Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Deliverance Film Review

deliveranceHere we are once more, reaching the end of another month at the close of the Memorial Day weekend. Consequently, bringing one more book-film combo into our sights in the duo post series. Enabling the two of us, the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and me, to draw down on the next review in parallel. Like arrows into a target…or an assailant. In our defense, we feel justified. The wordy one will look at a novel well-known enough to be later wrangled by Hollywood movie makers, which I’ll review.

Another in my ’70s top-heavy picks for the year, Deliverance one of those book titles that attained acclaim as well as notoriety when it debuted in 1970. Its author, James Dickey, a veteran of WWII and the Korean wars, worked in advertising before turning over a new leaf to write poetry and novels. The most famous being his national bestseller of four men caught in a violent test of manhood as they canoe down a wild North Georgia river.

Two years later, an English filmmaker, best known for his uniquely cinematic works of Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific, turned this harrowing novel — with the tumultuous collaboration of the author — into an extraordinary screen translation that unsettled many. Those who saw it first-run in some darkened movie hall, with other moviegoers, shared a communal experience. Especially the males attending who didn’t know what lay ahead in one of the most noteworthy that decade.

There was before Deliverance…then after. A demarcation of sort, almost a rite of passage, especially for those of us just out of high school when it premiered. Rachel will thoroughly examine the novel the Modern Library selected as its #42 pick on their list of the 100 best 20th-Century novels, which was also included on Time magazine’s index of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923. The wordy one’s book review can be found here:

Deliverance by James Dickey

A brief synopsis of the film: Four Atlanta businessmen, Lewis Medlock, Ed Gentry, Bobby Trippe and the musically inclined Drew Ballinger, decide to canoe down a river in the remote northern Georgia wilderness. To enjoy and witness the area’s unspoiled nature before the Cahulawassee River valley is flooded by the dam under construction. Adventure and maybe some drinking to had on this excursion into the country. The rare experience for the “city boys” in the group, Bobby and Drew the novices. The trip Lewis’ idea, an experienced outdoorsman, and his to lead. His closest friend Ed alongside, also a veteran of several trips, but lacking the testosterone of his partner. The violence, violation, and murder to come of it, not what the foursome intended, if they survive the escapade at all.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself ‘fore you can find anything.”

Where to start with something like this. Few films would fit the criteria of being not only memorable, one of the key contributions in a significant period of cinema, but an experience that shook to your core. Hell, even change your perception in toto, maybe even take up a new sport you’d never considered before this. All from a movie. Happened to me, and I daresay wasn’t the only one my age it happened to. Not only would I subsequently read James Dickey’s source novel, I’d eventually practice archery for years afterward.

That influential.

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It goes without saying John Boorman’s adaptation of Deliverance one of the most brooding, brutal (emotionally and physically), and violent masterpieces of the ’70s and well beyond. It’s the Straw Dogs of weekend canoeing and defilement if Sam Peckinpah1 had been less combative and didn’t overcrank the camera. Its duality of barbarism and civility, morality and pragmatism made it unique for film back then. Made you want to ask more questions because of it.

Right up to the moment when that hand rises from the water and you want to scream right along with Jon Voight — the nightmare that just keeps on giving.

The key being it had something to say about manhood in the modern world. Typified by the four male archetypes now second nature to us all: Lewis, the alpha-male; Ed, his loyal second (author James Dickey’s self-insertion in his novel and the film, therefore); Drew, the easy-going musician and the moral conscience of the group; and the unlucky (read weak) Bobby. The victim none of the others would ever trade places with, but honor-bound to shield. If for no other reason than their own collective shame.

A few had seen the visually elegant style of filmmaking that had quickly become director John Boorman‘s trademark by this point in ’72. Dickey’s distinct language and meter took a number of pages to set up the unexpectedly horrifying tale in his svelte novel. Boorman condensed them eloquently into imagery and voiceover via his opening scenes only cinema shorthands so well. In artful minutes, the audience knows exactly who they’re dealing with, and in due course who they’ll pull for and struggle against.

