Bobby and Drew are separated and venture into woodland where they encounter the two most frightening rednecks in modern cinema. The film quickly enters thriller territory as the group discuss the consequences of their actions.
Boorman expertly lulls the viewer into a false sense of security. We are led to believe that Burt Reynold’s alpha male survivalist Lewis, will lead the rest of the men to civilization and safety. While the group is canoeing down wild rapids, Lewis is thrown from his canoe and badly injured, leaving the apparently weak Ed, to lead the men to safety. The viewer is never sure if Ed has what it takes to do what he has to do, yet he finds the resolve to survive against all expectations. It is very much a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Deliverance has much to say on the nature of masculinity, what we must do to survive in desperate situations and how those who appear to be strong are usually wearing masks. One of the many keys to the pictures success lies in its casting. John Boorman originally wanted Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson to play Lewis and Ed. That would have been intriguing, but having failed to agree the enormous financial demands of these two superstars, he opted for the up and coming Burt Reynolds and the star of Midnight Cowboy, Jon Voight. Perhaps Boorman may have had to do a lot more compromising had he cast Brando, who was notoriously difficult.
Reynolds and Voight were excellent in Deliverance. Many people who believed that Reynolds couldn’t act were swiftly pointed towards his career best performance in Deliverance. It is a shame he could not produce more sterling performances like this in a career littered with below par work.
In his quest for realism, former stuntman Burt Reynolds wanted to do the canoe exit stunt himself as he felt that the director’s option of using a dummy would lack a sense of verisimilitude. Having convinced Boorman that he could do the stunt, Reynolds ended up in hospital with broken bones as a result of his quest for realism. While in hospital, Reynolds asked Boorman while he was visiting him, ‘how did it look?’ Boorman witheringly replied: ‘It looked like a dummy floating down a river.’
Contrary to popular belief, Deliverance was not set in a certain part of rural Ireland. Yet, the term ‘Deliverance people’ is one that anybody who would consider themselves moderately civilised could easily associate with a place they have encountered, where the locals are less than friendly. The Healy-Rae brothers would be perfect casting should they ever decide to remake Deliverance. As Ed and Lewis of course.