Deliverance (1972) is British director John Boorman's gripping, absorbing action-adventure film about four suburban Atlanta businessmen friends who encounter disaster in a summer weekend's river-canoeing trip. It was one of the first films with the theme of city-dwellers against the powerful forces of nature. The exciting box-office hit, most remembered for its inspired banjo duel and the brutal, violent action (and sodomy scene), was based on James Dickey's adaptation of his own 1970 best-selling novel (his first) of the same name - he contributed the screenplay and acted in a minor part as the town sheriff.
The stark, uncompromising film was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing), but went away Oscar-less. The beautifully-photographed film, shot entirely on location (in northern Georgia's Rabun County that is bisected by the Chattooga River), was the least-nominated film among the other Best Picture nominees. Ex-stuntman Burt Reynolds took the role of bow-and-arrow expert Lewis after it was turned down by James Stewart, Marlon Brando, and Henry Fonda on account of its on-location hazards.
The increasingly claustrophobic, downbeat film, shot in linear sequence along forty miles of a treacherous river, has been looked upon as a philosophical or mythical allegory of man's psychological and grueling physical journey against adversity. It came during the 70s decade when many other conspiracy or corruption-related films were made with misgivings, paranoia or questioning of various societal institutions or subject areas, such as the media (i.e., Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976)), politics (i.e., The Parallax View (1974), All the President's Men (1976)), science (i.e., Capricorn One (1977), Coma (1978), The China Syndrome (1979)), and various parts of the US itself (i.e., Race with the Devil (1975), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and later Southern Comfort (1981)).
A group of urban dwellers test their manhood and courage, totally vulnerable in the alien wild, and pit themselves against the hostile violence of nature. At times, however, they are attracted to nature, and exhilarated and joyful about their experiences in the wild. (Director Boorman pursued the same complex eco-message theme of man vs. nature in other films, including Zardoz (1973) and The Emerald Forest (1985).) As they progress further and further along in uncharted territory down the rapids, the men 'rape' the untouched, virginal wilderness as they are themselves violated by the pristine wilderness and its degenerate, inbred backwoods inhabitants. Survivalist skills come to the forefront when civilized standards of decency and logic fail.
The river is the potent personification of the complex, natural forces that propel men further and further along their paths. It tests their personal values, exhibiting the conflict between country and city, and accentuates what has been hidden or unrealized in civilized society. The adventurers vainly seek to be 'delivered' from the evil in their own hearts, and as in typical horror films, confront other-worldly forces in the deep woods. The flooding of the region after the completion of a dam construction project alludes to the purification and cleansing of the sins of the world by the Great Flood. The film was also interpreted as an allegory of the US' involvement in the Vietnam War - as the men (the US military) intruded into a foreign world (Southeast Asia), and found it was raped or confronted by wild forces it couldn't understand or control.The Story
The film opens with voice-overs of the main characters discussing the "vanishing wilderness" and the corruption of modern civilization, while the credits play over views of the flooding of one of the last untamed stretches of land, and the imminent wiping out of the entire Cahulawassee River and the small town of Aintry.
[The film's trailer provides details about the foursome: "These are the men. Nothing very unusual about them. Suburban guys like you or your neighbor. Nothing very unusual about them until they decided to spend one weekend canoeing down the Cahulawassee River. Ed Gentry - he runs an art service, his wife Martha has a boy Dean. Lewis Medlock has real estate interests, talks about resettling in New Zealand or Uruguay. Drew Ballinger - he's sales supervisor for a soft drink company. Bobby Trippe - bachelor, insurance and mutual funds. These are the men who decided not to play golf that weekend. Instead, they sought the river."]
