Here 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:
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.
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.
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.”
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…
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.
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…
Parallel Post Series
- The Laughing Policeman
- The Joy Luck Club
- Like Water For Chocolate
- Edge of Tomorrow
- – 2015 posts
- – 2014 posts
- – 2013 posts
- – 2012 posts
- – 2011 posts
- – 2010 posts
- “Sam Peckinpah wanted to direct the movie. When John Boorman secured the rights, Peckinpah directed Straw Dogs (1971) instead.” ~ IMDB ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- “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 ↩
- Sodomy mentioned in the novel, but not exactly the same thing, now is it? ↩
- 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. ↩