Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
"No one beats this river."
John Boorman made his mark in memorable films about conflict in the wilderness: Hell in the Pacific, The Emerald Forest. Deliverance distinguishes itself by transcending the director's habit of overreaching for greater significance. James Dickey's adaptation of his own book dotes on obvious symbolism, as when we see an entire church being hauled away from a doomed town. But the situation of four city dwellers confronted with a backwoods nightmare is both credible and compelling, and most of the acting couldn't be better. Deliverance is a top drama about men under pressure.
In the relaxed artistic climate of the early 1970s mainstream movies began to confront subject matter previously considered unthinkable. Deliverance became immediately notorious because of a scene involving a fairly explicit sodomy rape. In terms of honesty, the scene still hasn't been topped. The savage conflict in Deliverance outweighs the preachy tone of its script.
Atlanta businessmen Ed Gentry, Lewis Medlock, Bobby Trippe and Drew Ballinger (Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty & Ronny Cox) take a weekend trip down the Cahulawassee River before it is swallowed up by a lake formed by a new dam. They arrange for some standoffish hill people to deliver their cars downriver, and set out in canoes. Macho survivalist Lewis lectures the others with his apocalyptic theories, and intimidates easy-going insurance salesman Bobby. Then Ed and Bobby chance upon a pair of shotgun-toting mountain men (Bill McKinney & Herbert 'Cowboy' Coward), and the weekend jaunt turns into a nightmare.
Deliverance consciously inverts the myth that rural people are naturally noble and unspoiled. The four friends from Atlanta need only drive a couple of hundred miles into the hills to find themselves among uncommunicative and suspicious folk, some of whom live seemingly on the edge of savagery. The difficulty of establishing friendly contact is driven home when Ronny Cox's Drew engages in a banjo duet with a silent and apparently inbred mountain boy. They make sensational music together, but the boy refuses to bond over the experience or even talk to Drew. Thus Dickey and Boorman propose -- unfairly, when one thinks about it -- that the 'hicks' left behind by progress are devolving into a bitter underclass just itching for a chance to strike back at the smug city folks.
The unfussy dramatic setup leaves us wide open for the film's 'symbolic' content. When the boys first set out, they pass beneath a bridge where the silent musician slowly swings his banjo, as if it were a railroad warning signal. Boorman is telling us that utter doom lies in wait down the river, and even the beauties of untouched nature seem forbidding. Lewis preaches self-reliance and survival skills; Ed has another beer and counters that the city has been pretty good to him. We know that both men will soon be severely tested.
Many audiences that wouldn't be caught dead attending The Devils or A Clockwork Orange expected Deliverance to be a standard adventure tale and were taken by surprise by its frightening, graphic rape scene. Jumped by two rough mountain men, Jon Voight's sensitive Ed Gentry is strapped to a tree while poor Bobby Trippe is stripped and violated. The shocking scene is utterly convincing, not to mention a demonstration of enormous professional bravery on the part of actor Ned Beatty. Lewis reacts decisively, and the four must then deal with the fact that they've killed a man. Burt Reynolds has an impressive physical presence but is the film's weakest link, partly because his character Lewis is burdened with so much oratory. He sounds a bit false as he spouts pompous lines about the corruption of the city and the survival of the fittest: "Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything."
In a burst of savagery that surely influenced exploitative horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, Deliverance turns a camping holiday into a life and death struggle. Not everyone will survive and those that do have to stick together when the authorities start asking questions. Author Dickey plays a cagey Sheriff tasked with sorting out what really happened on the Cahulawassee. When the facts don't add up, the Sheriff tries to undo Ed and Bobby's shaky story. Just how did that canoe fragment magically drift upriver?
Deliverance succeeds because it deals with everyday, believable guys and not Rambo-ized superheroes. When Lewis is put out of action, the unassertive Ed must take the initiative, setting up a familiar masculine challenge. Ed does 'what a man has to do' but is racked with guilt when he can't be certain that the man he kills is really one of the earlier attackers. Ironically, the 'civilized' skills condemned by Lewis are the ones that save the day. Nervous insurance man Bobby is at a clear disadvantage in a macho standoff. But when the deputies challenge his account of the 'accident' on the river, Bobby sidesteps and stonewalls like a master.
Boorman's fluid direction makes Deliverance into a tense ordeal. Everyone has some notion of what camping is like and we experience the downriver passage in several stages. When things go wrong the river becomes a hostile environment of cliffs and pit-like pools; Ed must cling to a mountainside to fight for his life. Just to throw us off balance, Boorman prints a partial negative image back into the nighttime climbing scenes, giving Ed's ascent a weird, otherworldly feeling. Drew starts by saying that the original explorers must have shared the same kind of thrill of entering virgin territory. That leads into Lewis' contention that modern man is raping the wilderness, and our guilty suspicion that nature is striking back. After this movie was released, I can imagine that tourism in the back hills of Georgia took a nosedive.
Warners' 35th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Deliverance replaces a much older release with an improved enhanced transfer that flatters the camerawork of Vilmos Zsigmond. I remember the stunning 70mm six-track audio during the film's exclusive run at the Cinerama Dome, and the disc's 5.1 audio recreates the same dynamics. John Boorman and all four leading actors add their anecdotes and opinions to Laurent Bouzereau's multi-part 35th Anniversary retrospective docu, which covers every aspect of the film including the story behind that amazing dueling banjos scene. Boorman also provides his thoughts on a full commentary. A 1972 promo The Dangerous World of Deliverance is included, along with a trailer. Tracks are provided in English and French, and subs in English and Spanish.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Deliverance (Deluxe Edition) rates:
Supplements: John Boorman commentary; Laurent Bouzereau docu with Boorman and all four main stars.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 27, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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