Friday, June 22, 2012

Savage Friday: Deliverance (1972)


“I think only one thing; that men…settle for too little in their lives. And this chance encounter in the river was for…Ed Gentry, some kind of opening to a dark place he would never know was there…John Berryman [the poet] once said that a man can live his whole life in this country without knowing if he is a coward or not.  I think it is necessary for him to know.”

-     - James Dickey, on Deliverance, in author David Zinman’s survey, Fifty Grand Movies of the 1960s and 1970s. (Crown Publishers, 1986, page 133).

Early in John Boorman’s harrowing and savage film Deliverance, a character notes, rightly: “You don’t beat it.  You don’t beat this river.

He is discussing, explicitly, the raw power of Mother Nature and a roaring river, but he might as well be communicating something significant about human nature.  You don’t beat it.  You don’t conquer it.  It is part of your essential make-up.  And when the situation calls for it, all those “evolved” senses of civilization and civility simply fall away by necessity.

Or else you die.

Deliverance asks its audience some pretty serious questions about human nature by forging a streamlined but illuminating scenario wherein four men -- each one symbolizing elements of modern American life -- embark on a recreational journey down a river, but conquer there not a new apex or summit.  Instead, they countenance a particularly personal brand of horror.  And these men live or die largely based on the qualities they bring to the river with them.

In terms of the film’s deeper meaning, one must consider what it means, precisely, to be “delivered.” “Deliverance” is the act of being rescued or “set free.”  A few of the protagonists in the film escape the river and its challenges, of course.  They are literally “delivered” from mortal danger.  But I don’t believe this is the deliverance of which the title specifically speaks.

For one man, Ed (John Henry) the terrifying journey is all about setting his nature free so he can survive a life-and-death contest and thus see his family again.  Now, this may sound trite, simplistic, or even unnecessarily macho.  A terrible ordeal sets one free?  A man can only test himself through violence, or by meting out death? 

That criticism misses the point.  For Ed the point is very much the self-knowledge he gleans after he is forcibly set free. 

Who is he now? How does he go back to his civilized life with the things he has learned about himself? How does he stuff the ugly truth back down, and go about facing a meaningless job, or living a life of polite domesticity with his wife and children?   The ultimate irony is that Ed needed his “dark side” to return to his family, but his dark side – now alive – has no place with that family.  Suddenly, Ed belongs in neither the civilized world nor the savage one.

So Deliverance reveals to its Every Man his dark side in living, breathing color.  Once knowledgeable about this hidden facet of his nature, there’s simply no going back to the innocence of paradise.  Ed ends the film suffering from traumatic nightmares of the experience, a changed man.  Thus Deliverance concerns a problem with our modern safe-and-secure lives.  Once forcibly exiled from the Garden of Eden, can a man or woman ever be a fit citizen to return?

“Don't ever do nothin' like this again. Don't come back up here.” 

In Deliverance, Ed (Voight), Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox) brave the roaring rapids of the Cahulawassee River in rural Georgia.  They do so because the river will soon be gone:  transformed into a placid lake by bulldozers and other instruments of man’s modern technology.

On the trip, the friends unexpectedly encounter belligerent mountain men (Bill McKinney, Herbert Coward).  These mountain men rape Bobby, and threaten to do something much worse to Ed.  But the city men kill one of the locals, and then debate their moral responsibility in the matter.  Drew wants to inform the police.  But Lewis is convinced that the police will view them as outsiders, as automatically guilty.  Over Drew’s objections, the group decides to bury the body and not inform the authorities of the conflict.  Soon this river will be at the bottom of a lake, and no one will ever find out what happened…

Unfortunately, one mountain man is still alive…and gunning for these weekend warriors.  When Lewis is badly injured on the rapids, Ed must scale a treacherous rock face to take out the threat.  But he’s never killed anyone before, and he’s scared to death…

“Let's just wait and see what comes out of the river.

Nature gets raped too...
Deliverance plays almost like some fiendishly clever and sadistic psychology or personality test.  You take four diverse specimens of 1970s manhood and then make them endure existential threats from nature, and from frightening mountain men.  How will they react?

