TeaThe mere mention of wo makes my mind jump Freedom, The first is the melodious bluegrass plink of Arthur Smith’s Dueling Banjos, performed by the instrument of the same name and an accompanying acoustic guitar. The second, far less pleasant sound, is the high, sore voice of Ned Beatty, who screams like a pig to appease the corrupt stranger who is violating him. Both are so important to the enduring power of John Boorman’s 1972 nightmare that the first can’t help but wake up to the second: Five decades later, the banjo tune still sounds like a warning—an omen of danger ahead, Especially kind which is off the beaten path south of Mason-Dixon.
It is a version of the Americas that is nearly extinct, more wild and dangerous, discovered by the explorers of legend, that the four city slayers of Deliverance discover their fateful canoe journey down the fictional Kahulawasi River. Rewatching the film on the verge of its 50th anniversary, it feels like it’s its choppy campaign in its own rough past. When other than the heyday of New Hollywood could a shocking survival thriller in which notoriously gruesome scenes of sexual violence become one of the biggest hits of the year?
Deliverance made not only the money and the careers of most of its actors. It also earned strong reviews, and received some major Academy Award nominations, even entering the Best Picture race. (It would lose big for a more comprehensive portrait of American violence, The Godfather.) Borman, the British genre specialist who created Lee Marvin’s existential noir Point Blanc, positioned the film at the crossroads of prestige and exploitation. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a strong studio drama brought to life with B-movie savage or a B action picture with a pretense of seriousness.
Honestly adapting his own 1970 novel, Deliverance, written by James Dickey, vividly traces his trajectory through the ventricles of the heart of darkness. Gathering through the jungle adventure for some old-fashioned male ties are four Atlanta businessmen: self-enhancing macho bully Lewis (Burt Reynolds), thoughtful streamer Drew (Ronnie Cox), good sports accountant Bobby (Beatty), and Level. Headed Audience Surrogate Ed (Jon Voight). Together they will cross part of Georgia over a flowing river that will become a still lake, thanks to a dam being built by the state.
Lewis, possibly named for one of America’s most famous adventurers, complains of such “progress” being nostalgic about an America untouched by the industry. “We’re going to rape this scenario,” he sighs—one of several lines of dialogue that foreshadow the hellish gauntlet to come. When Ed later notes that “no one can find us here,” he relishes the solitude of his stay off the grid, unaware that he will regret it. A dark irony of the film is that it gives these four men an extreme version of what they are allegedly seeking: a more primitive America, further from civilization than they bargained for.
You might call Deliverance an “iconic,” mainstream cousin to deep-southwest mayhem contemporary classics like The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Borman’s backwoods bogeymen aren’t quite as dehumanizing as the cannibalistic redneck monsters of those movies, but they’re still terrifying caricatures, fulfilling the quintessential stereotype of the rural South as an enclave of toothless, corrupt cousin-fucking. It is pure war on the banks of the river, the endless national conflict between the values of the city and the country shaped into a strangely visceral one. Still, although the film made the Peach State look like a playground for the nativity gods, it also boosted tourism to the area, fueled the whitewater rafting industry, and helped turn Georgia into a Hollywood filming locale, which is today.
There’s a ruthless spontaneity in Boorman’s action, born out of the bubbling nature of the adventures—the characters are all in over their heads, figuratively and literally—and the reckless conditions of a shoot that cuts corners and risks injury. Huh. (There were no stunt doubles during scenes on the river, it becomes shockingly clear, the film’s stars apparently falling from their canoes.) The most infamous moment, when Bobby is brutalized by a gun-wielding rapist. , hasn’t lost any of its intensity: Its terrifying hixapplication power comes from the way Berman cuts from perfectly detailed shots to closeups that hide sexual violence while centering on Beatty’s fake anguish. It seemed like this went on forever—and in fact, Reynolds later claimed that Borman kept the camera on for an uncomfortably long time until he stepped in objection.
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 jerk. Boorman forms the basis of his harsh sex appeal, but all his mechanisms are taken out of him by a severe fracture of the femur, in order to emphasize Lewis’ brutal brutality and ultimately reduce him to a flimsy shell of his own. It is possible to read salvation as an indictment of America’s obsession with traditional masculinity. Where does the back-to-nature test of Lewis’ manhood lead but physical and psychological destruction? And what is Bobby’s heinous ordeal, but a kind of horror-movie, sort of rough-and-tumble harassment he endures on the rapids from Lewis?
Released in the same era as Dirty Harry and Death Wish, the film also serves as an interrogation of the vigilante revenge thriller. Whatever religious gratification comes from putting an arrow straight through Bobby’s assailant (character actor and Clint Eastwood favorite Bill McKinney) then slowly ends, as our heroes abandon any moral high ground. , even though they receive a literal. Open questions complicate everything that comes next. Is Drew actually shot on the river, or is it just the blow that sends him overboard? And did Ed bluff and kill the one who held him at gunpoint, or just another backwoods subject to his anger and fear? In the nightmare that closes the film, it is the guilt and uncertainty that actually comes floating to the surface, a bloated corpse bouncing into Ed’s subconscious.
Fifty years after Deliverance, Hollywood has smoothed its raging river. The jaggedness of Boorman’s film is ancient history, a quality long lost in studio thrillers. Yet the tensions the film exploited still snake through the culture like tributaries. That is to say, deliverance remains relevant to a country that has perpetually shook hands about the perceived erosion of masculine ideals and the ever-dividing lines of geography and topography. If anything, the film’s violent conflict resembles a foreshadowing of today’s culture wars. And through that lens, there’s an additional sad resonance to the famous duel of stringed instruments that more or less opens the film: a fleeting reconciliation between urban and rural America, doomed to give way to discord.