Or, a review of John Boorman’s 1972 film Deliverance, which he produced and directed, based upon James Dickey’s 1970 novel of the same name. Dickey also wrote the screenplay, which explains a lot, especially if you are familiar with his ‘poetry.’ The actual look of the film, however, is sensational. The cinematography of nature, by Vilmos Zsigmond, is still stunning after forty years- especially those scenes shot in twilight, dusk, and night, and the first forty-five or so minutes sets the basis of a good tale which could have been something really special. Then, Dickey digs into his own personal bag of fetishes (his most famous poem is The Sheep Child, about bestiality) and latencies and the film becomes an almost nonstop stream of a narrative propelled by the Dumbest Possible Action theory of film.
Although the coinage of that term arrived a few years later than this film, Deliverance is as fine an example of that genre as there is. The term arrived in the early 1980s, when a spate of slasher films from the Halloween to the Nightmare On Elm Street to the Friday The 13th series, to their even cheaper knockoffs, were always dependent upon the early success of their villains stemming from the utter stupidity of their victims, to wit: big breasted cheerleader is alone in a dark house, hears a scream from down an even darker hallway, yet rushes headlong toward the scream, all the while knowing that a serial killer is lurking about. In similar fashion, this film goes from a realistic portrayal of masculine mores to a silly, unrealistic, A to B to C pointless film. The turning point comes when one of the four male leads is sodomized forcefully by a hillbilly and his toothless gun-toting crony. But, let’s back up, here. Let us cue the wavy flashback sequence and see where this film started off.
The film opens up with some gorgeous shots of northern Georgia, at the southern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. There is a voiceover of several men, which grounds the back story without illustrative footage, detailing that they want to canoe down the fictive Cahulawassee River (the film was shot in on the Chattooga River, between Georgia and South Carolina) because a government dam project will soon flood the valley, to make a reservoir, and the river will be gone. They are four middle class white Atlanta suburbanites, and little is explicitly stated about them re: jobs and personal lives. Minor personal information filters through, by film’s end, but it is irrelevant to the action of the film, and all four are all to be taken as representatives of men of their era. The four are Ed Gentry (Jon Voight)- an ad man, Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds)- a macho man, Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty)- a salesman, and Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox)- a family man. At a gas station, Drew engages in a song contest with a mute retarded boy (Billy Redden). Drew plays a guitar and the boy a banjo. The song, Dueling Banjoes, became the signature of the film- in a film largely absent of music, along with the aforementioned sodomy scene (and its catchphrase, ‘Squeal like a pig!’), and won the 1974 Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance. All four men are weekend warrior wannabe types, mostly full of guff and bluff, and the worst of them is Lewis, portrayed by a buff, unmustachioed, and pre-national joke Reynolds.
The whole film, in fact, masques as some deep critique of what it is to ‘be a man,’ and concomitant clichés, when really it’s pure male fantasy- sans an appearance by the Swedish Bikini Team and with the presence of the homosexual hillbillies. Yet, as the four meet the locals and get under way, the film opens up possibilities that there could be some depth revealed. All the actors are good- quite good with the little they are given, but then Dickey’s perversions betray them. Instead of there being some accident or nature’s throwing obstacles that cause the men to survive and reflect upon real events, all we get are a couple of perverse homosexual hillbillies (Bill McKinney and Herbert ‘Cowboy’ Coward) with a penchant for Bobby Trippe’s fat ass. Why this occurs we do not have a clue. Were this a horror film or a slasher film, ok, one might be able to get away with the oddity of inbred pederasts prowling the Dixie woods, but the whole scene is so utterly pointless and unbelievable, as well as what follows in the film, that one feels that the film went down an even wronger bend in the river than did the characters within it. Yes, Beatty’s character is demeaned and raped by McKinney’s- and, incidentally, never washes his ass out of cum, while Voight’s is tied to a tree, and then prepped to be forced to fellate Coward’s toothless hillbilly. If not for Reynolds’ Lewis’s ability with a bow and arrow (he shoots and kills the sodomite, who dies very slowly- the most realistic scene in the film) both Bobby and Ed would have ended up killed.
Yet, why did not the two men fight back? There were two hillbillies, but only one gun. I surely would not go off peacefully into the woods with two over the top looking inbred mutants, especially if I had a fifty-fifty chance of survival. There was simply no reason for the hillbillies’ actions nor the duo’s non-action in the film, and at that scene’s occurrence. Then, when the four men have to dispose of the dead hillbilly, Lewis convinces them that the law will not protect them, that the hillbillies’ kith would hang them for murder. Yet, all they’d have to do is report the death, show them the scars and anal assault on Bobby, and the case is over. Certainly homophobic hillbillies would not try to stand by queer rapists in their midst- relative or no? And, even if they did, the fact that four members of Atlanta’s business community were attacked by savages would more than ensure fair trial coverage. And what of moving the trial to a neutral county? Only Drew objects, but his knowledge of the law is at a third grade level. Yet, the film is set in the then contemporaneous 1970s. Were it set a century earlier there may have been a more plausible rationale for the covering up of the killing of the rapist.