Our first subject is Drew (Cox), the affirmed “bleeding heart liberal” of the foursome, and the man who attempts to make certain that society’s established laws successfully transition to the wild.  In other words, Drew’s response to the violent attacks is an intellectual or a cerebral one.  Therefore, he still views the law as a viable solution to the dilemma. “It’s a matter of the law,” he declares of the mountain man’s murder. 

Yet there is no law present in the jungle or on the river to mediate the matter.  Disillusioned, Drew grows virtually catatonic at this knowledge.  And accordingly, he’s the first to die. What do we glean from this information? 

Perhaps that the voice of society or morality has little practical value in a Darwinian, kill-or-be-killed universe.


Drew can’t adapt to a world without the artificial infrastructure that made and nurtured him, and so he dies.   Drew’s skill set -- abstract thinking and an artistic bent (he’s a musician) -- don’t permit him to tap into his primitive self.  He dies because he can’t access that crucial part of his nature.  He won't put himself above the law -- symbolically refusing to put on his life jacket -- and so he dies.

Of all the characters in the film, Drew is probably the one I most sympathize with; the one I imagine I’m probably most like in a crisis.  I’d like to say I’m like Ed…but who knows?  I tend to seek answers in consensus and spend most of my time debating art.   So nobody take me on a trip to a river, okay?

By contrast, Lewis (Reynolds) is undeniably a representation of American swagger, arrogance and authority.  He’s a macho man who believes that all life is risk, and who lords it over his friends about what a tough guy he is.  He’s not so tough, however, once badly injured.  In fact, deprived of his physical acumen, Lewis becomes a whimpering suck-up to Ed, who has by then established his credibility as a capable man.  The message here is that overconfidence, vanity, and arrogance don’t survive in the wild, either.  Nature doesn’t like excess, whether in terms of abstract thinking (like Drew) or in terms of reckless, over-the-top muscle-flexing (like Lewis).  If Drew was all brain, Lewis is all muscle.  Neither one strikes the necessary balance to survive the river experience intact.

Poor Bobby (Beatty) likely represents American cynicism…or flab.  He depends on everybody else to carry his considerable weight on the river, rescued both by Lewis and then by Ed.  Worse, he is condescending and cruel to the locals…simply because he can be.  But this cruelty and anger is not supported by anything meaningful, as he soon learns.  

In other words, he can’t back up his snide jokes with actions.  Once his friends are out-of-power, then, Lewis is left vulnerable…and a prime target.  He is the ultimate representative, perhaps, of well-fed, modern man, convinced of his intelligence and superiority, but without the actual skills or chops to back up those perceived qualities.  He is the fat of our society, suddenly put in a situation where there’s nobody to protect him.  And yes, the Mountain man’s designation of Bobby as a “pig” is probably inevitable.  Bobby is the overstuffed, soft animal hat could only exist in a society of extreme comfort and leisure.

Finally, Ed (Voight) is the cherished Every Man that I discussed in the Savage Cinema Primer earlier today. He’s a regular Joe, an average family man who holds down a job and is a good father and husband.  He has never really been forced to face too dangerous a situation, and therefore never had to reckon with his own, dark capabilities.  But the events in the film force this Every Man to reckon with the seemingly placid surface and look underneath it.

That’s actually the film’s central metaphor: a deliberate comparison between Ed and the soon-to-be lobotomized river.  Modern life has the same effect on both characters, in essence.  The raging, dangerous river will be replaced by a serene – but dead – lake.  And Ed has lived a life as that tranquil lake, never understanding the forces roiling beneath it. 

You can't drown human nature. It will re-surface...
One of the film’s valedictory images -- of a dead hand reaching out above the black, still lake -- reminds us of Ed’s situation.  He now understands that something violent exists within him, beneath the milquetoast exterior.  And under the right circumstances, it will rear up again.   Just like that hand – a representation of violence and conflict – could re-surface in the calm lake.

As I’ve also written before, I see a lot of parallels to The Vietnam War in Deliverance.  Here, a group of Americans leave behind their home territory and comfort zone for enemy territory, so-to-speak.  They greet the locals with disdain and disrespect, and with an air of superiority. They have the best tools (canoes), the comforts of home (a guitar), and an arrogant attitude.  Despite Lewis’s unfamiliarity with the terrain, he attempts to race the local guides to the river, because, he just knows better.  Once in alien territory, however, Lewis and the others realize they are outmatched, and that domination isn’t going to be as easy as they imagined.

