Two sounds leap to mind at the mere mention of Deliverance. The first is the tuneful bluegrass plink of Arthur Smith’s Dueling Banjos, performed by the eponymous instrument and an acoustic guitar harmonizing with it. The second, much less pleasant sound is the high, pained yelp of Ned Beatty, squealing like a pig to appease the depraved stranger violating him. So crucial are both to the enduring power of John Boorman’s 1972 nightmare in the boonies that the first can’t help but evoke the second: five decades later, that banjo tune still sounds like a warning – an omen of danger ahead, especially the kind that lies off the beaten path, south of the Mason-Dixon.
It’s a version of America nearly extinct, the more wild and dangerous one traversed by the explorers of legend, that the four city slickers of Deliverance go searching for on their ill-fated canoe trip down the fictional Cahulawassee River. Revisiting the film, on the verge of its 50th anniversary, feels like its own choppy expedition into the rough-and-tumble past. When else but the heyday of New Hollywood could a shocking survival thriller featuring an infamously grueling scene of sexual violence become one of the biggest hits of the year?
Deliverance didn’t just make money and the careers of most of its cast. It earned strong reviews, too, and picked up some major academy award nominations, even inching its way into the best picture race. (It would lose the big one to a more sweeping portrait of American violence, The Godfather.) Boorman, the British genre specialist who made the Lee Marvin existential noir Point Blank, situated the film at the intersection of prestige and exploitation. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a sturdy studio drama jolted alive with B-movie savagery or a B action picture with pretensions of seriousness.
Written by James Dickey, faithfully adapting his own 1970 novel, Deliverance quickly, cleanly lays out its trajectory through the ventricles of a heart of darkness. Gathering for some old-fashioned male bonding by way of wilderness adventure are four businessmen from Atlanta: the self-aggrandizing macho bully Lewis (Burt Reynolds), thoughtful strummer Drew (Ronny Cox), good-sport accountant Bobby (Beatty), and level -headed audience surrogate Ed (Jon Voight). Together they’ll cross a stretch of Georgia on a rushing river destined to become a still lake, thanks to a dam being constructed by the state.
Lewis, presumably named for one of America’s most famous adventurers, complains of such “progress”, waxing nostalgic about an America untouched by industry. “We’re going to rape this landscape,” he sighs – one of several lines of dialogue that foreshadows the hellish gauntlet to come. When Ed later notes that “No one can find us up here,” he’s relishing the seclusion of their sojourn off the grid, unaware that he’ll come to regret it. One dark irony of the film is that it gives these four men an extreme version of what they’re supposedly seeking: a more primeval America, further from civilization than they bargained for.
You could call Deliverance the “reputable”, mainstream cousin to contemporary classics of deep-south-west mayhem like The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Boorman’s backwoods bogeymen aren’t quite as inhuman as the cannibalistic redneck monsters of those movies, but they’re still ghoulish caricatures, fulfilling the quintessential stereotype of the rural south as an enclave of toothless, depraved cousin-fuckers. It’s pure turf war on the banks of the river, the endless national conflict between city and country values given a grotesquely visceral shape. Still, however much the film made the Peach state look like a playground for inbred deviants, it also spurred tourism to the area, boosted the whitewater rafting industry, and helped turn Georgia into the go-to Hollywood filming locale it is today.
Boorman’s action has a ruthless spontaneity, born of the bumbling nature of the exploits – all of these characters are in over their heads, figuratively and literally – and the reckless conditions of a shoot that cut corners and risked injury. (That there were no stunt doubles becomes shockingly clear during the scenes on the river, the film’s stars plainly plummeting off their canoes.) The most notorious moment, when Bobby is brutalized by the gun-toting rapist, has lost none of its queasy intensity : its awful hicksploitation power comes from the way Boorman cuts dispassionately from stark wide shots to closeups that conceal the sexual violence while centering Beatty’s simulated anguish. It seems to go on forever – and in fact, Reynolds later claimed that Boorman kept the camera running for an uncomfortably long time, until he stepped in to object.
This was, of course, the film that made Reynolds a movie star. Which makes sense, as he’s downright iconic in the role, a magnetically obnoxious cowboy blowhard. Boorman basks in his rugged sex appeal but also slyly subverts it, both in emphasizing Lewis’s brutish cruelty and in eventually reducing him to a mewling shell of himself, all of his machismo drained out of him by a gnarly fracture of the femur. It’s possible to read Deliverance as an indictment of America’s obsession with traditional masculinity. Where does Lewis’s back-to-nature trial of manhood lead but physical and psychological destruction? And what is Bobby’s heinous ordeal but a kind of horror-movie escalation of the emasculating, fat-shaming harassment he hardens from Lewis on the rapids?
Released in the same era as Dirty Harry and Death Wish, the film also works as an interrogation of vigilante revenge thrillers. Whatever righteous satisfaction Deliverance provokes by putting an arrow straight through Bobby’s assailant (character actor and Clint Eastwood favorite Bill McKinney) slowly dissipates in the aftermath, as our heroes relinquish any moral high ground, even as they gain a literal one. Open questions complicate everything that follows. Is Drew actually shot on the river, or is it just a shock that sends him into the water? And is the man Ed kills on the bluff the same one who held him at gunpoint, or just another backwoods other to his wrath and feared him? In the nightmare that closes the film, it’s guilt and uncertainty that really come floating to the surface, a bloated corpse bobbing in Ed’s subconscious.
Fifty years after Deliverance, Hollywood has smoothed its own raging river. The jaggedness of Boorman’s movie is ancient history, a long-lost quality in studio thrillers. Yet the tensions the film exploited still snake through the culture like tributaries. Which is to say, Deliverance remains relevant to a country eternally hand-wringing about the supposed erosion of masculine ideals and forever divided down lines of geography and topography. If anything, the movie’s violent conflict looks like a premonition of the culture wars of today. And through that lens, there’s an extra sad resonance to the famous duel of stringed instruments that more or less opens the movie: a fleeting harmony between urban and rural America, doomed to give way to discord.