The four characters include:
- Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds), a bow-hunter and avowed, macho survivalist and outdoorsman
- Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty in his film debut), overweight insurance salesman
- Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox in his film debut), a guitar player and sales supervisor
- Ed Gentry (Jon Voight, a star actor due to his appearance in Midnight Cowboy (1969)), married, runs an art service
Lewis lectures his friends and anxiously bemoans the dam construction that will soon destroy the ('damned' or 'dammed') Cahulawassee River and town. He urges his friends to take a ride down the river before a man-made lake will forever flood it:
...because they're buildin' a dam across the Cahulawassee River. They're gonna flood a whole valley, Bobby, that's why. Dammit, they're drownin' the river...Just about the last wild, untamed, unpolluted, unf--ked up river in the South. Don't you understand what I'm sayin'?...They're gonna stop the river up. There ain't gonna be no more river. There's just gonna be a big, dead lake...You just push a little more power into Atlanta, a little more air-conditioners for your smug little suburb, and you know what's gonna happen? We're gonna rape this whole god-damned landscape. We're gonna rape it.
His friends Bobby, Ed, and Drew label Lewis' views as "extremist." In voice-over, Lewis coaxes his three, soft city-slicker friends to join him for a weekend canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River - to pit themselves against the US wilderness. (The film's major poster declared: "This is the weekend they didn't play golf.") They leave behind their business jobs and civilized values for their "last chance" to go back to unspoiled nature for a weekend of canoeing, hunting, and fishing, in northern Georgia's scenic Appalachian wilderness.
Their two cars, Lewis' International Scout 4 x 4 and Drew's station wagon with canoes strapped on top, drive into the hillbilly wilderness to their odyssey's starting point:
We're gonna leave Friday, from Atlanta. I'm gonna have you back in your little suburban house in time to see the football game on Sunday afternoon. I know you'll be back in time to see the pom-pom girls at halftime 'cause I know that's all you care about...Yeah, there's some people up there that ain't never seen a town before, no bigger than Aintry anyway. And then those woods are real deep. The river's inaccessible except at a couple of points...This is the last chance we got to see this river. You just wait till you feel that white-water under you, Bobby...I'll have you in the water in an hour.
The first view of the city-dwelling buddies in the film occurs when the vehicles pull into a junk-littered, backwoods area that appears "evacuated already." The men reveal more of their believable personalities by their reactions to the community of mountain folk they meet in this first scene:
- the virile, dark-haired, dare-devil, savvy, somewhat repulsive leader Lewis (a patch on his jacket identifies him as the Co-captain of a skydiving group
- the chubby-overweight, comical, middle-class salesman Bobby
- the soft-spoken, decent, liberal and intellectually-minded, gentle, guitar-strumming Drew
- and the thoughtful, complex, timid, mild-mannered, pipe-smoking, curious Ed
From behind a dilapidated, squalid shanty building, the first primitive hillbilly emerges, suspicious that they are from the power company. Lewis asks the old mountain man (Ed Ramey) about hiring him to drive their two cars to a point downstream at their landing point of Aintry:
Lewis: We want somebody to drive 'em down to Aintry for us.
Man: Hell, you're crazy.
Lewis: No s--t. Hey, fill that one up with gas, huh, OK?
As the mountain man pumps gas, Bobby ridicules the strange man's repulsive look:
Say, mister, I love the way you wear that hat.
He is told: "You don't know nuthin'." Possible drivers are suggested to Lewis for hire: "You might get the Griner Brothers...They live back over that way."
One of the film's highlights is a lively, captivating banjo duel of bluegrass music, "Dueling Banjos" (actual title "Feudin' Banjos" - arranged and played by Eric Weissberg with guitarist Steve Mandell). [The song was authored by Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith in the 50s, and copyrighted by the Combine Music Corp.] Drew begins by playing chords on his guitar. A deformed, retarded, albino hillbilly youngster (Billy Redden) (on banjo) appears on the porch and answers him. Under his breath, Bobby criticizes the cretinous hillbilly boy: "Talk about genetic deficiencies. Isn't that pitiful?" From behind him, one of the backwoods folks asks: "Who's pickin' a banjo here?" The impromptu song is played as a rousing challenge between the two. Toward its furious ending, Drew admits to the grinning boy: "I'm lost." When Drew, seen as a suspicious stranger, compliments the moon-faced winner when they are done - "God damn, you play a mean banjo," the mute, inbred, half-witted boy resumes his stony stare, turns his head sharply, and refuses to shake hands with the interloping foreigner. Drew is obviously disappointed that the boy ignores him.