Deliverance is notorious in part because of the extremely unsettling scene in which a mountain man rapes Bobby….on screen.  The scene unfolds slowly and lasts for some duration.  It goes on and on, without interruption or reprieve. There are few tactful cuts to relieve the audience of its burgeoning discomfort.  An air of suffocating desperation is crafted by Boorman in the process. Like Bobby, the audience starts the scene with a sense of disbelief that this violence could actually escalate so monstrously.  

Watching Deliverance for the first time, you can’t believe what you are seeing, and this slap in the face is part and parcel of the Savage Cinema's bracing alchemy.  It pushes right past the line of acceptability, and beyond the movie traditions and parameters of good taste and decorum.  In doing so, it makes the audience face that possibility that anything can happen; that all bets are off.  This is one of those movies where you feel vulnerable just watching it; like you might be forced to see things you had never really consciously considered before.

That’s fertile ground for a horror film to occupy.  In that place of extreme audience vulnerability, a good director has us exactly where he or she wants us.

Why would the mountain men attack Bobby in this brutal and bizarre fashion?  It goes back to the city folk’s disdain for the locals.  The city folk are arrogant and condescending, but the country folk – in their home territory – assert their dominance, their power, by raping Bobby and threatening Ed with another form of sodomy.  It’s not about sex for these mountain men, it’s about dominating the city people in the most degrading way imaginable.

The rape also reflects, in some way, the “rape of nature” theme in the film, specifically by man’s technology.  Bulldozers encroach upon the water, and dams force back the river’s edge.  The idea is that human nature is destructive, and seeks to assert dominance over the Earth, whether fellow man or Mother Nature.  The comparison between rapes extends to the dialogue, such as the assertion “we’re gonna rape the whole darn landscape…”

If the rape is the film’s most notorious sequence, then the “Duelling Banjos” scene between Drew and a local boy is, perhaps, the most widely remembered.  As you may recall, the scene finds Drew on guitar and a young, inbred boy on a banjo, talking the same language: the universal language of music. 

Who is looking down on whom?
This scene is the high point in the movie’s conflict between city and rural folk.  It’s clear that music could symbolize a common ground for understanding, if only both sides let it be so, but the gulf between the two cultures is too great to cross.  There’s too much suspicion, too much distrust to allow real communication or trust to occur on either side.  Therefore, this scene of would-be optimism instead emerges as one of further competition for dominance.  And to see who is dominant, you need only look at Boorman's framing.  Who is in the superior position here?

Cause and effect: In the foreground, the face of death.
In the background, animal instinct takes over.
In viewing Deliverance again recently, I came to the conclusion the film is not about manhood or machismo tested, but humanity tested.  One of the most unforgettable moments in the film reduces our four protagonists to thoughtless animals.  They desperately attempt to bury the murdered man in the dirt, but have no shovels with which to accomplish the task.  They sweat and claw at the ground feverishly as if primitive primates.  They have shed civilization entirely and returned to a basic, animal nature.  But again, gaze at Boorman's choice in terms of composition.  In the foreground: the face of death.  In the background: the animal response to danger.  It's a brilliant cause-and-effect image.  It reminds us that when threatened, civilization slips away.

No less an esteemed source than author James Dickey thinks Deliverance is about testing your courage.  I submit the film adaptation is actually about learning to deal with the things you keep buried and locked away.  Once you let the beast out, it doesn't drown easy.  It's always there, threatening to surface again, like that hand reaching up from the lake...

15 comments:

  1. You know - this is one of those films I've never seen. Not for lack of opportunity, but for the general air of trepidation that surrounds any time I've it arise in conversation. As all I really heard were the 'infamous/famous' moments, I was never -quite- sure what it was all about and/or what was going on beyond those oft quoted vignettes.

    It sounds worth a watch, however. While I still hold reservations on certain of the more popularly quoted scenes.. I did watch 'Irreversible' in entirety without my skull peeling apart (as I was warned it would), so I'm sure I can stomach it.

