Friday, January 6

Good 70s Films: Deliverance

1972 Drama
From Warner Bros
Directed by John Boorman

Jon Voight
Burt Reynolds
Ned Beatty
Ronny Cox
Four friends go on a weekend canoeing trip and after we finished watching them, four of us went to have some dessert and coffee and we just sat like boulders in a river. Not a peep. Some movies just affect one like that. Ok, you might have liked it, even loved it, but it leaves you numb.  I was still trying to process all of it when I heard someone say, so, isn't anyone gonna say anything? What did anyone think of it.  I blurted out... it was creepy.  All these 45 years later and having just dragged myself from easy chair to office chair, I can still say it was creepy.

I suppose Deliverance isn't categorized as a horror film but it felt like one to me. Unlike those mindless teenage horror films where eight girls are in a cabin and one-by-one they're axed at midnight, except for the 8th who finally connects before her dispatch hour, this feels so real.  It really could happen.  This isn't some alternative universe.  This is Georgia.  I've been in the deep woods since seeing the film the first time just as I've been back in the ocean since seeing Jaws, but in neither case was it completely comfortable.  

The screenplay by James Dickey, based on his popular novel, tells a powerful story of four friends who have no idea that their cussing, beer-swizzling, story-telling weekend is going to turn into a fight for survival.  They didn't have a clue that one would be shot, one severely injured, one raped and one would die.

Lewis (Reynolds) rounds up his buddies Ed (Voight), Bobby (Beatty) and Drew (Cox) for a weekend on the Cahulawassee River, a last chance since the river is going to be no more.  A dam is being built and this is the last hurrah for four strapping lads to enjoy the rapids in their canoes. Trouble is only Lewis is really strapping.  He is a manly-man, obvious in his vest with his bulging biceps and all-knowing attitude.  It is probably important for this type of man to surround himself with less-savvy, less-capable buddies so there's never any doubt who the leader is.  It's like Tarzan in Georgia. Lewis will see to it that everyone makes it.
He loves taking risks (never had insurancehe proudly asserts). He wants to be at one with nature but he can't hack it because he always wants to be in charge and unfortunately nature always is. 

Ed is a cautious, security-driven man whose life is lived with a relative sameness.  He's not one to take chances and he's not sure why he's come along on this trip or does most of the crazy things he does with Lewis. Edgy Ed gets the drunkest when they pull into shore for the night.  

Drew loves the quiet of the trip.  He's a nature-lover who gets off on playing the guitar and it is he who takes part in Dueling Banjos with the hillbilly boy.  He doesn't understand killing animals any more than he understands Lewis, whom he seems to just tolerate.  He's probably the only Democrat of the group.

Bobby is even more out of his element than his buddies Ed and Drew.  He is unfit physically and unsuited to be along and he knows it.  His type is usually the last one invited and perhaps wouldn't have been except that a foursome was required to handle the two canoes.  His obvious discomfort being around the locals comes out in the form of awkward humor which, in turn, puts him and his buddies in harm's way.

As they climb into the canoes, I am right there with them. Damn, it looks like fun. Award-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond takes us on an exciting journey down that rough river. The visuals are coupled with dialogue designed to allow us to better understand each of the participants.

I confess to getting pretty twitchy watching the four friends stop at various hillbilly encampments.  It is spooky watching two groups of such different types try to communicate with one another and the chill one feels when it hints at the smell of danger. Almost with my hand over my eyes I watch the visitors try to use humor while it is interpreted by the locals as laughing at them and being disrespectful. Audience members know they're being set-up.   

I also found it creepy that these friends wanted the locals, complete strangers, mind you, inbred mountain people with stills and missing teeth and surly demeanors, to drive the visitors' cars to a final destination point. Who would do that? Lewis, all pumped up and full of himself, would.

One particularly belligerent hillbilly asks Lewis why he wants to do a crazy thing like go down the river and Lewis responds because it's there.  Mr. Mountain Man snarls it's there alright and you'll get in there and can't get out, and you're gonna wish it wasn't (there).  Ed, who's listening, whimpers let's go back to town and play golf.  Hmmmm, not a bad idea.