As Lewis drives to the nearby Griner Bros. garage, he ridicules Bobby's means of making a living - insurance sales, thereby tempting fate: "I've never been insured in my life. I don't believe in insurance. There's no risk." In an edgy, volatile encounter, Lewis bargains firmly with one of the grimy, poverty-stricken Griner brothers (Seamon Glass and Randall Deal) to have them drive their vehicles to Aintry for $40 - and receives a second ominous warning about the hazardous river:
Griner: Canoe trip?
Lewis: That's right, a canoe trip.
Griner: What the hell you wanna go f--k around with that river for?
Lewis: Because it's there.
Griner: It's there all right. You get in there and can't get out, you're gonna wish it wasn't.
Ed fears that they have pushed too hard: "Listen, Lewis, let's go back to town and play golf...Lewis, don't play games with these people." With Ed as his passenger, Lewis races his Bronco against the Griner's pickup truck to the river's launch point a few miles away through the dense woods - in his station wagon, Drew follows at a safe distance behind with Bobby. The reflections of leaves from the colorful canopy above shrouds and obscures a clear view of Ed and Lewis through the windshield - the jostling ride frightens Ed: "Lewis, you son-of-a-bitch, why do we have to go so god-damned fast?...Lewis, you're gonna kill us both, you son-of-a-bitch, before we ever see any water." When they reach the peaceful water's edge, Lewis philosophically contemplates the view:
Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything...A couple more months, she'll all be gone...from Aintry on up. One big dead lake.
They finally venture onto the river in two canoes: Drew with Ed, and Bobby with Lewis. Through the trees, they are observed at the water's edge by the Griners - inhabitants of the area before 'civilization' took over. The neophyte canoers are unsure of their direction:
Bobby: Which way are we goin', this way or that?
Lewis: I think, uh, downstream would be a good idea, don't you? Drew - you and Bobby see some rocks, you yell out now, right?...
Bobby: Lewis, is this the way you get your rocks off?
At first, their encounter with the river and nature is peaceful and tranquil as they paddle along - on a sunny day. Above them on a cross-walk bridge high above the placid river, the banjo-playing lad silently but intently watches them - the camera shooting from Drew's perspective. Before the first of many, increasingly-exciting sequences on the water, Lewis stands upright in the canoe and announces: "This gonna be fun!" They confront the twisting and turning white-water rapids of the swift-moving Chattooga River. They are exuberant and euphoric after victoriously navigating the challenging but not overwhelming wild-flowing water - under Lewis' expert instruction. Bobby is thrilled about shooting the rapids:
That's the best - the second best sensation I ever felt.
But Ed isn't as certain: "Damn, I thought we bought the farm there, for a while." Lewis reminisces about how it must have been for the original pioneers, while Bobby foolishes thinks they've masterfully beaten the river:
Lewis: The first explorers saw this country, saw it just like us.
Drew: I can imagine how they felt.
Bobby: Yeah, we beat it, didn't we? Did we beat that?
Lewis: You don't beat it. You don't beat this river.
With a high-powered bow-and-arrow fishing rod, Lewis takes aim at a fish, misses and then warns:
Machines are gonna fail and the system's gonna fail...then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That's the game - survive.
Lewis remarks that the mild-mannered, secure-in-life Ed has all the comforts of civilization, but does he know how to survive in the wild like a man? His implication to his companion is that only the strong survive:
Ed: Well, the system's done all right by me.
Lewis: Oh yeah. You gotta nice job, you gotta a nice house, a nice wife, a nice kid.
Ed: You make that sound rather s--tty, Lewis.
Lewis: Why do you go on these trips with me, Ed?
Ed: I like my life, Lewis.
Lewis: Yeah, but why do you go on these trips with me?
Ed: You know, sometimes I wonder about that.