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The damming of a seemingly idyllic valley2 the symbolic violation of nature that Lewis uses to lure Ed and his friends to come experience. Like the “first explorers” did, Lewis (Burt Reynolds) ideally expounds. The implicit ravaging of the environment and the people there already the great unspoken. On one hand, the Cahulawassee duly takes it out upon the city-dwellers, perhaps with tacit approval by the poor, illiterate locals being displaced as a result. Others would argue it’s the other way around, in point of fact.

Your mileage may vary.

The three-day weekend canoe trip downriver a journey of discovery — just not one you’d ever wish to stumble upon. Famously, or infamously, it all turns on an act until then scarcely dropped into pop culture, or movie screens. Two four-letter words never joined in a sentence. “Male” and “Rape”. Dickey jotted neither down describing the pivotal scene, in the novel3 nor the film — “sexual assault” at least uttered onscreen. Still, it was the ’70s. A tailor-made time for envelope-pushing writers and filmmakers.

“Do know what’s gonna be here? Right here? A lake. As far as the eyes can see. Hundreds of feet deep. HUNDREDS of feet deep. Did you ever look out over a lake and think of somethin’ buried underneath it? Buried underneath it. Well man, that’s just about as buried as you can get.”

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Hard to believe a handful of acting careers blossomed because of a film featuring something few American males could sit through without squirming in their seats. Even today, in a taboo-crossing filmscape of varied and explicit violence (from Irréversible to The Human Centipede), “that scene” still can shake many. For decades afterwards I’ve no doubt Ned Beatty (Bobby) and his mountain man violator Bill McKinney were understandably remembered for it. The latter again deservedly impaled by Clint Eastwood years later.

The audience’s imagination ravished as much as the victim by what’s merely insinuated, or heard4, onscreen. Years ago, not many men openly discussed “that” for fear their manhood come into question. In spite of this, probably the real power of the film was it started the conversation such things existed5.

No matter, it re-confirmed Voight’s acting chops during a mini-slump, as well as provide Burt Reynolds a launch vehicle up from TV actor and B-movie stand-in. This also Beatty’s and his stage co-hort Ronny Cox‘s (Drew) feature film debuts that forever tied them as an unforgettable foursome in the minds of many.

Breakthrough material and filmmaking, and only one way out of the “…country of nine-fingered people“, as James Dickey colorfully coined and John Boorman and others recreated. Think how Peter Hyams had Sam Waterson’s character struggle up a desert peak in Capricorn One (1977) à la Ed’s river gorge climb. Even more, Walter Hill’s superb take with Southern Comfort; or Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown and The River Wild Curtis Hanson took. And what if you probe the tale’s sexual fears of penile tyranny…

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The figurative tip of which landed before the decade finished abusing us in Alien (1979). Don’t think the sci-fi-horror classic was directly or indirectly influenced by Deliverance? An unrelenting critter from birth to maturation like George Roundy’s fave body part…a phallus monster forcibly inserted via facehugger. Ed Gentry would. To say nothing that it makes a chest-bursting entrance in the same spot Lewis’ arrow ran through a certain mountain man as comeuppance for his uninvited penetration. Case closed now?

Plus, the film shaped peoples’ minds towards poor white Appalachians the same way Jaws did for sharks three years later.

The brilliant, gut-wrenching experience that is Deliverance, even after forty-plus-years, is that we continue to talk about it. Shocking those who view the film by its seeming plausibility in a tale of an outdoor weekend going down a doomed and soon to be dammed river, and how it goes traumatically wrong for four city guys in the wilderness. Judging the survivors actions, weighing their justifications, as we, the audience, put ourselves in their place. Remains the stuff of adventure, bad dreams, and post-traumatic stress.

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The film beautifully and hauntingly lensed by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond to drive the point.