    More to the point though - you make the case well for this film's place in cinema and while I don't always agree, I do respect your judgement. So onto the queue it goes.

    I'll follow up later once it's been screened.

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    1. Hi woodchuckgod,

      Thank you for that vote of confidence, my friend.

      There's no doubt that Deliverance is upsetting and disturbing.

      Just go in prepared -- steel yourself -- and let the film carry you away. Also, don't make the mistake that the Burt Reynolds character speaks "for" the movie, which I've seen some critics do. His is one of four points of view; he's just an exceptionally strong character.

      The imagery in the film is incredibly powerful, the photography is amazing, and the commentary on human nature is definitely worth exploring...at least once. My wife has seen Deliverance with me twice, and she says that's one too many times...

      But definitely let me know how you feel about it after you see the film...

      All my best,
      John

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  2. Anonymous3:30 AM

    John, as always, another excellent review. This classic 1972 film certainly depicts man's inner ape amongst the wilderness and crime choked civilization to its fullest. It's definitely a film that displays humanity's brutal nature in all its primitive glory. Having been to where John Boorman's film was shot at, I can understand where the four main characters felt like they were fishes out of water.

    During my trip there in 1990, I stopped at a gas station to refuel my rental car. I noticed a lady pushing a cart out of that gas station, and this young boy was sitting in it, rocking back and forth. I said to myself that if the kid pulls out a banjo and starts playing 'Dueling Banjos', I was getting out of there real fast. LOL!

    Luckily, that never happened, and the rest of my trip to Atlanta was pretty peaceful. Nevertheless, the themes depicted in the movie never strayed far from my mind.

    Chris

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    1. Hi Chris,

      I like your description of our base selves as "man's inner ape." I totally agree with you. Deliverance certainly does explore our "brutal nature in all its primitive glory." The film is dark and disturbing, and the feeling of surviving it is, in some way, a feeling akin to surviving the film's river. You've run a gauntlet and made it! :)

      Your story about a 1990 trip to Atlanta is both funny and a little disturbing. I think, like you, I would have gotten back in my car (and likely locked the doors...) had a banjo appeared in that kid's hands...

      Excellent thoughts on this film!

      best,
      John

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  3. Anonymous5:51 PM

    John, I just watched it for the first time about three weeks ago on a cable movie channel because the opportunity presented itself. I must admit I had avoided it for years. It's a disturbing film, however, your detailed review has put this film into perspective for me.

    SGB

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    1. SGB:

      I can't blame you for avoiding Deliverance for years. It is such a disturbing and dark film, but it is splendidly visualized, and the themes -- while dark -- come through in spades. I'm glad you've seen it, at least once. That said, it isn't necessarily a film you want to re-visit very often!

      Great comment,
      John

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  4. Great film. Finally saw it about ten years ago. It stays with you. Great performances all around. It'll make you think twice about that nature trip. :) Great look at the film with your sharp focus here on the human condition.

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    1. Hi SFF:

      Thank you for your comment! Deliverance really is great, and yes, I think it likely turned off a generation of campers. What happens here is so grotesque and alarming, and yet it doesn't feel like a horrible stretch from reality, either. Deeply, profoundly upsetting stuff...

      All my best,
      John

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  5. This is one of the greats, it sticks with you even if you haven't seen it in ages, I had seen it before and I own the Deluxe Edition on DVD. It been quite a while since I've watched the film or the extras on the DVD. But I'm pretty sure the banjo scene was shot in such a way, since neither could really play...at least not Ronny Cox. And out of those limitations comes great composition that speaks volumes. Not to mention the reaction of all the different characters from the music.

    Jon Voight on some level knows something is not right.
    Burt Reynolds is too busy showing off and preparing for the trip.
    Ned Beatty thinks this is just some entertainment, "give him a couple of bucks".
    Ronny Cox really enjoyed this but is denied of saying thanks to the banjo player...they're worlds apart.

    And what can be said of the dancing hillbilly...?

    It looks like a simple scene but reads much more like a complex scene. There's so much going on there.

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    1. Josef:

      You are correct and wise, I think, to pinpoint the importance of that singular Dueling Banjos sequence.