So, the four men vote and three of them decide to bury the corpse, since the valley will soon be under hundreds of feet of water, and they assume no one will ever find the body. They do so, but Drew is inexplicably catatonic and guilt-stricken, and when they get back on the river, he decides not to wear his life preserver, then tumbles over the side and drowns. Sorry, but if a friend of mine were raped by a guy, and another friend killed the rapist, I would feel no remorse over the death. Yet, we never see a hint of what is wrong with Drew. Anyway, his fall causes his canoe to veer out of control, and run into Bobby’s and Lewis’s, which causes all four men to fall into the river, at a deep gorge. Lewis’s leg is broken, but he claims that the toothless hillbilly got revenge and shot Drew, perhaps just to keep egging his pals on, and whip them into a testosteronic fury. The viewer can see clearly that this is not so- as Drew was not shot, but Lewis’s manipulations work, for it sets up Ed to climb the gorge and somehow shoot both himself with an arrow, as well as an innocent hunter he presumes to be the toothless hillbilly, yet which clearly is not.
Yet more Dumbest Possible Action. And I won’t even get into how, sans climbing equipment, a tired and injured Ed could scale near vertical rock with bare hands, and a bow and arrow in hand. Then, after killing the hunter, Ed decides to lower the corpse to the river, with rope, and goes down the rope himself. Why would he lower the body and not just leave it, or toss it onto the rocks below? And, as he lowers himself, we see the rope rubbing on rock, and know it will soon snap- Melodrama Alert! When it does, Ed survives the backwards fall of several hundred feet into the water, and neither he nor Billy are sure that the man is not the toothless pervert. They then get Lewis into the metal canoe (the other wooden one was destroyed on the rapids after Drew fell overboard), and paddle to safety, make up a tale to the local sheriff (played by Dickey), and head back to their lives. At the end of the film, Ed dreams of a hand rising from the river- the hillbilly’s or Drew’s- both of whose bodies they weighted down in the river?
The film is just so implausible, even as it has been very influential. Many strains of its themes can be seen in other ‘river’ films as diverse as Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Apocalypse Now, Stand By Me, A River Runs Through It, and Mean Creek. With the exception of the last film (a teen version of Deliverance), all of the rest of the films avoid propulsion by the Dumbest Possible Action. That so few critics, then or now, recognized this fact is typical. I was ready to say amazing or appalling, but who am I kidding? It would have been amazing had more recognized what a crock the film serves up. One of the few that did, surprisingly, was the Chicago Sun-Times’ often stolid film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote:
Dickey, who wrote the original novel and the screenplay, lards this plot with a lot of significance- universal, local, whatever happens to be on the market. He is clearly under the impression that he is telling us something about the nature of man, and particularly civilized man’s ability to survive primitive challenges….But I don’t think it works that way….What the movie totally fails at, however, is its attempt to make some kind of significant statement about its action….Dickey has given us here is a fantasy about violence, not a realistic consideration of it. It’s possible to consider civilized men in a confrontation with the wilderness without throwing in rapes, cowboy-and-Indian stunts and pure exploitative sensationalism.
Exactly. Ebert does not mention the Dumbest Possible Action trope because the term had yet to be coined, but the film is pure fantasy. The characters are soon shorn of realism, and the plot unravels to utter silliness, however gruesome. Dickey’s idea of depth is to have Lewis utter vapid wannabe Bartlett’s quotations like, ‘Sometimes you gotta lose yourself to find something,’ with absolutely no notion of how trite and silly a thing to say that is. That the film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Motion Picture, is a shame. Thankfully, best Adapted Screenplay was not on that list, and The Godfather was also released that year.
Yet, most critics were not as on target as Ebert, and laced countless reviews with claims such as the film’s being about the individual psyche as well as America’s collective psyche, or its critiquing Vietnam Era America, or suburbia, or the white middle class, or how the film resonates with Freudian depth, or waxing poetically on how perfect the title of the film is since men seek deliverance from their ‘dark side,’ and that water must ‘cleanse the soul.’ While there are small moments that could be used to justify some of these points, the bulk of the film is so laced with stereotypes, and so larded with Dickey’s own psychosexual hang-ups and fears that the fact that it comes in at only 109 minutes of running time is one of its best qualities. One of the film’s other claimed qualities- its ‘honesty’ or ‘reality,’ is also manifestly false, for fantasy is never realty. Yes, men can be evil, but the rural types that are shown as perverts or inbreds are so over the top that the movie loses all claims to realism- thus ‘true evil.’ In short, the pederastic hillbillies are no more terrifying than the goofy Freddy Krueger.
The Warner Brothers DVD is rather spare. Its extra features are only a choice between full frame (1.33:1 aspect ratio) and widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) on either side, and a vintage featurette called The Dangerous World Of Deliverance, which rhapsodizes more on Dickey than the film. Its lone bit of inside information is that the film was made without any insurance, since the leads were all doing their own stunts. There are also a few production notes, cast and crew biographies, and a theatrical trailer, which promises a better film than the whole delivers.
Yet, the film finally founders because it lacks real situations, characters, and philosophy. After all, it’s difficult to get truly philosophic after a character’s been torpedoed by a hillbilly, and so a film that could have been a realistic and philosophic exploration of characters, and male character, devolves into a ridiculous melodrama of revenge, deceit, and perversion. Boorman is a noted filmmaker, but he’s never been considered one of the great auteurs, and a film like Deliverance shows why. Some have accused me of gleeing in bad art. I don’t. But needling the bad is a palliative over the depression bad art brings. This is especially true when a work of art could have been good, even great, but actively chooses to demean itself and its audience. This film proves that while James Dickey’s body died in 1997, something far more essential died long before, or was never birthed; and in that I’m not talking about anything to do with morality. When you’ve figured out what that was, you’ll understand Deliverance a whole lot better.
British director whose work can be insufferably pretentious or completely inspired, sometimes in the space of a single film. He began his career with the BBC, before directing Dave Clark Five vehicle Catch Us If You Can. Hollywood beckoned and his Lee Marvin movies Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific won him admirers.