Though not a horror film per se, you’d be hard-pressed to think otherwise. The harbinger of the uncompassionate fate awaiting them, the moment our clashing quartet finally underway. Spotting the same child they played “Dueling Banjos” with earlier, as their canoes glide under the bridge. One of the most foreboding sequences I’ve seen, and yet a crafty distillation of its source. All in poetic and elegiac visual prose care of Dickey6 and the uncredited writing aid by director Boorman so that the film, like the book, lingered

…like forever.

Parallel Post Series

  1. “Sam Peckinpah wanted to direct the movie. When John Boorman secured the rights, Peckinpah directed Straw Dogs (1971) instead.” ~ IMDB 
  2. The poverty, not to mention the genetic inbreeding implied amongst the clannish hillbillies, of the region another of the violations humankind has left upon the land. 
  3. Arguably, as much as “male rape” is thrown into scripts these days (sometimes jokingly, almost always in the crime genre, and mostly relating to prison or Law & Order: SVU) it’s mainly to ostracize; even as a punishment for possible wrong-doers. Hardly equated to its gender counterpart, or that it’s a human issue rather than merely a woman’s, unfortunately. 
  4.  “The rape scene as originally scripted consisted mainly of swearing. The “squeal like a pig” phrase was an attempt to “clean up” the scene for TV viewing. John Boorman liked the “cleaner” version, and used it in the film.” ~ IMDB 
  5. Sodomy mentioned in the novel, but not exactly the same thing, now is it? 
  6. The author’s on-site contributions beyond the script disruptive enough that Boorman asked Dickey to leave. He’d return by the time his cameo as Aintry’s sheriff arrived near the end of the production, though. 
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29 Responses to “Deliverance Film Review”

  1. Cavershamragu

    Fantastic post chum, well done. A great movie that is too often passively accepted as such without subjecting it to much scrutiny – and you really made me laugh with that ‘deservedly impaled’ line 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. Rick Ouellette

    Ha-Ha, “deservedly impaled” brought back a smile and memory. “Deliverance” was my first “R” movie, seen with my parents! (my father saw it by himself beforehand before approving it for me, all of 14. He did mention there was one iffy scene). At the decisive moment, as Lewis is drawing back the arrow, my mom called out “Give it to him but good!” I almost died of embarrassment. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Oh, what a great movie memory, Rick. Yeah, I’d have done the same. This one of those movies that make one dwell on it something fierce. Thank you very much. 🙂

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  3. Arlee Bird

    Great film, great book. Both are favorites of mine. It was a good thing to allow Dickey to have such a major hand in bringing the novel to the screen.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      No doubt. And the proof is in the putting all there to see and appreciate when one watches ‘Deliverance’, for sure. Thanks, Arlee. 🙂

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  4. Cindy Bruchman

    Great review, Michael with lots of juicy details and information. I love this film. The nature of it. The fantastic acting by everyone (It’s the only film where I thought Burt Reynolds was outstanding). The dueling banjos has been a constant joke/reminder in my family for decades. It’s like Lord of the Flies. Heavy, symbolic, scary, awesome.

    Liked by 3 people

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Thank so much, Cindy. Yeah, little wonder Burt Reynolds catapulted into a movie star with this role. Really is fantastic to watch, and embodies the character ferociously. Quite a match of material to cast, too

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  5. Rachel

    Wow! What a fantastic review! I think you meant that YOU would “thoroughly” examine in your post as mine was ever so brief. When I sat down to write up I realized I had three posts worth of things to say but not the time to do it in. Tried to touch on some issues briefly but don’t think it really came together. Not like this lovely gem of a review. Really enjoyed all the details of production and audience response.

    I thought it was a truly fantastic adaptation. Both the action and tone were perfectly brought to the screen. Cast was great, too. All in all what I would point to if I was trying to come up with an example of the definitive how-to when it comes to adapting a book. (And how gorgeous was that river? I mean, before it all went to shit I wanted to be there. So beautiful. Brought back many wonderful canoeing memories.)

