Essential: DELIVERANCE (1972)

TB: This weekend and next weekend, we will go a bit outside the box. The theme is “Rape and Revenge.” Jlewis is going to review the classic revenge drama DELIVERANCE (1972) today. Then next Saturday, I will be reviewing the revenge western THE MCMASTERS (1970).


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JL: “Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything.”

This is Burt Reynolds’ key line that most of us remember from this particular title, establishing its primary theme of man versus nature…and man versus his inner “nature,” so to speak. There are scenes of bulldozers rearranging the land as four city dwellers decide to conquer nature in the form of wild water rapids.

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This modestly budgeted adventure suspense was a surprise hit in its day and it is understandable why. In many respects, it was a throwback to the schoolboy adventures of decades earlier with echoes of such RKO productions like THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, THE LOST PATROL, possibly KING KONG too with its similar men-against-the-unknown theme, and even substandard Disney fare like TEN WHO DARED, made just over a decade earlier. Curiously Hollywood hadn’t been churning out much of this genre lately, but American moviegoers hadn’t lost interest. The key difference here is that backwoods Georgia seemed a bit less “foreign” to American moviegoers than “darkest” Africa, the Sahara or some prehistoric island.

It should be mentioned that this was filmed during the summer of 1971 when the Vietnam War was still going strong. That conflict also put U.S. men (mostly) in unpredictable forest settings fearful of ambush from hidden adversaries, much like the foursome on a canoe trip gone wrong here. The military angle would be developed even further with Walter Hill’s SOUTHERN COMFORT, also set in an ominous “jungle” of another southern state, Louisiana. (Needless to say, the U.S. “South” wasn’t treated all that well on screen in the early seventies, perhaps because so many filmmakers resided outside of the Mason-Dixon line and didn’t quite understand all of the rage and violence during the civil rights movement period.)

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We get a sense of the unknown and mysterious when the automobiles driven/ridden by our four leads stop at a rusty gas station full of…wrecked automobiles! This junkyard is like some border land between two galaxies, one settled and one unsettled. The human inhabitants who have adapted to this curious way station are a curious lot themselves. Particular emphasis is on their inadequate dental work, with some sporting fewer teeth than the medieval peasants populating the Pasolini films of this same cinematic time period.

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No women here. Just the dudes exercising their masculine thirst for adventure. I guess this ages it considerably since a modern update would include some strong “chick” showing her muscle. Then again, all men are just little boys at heart, still fearful of the boogeyman.

Speaking of fear, I chickened out watching the kangaroo slaughter in another film TopBilled suggested (WAKE IN FRIGHT) but had curiously forgotten the surprisingly graphic scene of a simple trout being speared for dinner in this film. Yes, it is only a fish and maybe I reacted too strongly for my own good. Humorously we are teased into thinking we will see Bambi get slaughtered next, but Jon Voight’s Ed fidgets too much with his arrow and the fluffy white tail frolics away into the bushes.

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However Burt Reynolds’ Lewis never misses his shot with fish…and with humans. Therefore, we witness a human murder in equally graphic detail (if faked) and, as the corpse lays against a tree branch, Lewis examines it with the same intense interest he might display over some fallen buck.

This brings me to the infamous assault “squeal like a pig” scene that spurns the killing. I guess it was a novelty for the time since usually women were depicted as victims in such situations. It also, regrettably, represents the rather obvious anti-gay phobias of the era. I won’t get into all of the psychological way-we-were analysis here and judge the film and James Dickey’s novel it is based upon as anything more than products of their times, but it should be noted that this followed in quick procession after MGM’s men-in-prison FORTUNE AND MEN’S EYES, representing a rather peculiar fetish that quite a few filmmakers were exploiting at this time.

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I also find it interesting that Ned Beatty’s “Average Joe” Bobby, who possibly lacks a girlfriend and could be questioned orientation-wise, is the one who gets assaulted while Jon Voight as Ed is spared in the nick of time. Why? Because, not only is Jon the actor almost as handsome and hunky as Burt, but his character is the one who is very “hetero” with a wife and an awfully cute blonde haired boy shown in a photo. Golden rule in Hollywood: make the pretty people who represent wholesome family values suffer less on screen than the less pretty folk.

In any case, the whole point of this scene is to establish the revenge act of Lewis and this makes me wonder, despite the film giving absolutely no indication, if Lewis the character resembles Susan Sarandon’s Louise of THELMA AND LOUISE in doing this to prevent (for attractive Ed the wholesome daddy at least) a repeat experience he himself suffered once upon a time.

Regardless, three of the four guys are soon focused on covering up Lewis’ crime rather than the crime that instigated it.

