Saturday, July 30, 2022

50 Years Ago Today: 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.

Now 50 years old, 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. 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...

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:55 AM

    Cool essay, just watched the movie for the first time the other day and I do agree with your flavorful observations. It sure does seem your conclusions do align with the makers intentions and maximize the artistic value of the film.


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