    That being said, since I didn’t really care for the book I’m sure you can imagine the movie didn’t exactly resonate with me either. The romanticist back-to-nature survival attitude (personified here esp by Lewis) has never connected with me (not least of which as no one ever seems to understand how valuable antibiotics and toilet paper are, it’s always – always – focused on violence as a means to survive). Along with the romantical vs practical/realistic aspects of survival, also these stories are too often couched in the test of “manhood” you mentioned. Again I can’t connect with such a myopic view of manhood or how we interact with nature. (I did love though that Dickey rightly identified other people as what we truly have to survive in this life.)

    And, finally, while I found Bobby’s rape horrifying (as I would find any attack and violation of a person horrifying) growing up as a woman I have repeatedly watched people who look like me get sexually assaulted as a plot point. As a storytelling device it loses its effectiveness. If the only reason a scene can be so memorable is because we don’t expect a particular individual to be a victim (and you rightly identified that Bobby is represented in unsubtley coded ways that make him victim-eligible) then my mind can’t get over the idea that we have made it routine for very specific people to be victims without question or a second thought. Now that’s truly horrifying. It hurts both those who are expected to be victims and those who aren’t allowed to be victims despite the fact that this can happen to anyone.

    As I think has probably become obvious, my mind was not where the author intended it to be for this fable.

    Really glad you picked this one, though. It’s always nice to visit a classic of literature. Clearly I would not list this as high up as pretty much everyone else seems to but I do like to visit those titles that I’ve missed that have been so influential in American culture and lit. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Yes, a memorable movie that caused some reflection on my part. I knew it would when I selected this book/film combo. Really affected me back then. Y’know, while this was what inspired me to take up archery, it also made sure I’d never get in a canoe. Good to know it reinforced good canoeing memories for you.

      I do see your point regarding the survival and manhood constructs, and their mythicized import. Been used time and time again…and in various forms. Most in the moviemaking business are men and have pushed such stories on the movie-going masses for eons. And usually it’s the violent, test-of-manhood solutions offered up.

      The “discretion is the better part of valor” way out need not apply.

      Also a valid point about telegraphing Bobby’s “victim-eligible” (oh, that’s a good phrasing) status. I reckon Dickey’s inserting (this be the bad on my part) ‘rape’ scenario upon the then unexpected male figure — and let’s be honest, this crime has been way overused as a plot point for some time — did turn it on its head.

      And maybe there was a lesson there for men to absorb (especially compared to what you and every woman I’ve known has expressed about this issue) that could be argued gets lost in all that desperate cinematic excitement.

      ” It hurts both those who are expected to be victims and those who aren’t allowed to be victims despite the fact that this can happen to anyone.”

      Excellent point, and I hoped I’d covered it some in my footnote (3). This is exactly why I look forward to comments, Rachel. Glad we got a chance to do something like this. Many thanks. 🙂

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  6. Mark Walker

    Wonderful piece. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Deliverance but I remember it like yesterday. Especially “that scene”. It’s a sobering journey but marvellously made. I really should tackle the book as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Thank you very kindly, Mark. Yeah, it’s one of those films that really leave an impression. I very much recommend the book. Dickey’s style of writing makes it engrossing in a very unexpected way, even if you know where the story will take you. 🙂

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  7. Eric Binford

    Excellent essay! Great, great film! Southern Comfort is great too. Rituals (1977), with Hal Holbrook, is very similar to Deliverance (1972) and interesting in its own right .

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Thank you very much, Eric. Oh, and thanks for recommending RITUALS with Hal Holbrook. Planning on definitely checking that one out. 🙂

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  8. ruth

    I remember talking about this movie w/ a friend, might have been Ted, and it looks too scary for me. Based on your review, looks like it confirms my dread, I just don’t have the nerves for this kind of movies!

    Liked by 1 person

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