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Should the truth be reported or should they merely bury the corpse, which may get buried further after the river gets demolished by bulldozers? They all want to avoid problems with the local law and the locals themselves, who behave in this curious “foreign” manner like savage jungle inhabitants. I must especially praise Bill McKinney’s brilliant method acting as one very believable corpse, complete with unblinking eyes even as his grave is being dug and you know the dust must be flying in his face.

The cover up is then followed by an almost drowning through the rapids, the disappearance of Drew, then Lewis getting shot in the leg and anguishing in pain. We once again return to the film’s schoolboy adventure roots and even see Jon Voight climb a mountainside! Plus another jungle “headhunter,” assisting in the first crime, gets killed by him in self defense despite his shaky hands. Both now and in previous viewings, I find myself dozing somewhat as these action scenes get more intensified, probably because much material resembles past films I’ve watched even if the violent content might have been more restrained by the earlier efforts’ production code.

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I guess the whole “deliverance” from evil is spelled out when they finally leave the water and we see a prominent Church of Christ covering half the screen. American moviegoers love religious themes in their movies despite pretending that they don’t. After all, before the flickers began, most of the entertainment many enjoyed in rural parts involved fire and brimstone delivered at the Sunday pulpit. Does this suggest that God has forgiven these guys for being involved in murder since the ones who were killed were doomed to…well, you know?

Then again…we see that the church doesn’t stay put. Ed and Bobby see it while riding a taxi as it is being carried mobile to another location. “Christ,” Bobby humorously responds as he continues to struggle keeping their secrets secret. There is no turning back from their conscience that something isn’t quite right about covering up the truth. Although I sense Bobby gets over it quickly, Ed still has those ominous dreams haunting him.

Have to discuss the cast further here.

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Voight is the one getting the most screen time and is billed above the rest. No surprise there since he was the established star going into this, with an Oscar nomination under his belt. He is one of those actors who photographs well because emotions are very easy to read on his face. This brings me to Vilmos Zsigmond’s wonderful camera work that often shoots him behind an auto windshield or building window with reflections of the trees partially covering his face to suggest his half hidden, half forward personality that can’t always hide what he wants to hide.

John Schlesinger in MIDNIGHT COWBOY and John Boorman directing here were both on the same wavelength utilizing Voight effectively; some shots here resemble the ones closing the previous Best Picture Oscar winner with a melancholy Voight half hidden in that bus window as Miami palm trees pass by. The strong emphasis on the summer foliage acting as another “character” in the film is also expanded further in other scenes as Voight is the one most often shown peeking from behind leaves and tree branches.

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I really like Ned Beatty as an actor and this was his great break-out role that launched a most interesting career full of stand-out supporting roles, but I do wonder if Ned’s self confident and happy go lucky personality overall makes him less suitable for this demanding role. Although any rage his character had for his attacker was certainly satisfied by Lewis’ actions, it seemed like Bobby (or Ned playing Bobby) virtually forgot all about the experience in short order and, under John Boorman’s direction, became too focused on the cover up above all else.

There is one particularly interesting throw away scene in which Ed and Bobby are both wearing identical shirts. I am not sure if we are given an explanation why. Are they dressed alike in order to think alike with their “story?” Or have they bonded as twin brothers over their experiences?

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Unfortunately Wally Cox as Drew leaves our screens too soon for us to learn more about him and become emotionally involved. Nonetheless he does partake on screen, if not on the soundtrack, with the performance of “Dueling Banjos,” a popular Billboard hit first recorded by Arthur Smith of “Guitar Boogie” fame and officially covered here by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell. Before his character’s passing, he also gives a rather energized speech to Lewis about the morality of their actions. Most of Cox’s work has been in supporting roles, but he didn’t become quite as popular as Ned Beatty in that arena despite a great many appearances in popular TV shows.

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Before BOOGIE NIGHTS, this was possibly Burt Reynolds’ most praised-by-the-high-brows performance. Not that the high brows ever took him as seriously as his fans did. His rapid rise to fame was most interesting, since most of it happened right after principal photography on DELIVERANCE ended and before the film made it to theaters ten months later. Prior to this, most of his screen credits were in B’s or supporting roles in bigger budget fare as a lesser version of the equally hairy chested Sean Connery. Then, in early 1972, he pulled a stunt more often associated with voluptuous actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Bridget Bardot with a publication called Cosmopolitan and, as they say, the rest is history…

All in all, this is an interesting film that is open to a number of interpretations. Director Boorman handled the actors brilliantly, although you can sometimes see the boo-boos in the execution. For example, in the canoe scenes, Burt Reynolds in his injured state appears and disappears rather unexpectedly as Jon and Ned are ferociously paddling. Eagle eyes may notice further details involving the various stunts involved.