Before long, they're in trouble.  Word has spread throughout the mountains and when Ed and Bobby pull into a place to stop, they are accosted by two scary folks.  One has a gun and they tie up Ed and the other one rapes Bobby.  Squeal, squeal like a piggy became the film's most famous line. It is a frightening scene and I dare say that anyone who has seen the film would not forget it.

Lewis saves the day by sending an arrow through the rapist while the one with the gun runs away.  The four friends debate what to do.  Drew, of course, wants to take the body with them and tell the sheriff what they did and plead self-defense.  Lewis will not have that, saying they'd be judged by a jury of the dead man's peers and wouldn't stand a chance. Lewis wins and they bury the dead man.

Back on the water, tucked down between ominous-looking mountains, Drew is shot (a great scene) and killed.  At the same time, their efforts to get out of the shooter's line of fire, results in canoes tipping over and Lewis being severely wounded in the rapids.

Soon the decision is made to kill the shooter since he can easily pick them off if they continue on the water) and the deliverance comes about as weak Ed and strong Lewis change positions.  Lewis is in no position to do much other than writhe in pain, so Ed takes his trusty bow and arrow off to be the hero he's never been.

With mission accomplished, the three survivors decide to tie rocks to the shooter and also Drew, whose body has come floating by, because they're not going to mention the mountain men and just simply say they had a canoeing accident.

Once on land and dry, the film takes on a different hue but it still provides some good mystery over whether they will get by with it. Or perhaps one doesn't think it's a matter of getting by with anything.  One could see the first man was self-defense but the second might appear otherwise.  I remember sitting in that restaurant with my buddies discussing the ups and down, ins and outs of this aspect.

Interesting that the sheriff the men have to deal with is author Dickey in a prominent, brief role.  Dickey, for much of his life a difficult man and an alcoholic, was an ad man, a former professor and a poet laureate. He wanted someone like him to direct the film, namely wild man Sam Peckinpah. He would have been a fine choice, at least in terms of rough-and-tumble, manly pursuits being  right up his alley. But he had just had a disastrous time bringing in another WB film on time and under budget and the studio wasn't about to trust him on Deliverance, so they passed. Dickey was annoyed and not particularly kind to the director ultimately chosen, Boorman.

The two men apparently got into a fist fight over how the film was progressing with the director suffering a broken nose and teeth. Dickey thought Boorman was cutting out too much of the book and Boorman needled Dickey about the fact that it was not based on a true story as the author liked to claim. It was a difficult shoot.

Boorman, an Englishman, might have seemed an odd choice for a film set in the backwoods of the American south but he had a knack for making the ordinary seem alien and he was attracted to those mythic themes of quest and survival.  He received an Oscar nomination for helming this one and would go on to make the visually stunning Excalibur (1981) and the haunting Emerald Forest (1985) and the arresting story of his own young life during WWII, Hope and Glory (1987).

Duelling Banjos became a worldwide hit but it was apparently used without permission and WB was sued.  Just as interesting was that non-actor, Billy Redden, playing the banjo onscreen, wasn't actually playing at all. Someone was crouched behind him, hands through Redden's sleeves. 

Many actors had been considered for various roles, Jack Nicholson, Donald Sutherland and Henry Fonda, among them. Dickey wanted Gene Hackman while Boorman wanted Lee Marvin.  Eventually, as WB got more involved in casting, it was decided to go with younger actors.  The film certainly turned Reynolds into a star, breathed some life into Voight's flagging career and made movie performers out of Beatty (his film debut) and Cox (in only his second film).  I always thought these actors, none of whom were ever particular favorites of mine, were exceptionally well cast.

The film remains as memorable as it is because it hits a vein that engorges with primal fears... man against nature, man against his own nature, city dwellers vs country folk and it certainly slashes away at that prized, holiest of virtues... masculinity. 

Here's a fun 8-minute reunion with the four stars 40 years later, courtesy of Crave Online:

Next posting:
A brief stay

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