      The scene is fraught with tension and anxiety, with communication broached but never quite achieved. The dancing hillbilly's unexpected dance is surprising and truly strange...

      Indeed, a lot happening here! The moment I find terribly haunting is that final look at the river-turned-lake, as the dead hand comes up, a symbol of the repressed coming to the surface. Yikes!

      best,
      John

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  6. Private much no way I can follow such a review of a true classic. But what the heck, I'll try. Nothing, "NOTHING" in film, TV, and literature disturbs me more than fish out of water scenarios. I have 2 DVD editions of this film, have watched it many times. But still I avert my eyes at certain scenes. Especially Ronny Cox's inability to connect with the banjo strummer. Why doesn't he shake my hand, why doesn't he wave at me? That bugs me big time, the whole aspect of men in a totally alien world where the rules are different. Another tough one is the dinner sequence. Thank God for Ned Beatty defusing the mood by talking about the food and allowing a small gulf to be breached by the city and country folk. The trial scene is an absolute tour de force by Burt Reynolds, Anywhere, everywhere, nowhere, Where's the law now Drew? Memorable stuff. I also love the ambiguity that drives the final battle. Did Drew really get shot or not? Simply one of the best films ever made I think. Now you get to play the...GAME.

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    1. David,

      You do a good job of noting some of the film's artistic and dramatic highlights, I think. The Dueling Banjos scene is surely one of unequaled tension, as music promises -- but fails -- to bridge the culture gap. The dinner scene at the end of the film is almost equally uncomfortable. I think Bobby "survives" there (as opposed to flourishing in the wild) because he's essentially a "social" animal, and so he can play the game here in a way he can't on the river, or with the hillbillies.

      I agree with you as well that Burt Reynolds veritably COMMANDS the screen in that scene where the four city men attempt to determine what they do next. Lewis is bullying and brutal in his arguments, and he makes his case sound entirely reasonable, to be sure.

      I've always wondered about Drew as well, and I appreciate the ambiguity -- visually and dramatically -- Boorman brings to the scene. Was he shot? (We see no blood). Or did he commit suicide because he can't live in a world without civilization, without law? I'm glad you brought that point up. I think it's very important. Certainly, his decision not to wear a life jacket on a raging river speaks of his state of mind, but all we can do is try to interpret the images...

      Great comment!

      best,
      John

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    2. Thanks! A powerful film to be sure, and one that can bring up new questions and interpretations with repeated viewings. Also interesting to note that it was a man from the British Isles that crafted a truly American film.

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  7. A great examination of what has to be of the seminal films of the 70s, John. And what a cast! While this is not a large ensemble, everyone here had at least one or scenes or moments that became ensconced as a career highlight (and what Ned Beatty and Bill McKinney accomplished scarred every single young male I knew who saw the film first-run back then). As well, the other thing that doesn't get mentioned enough was the successful novel adaptation by author James Dickey and John Boorman. If you've never read the 1970 book, one I highly recommend, I think the job done was nothing short of phenomenal. I wrote a couple years back that...

    "... it still managed to surprise and grip me with its poetic violence and power. Its tale of a outdoor weekend going down a doomed (and soon to be dammed) river, and how it goes harrowingly wrong for four city men in the wilderness, remains the stuff of adventure and nightmare. Although the film was beautifully and hauntingly lensed by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond for the film, the author's descriptions and elegiac prose within his novel will linger, I think, in the reader's mind perhaps a bit longer than the pictures."

    Fantastic job on this and a great start for this series, my friend. Thanks.

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    1. Hi Michael,

      That scene -- you know the one I'm talking about -- is one of the most scarring things, I submit, in all of the 1970s American cinema. It is so decorum-shattering and taboo-breaking, and yes, it's aimed square at young males. The scene's next iteration -- "you got a purty mouth..." fortunately didn't come to fruition, but the terror of Bobby's rape made us all believe that anything was possible next, that the film COULD go there too. Yikes.

      Good for you for highlighting the original novel on which the film is based. Your description of the prose is persuasive and and powerful. I haven't read the book in twenty years, but I know it's on a shelf somewhere...

      Excellent insights on this horribly disturbing film...

      best,
      John

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