The comrades camp at night by the river's edge, setting up tents, sitting around a campfire, listening to Drew's guitar playing, drinking beer, and roasting a fish that Lewis has speared. Bobby expresses some appreciation for the virgin river and the wilderness surrounding it:
Bobby: It's true, Lewis, what you said. There's somethin' in the woods and in the water that we have lost in the city.
Lewis: We didn't lose it. We sold it.
Bobby: Well, I'll say one thing for the system - the system did produce the air-mattress. Or as it's better known among we camping types the instant broad. And if you fellows will excuse me, I'm gonna go be mean to my air mattress.
Tension is heightened when Lewis senses "something or someone" in the blackness of the night around them. The three tenderfoots criticize Lewis' affinity to nature as he disappears to investigate: "He wants to be one with nature and he can't hack it." Ed drunkenly philosophizes about their isolation from the world:
No matter what disasters may occur in other parts of the world, or what petty little problems arise..., no one can find us up here.
The next morning after rising early, Ed takes his bow and arrow and stalks a deer - emulating his buddy. But his hands tremble at the moment of the arrow's release toward a live animal, and the shot veers into a tree trunk. Drew sensitively comments: "I don't understand how anyone could shoot an animal." Ed later explains his reason for faltering: "I lost control psychologically." No longer intoxicated by the thrill of the outdoors, Bobby complains about his mosquito bites: "I got eaten alive last night. My bites have got bites...I'm a salesman, Ed." Further down the river, Ed and Bobby become separated from the other two behind them. They pull their canoe out of the river when they decide to rest in the thick wilderness next to it.
More threatening than the untamed river are two evil, violent, primitive, degenerate and hostile mountain men, a gay hillbilly (Bill McKinney) and a grizzly, toothless man (Herbert "Cowboy" Coward) armed with a shotgun who suddenly appear from the woods and confront the intruders. [The wilderness isn't populated with romantic survivalists or enobled, heroic characters as in adventure stories, but sadistic brutes.] The two inexperienced, naive adventurers, assuming that the menacing backwoodsmen (who are harrassing them) are hiding a still to manufacture bootleg whiskey, promise not to tell anyone where it is located. Even away from his urban citified element, Ed maintains an inappropriate decorum of decency and ineffectually calls the animalistic rednecks 'gentlemen':
Mountain Man: What the hell you think you're doin'?
Ed: Headin' down river. A little canoe trip, headin' for Aintry.
Mountain Man: Aintry?
Bobby: Sure, this river only runs one way, captain, haven't you heard?
Mountain Man: You ain't never gonna get down to Ain-.
Ed: Well, why not?
Mountain Man: 'Cause. This river don't go to Aintry. You done taken a wrong turn. See uh, this here river don't go nowhere near Aintry.
Bobby: Where does it go, then?
Mountain Man: Boy, you are a lost one, ain't ya?
Bobby: Well, hell, I guess this river comes out somewhere, don't it? That's where we're goin'. Somewhere. Look, we don't want any trouble here.
Ed: If you gentlemen have a still near here, hell, that's fine with us.
Bobby: Why sure. We'd never tell anybody where it is. You know somethin', you're right, we're lost. We don't know where in the hell we are.
Toothless Man: A still?
Bobby: Right, yeah. You're makin' some whiskey up here. We'll buy some from ya, we could use it, couldn't we?
Mountain Man: Do you know what you're talkin' about?
Ed: We don't know what we're talkin' about, honestly we don't.
Mountain Man: No, no. You said somethin' about makin' whiskey, right? Isn't that what you said?
Ed: We don't know what you're doin' and we don't care. That's none of our business.
Mountain Man: That's right. It's none of your god-damned business, right.
Ed: We got quite a long journey ahead of us, gentlemen.
Toothless Man: Hold it. You ain't goin' no damn wheres.
Ed: This is ridiculous.
Toothless Man: Hold it, or I'll blow your guts out all over these woods.
Ed: Gentlemen, we can talk this thing over. What is it you require of us?