Written by James Dickey
Directed by John Boorman
The opening dialogue of Deliverance, based on the novel of the same name by James Dickey, tells us everything we need to know to understand the conflict that underlies the entire film. The quartet of friends talks about a new damn built on the fictional Cahulawassee River and how this effort of modern industrial ingenuity is going to change the landscape. This plays out over scenes of massive earth-moving machinery and explosives clearing away cliffs. This will be a story about modernity clashing with primal forces of nature and how masculinity navigates how a strange old world redefines it.
Ed (Jon Voigt) has gotten his good friend Lewis (Burt Reynolds) to help him lead a canoe trip down a river that will cease to exist in a few months. Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox) are novices and stumble through the early steps of just getting to the river. The group arranges for a couple of locals to drive their vehicles and leave them at Aintry, a town about two days downriver. Things start out peacefully until Ed & Bobby encounter aggressive local men who proceed to rape Bobby and threaten to sexually assault Ed. One of the men is killed while the other runs off into the woods. The men struggle about what to do after killing a person, and Lewis hammers it into them that if they are honest with the law, their lives are over. The only solution is to just bury him and forget the whole thing. That is just the beginning of their nightmares.
The protagonist in the story is most certainly Ed; he is the character we see through the eyes of, and it’s his arc that informs the entire picture. While still at camp, Ed retreats into the forest with a bow and arrows during their second morning on the river. He comes across a deer but is too shaky to hit it, scaring the animal and driving it away. Here we see that Ed is a person who is unable to steel himself in moments of high pressure, particularly when it comes to ending a life, whether it be animal or human.
Lewis acts as a foil to Ed. Lewis boasts about taking risks, scoffing at life insurance. He tries to show off to the locals by racing his truck down a mountainside to reach the river, first only ending up going the wrong way. Lewis does have a greater knowledge of outdoor survival than any other man and shows us that when the pressure is on, he will not hesitate to kill. That act leads to an explosive argument between him and Drew, with the latter man insisting that they have to report the dead local to the law. Lewis reasons that surviving in the world is a game, everyone is playing it, and you have to play better than them if you expect to live comfortably and escape judgment.
Masculinity is a theme at the forefront in this story, with the men engaged in almost constant one-upmanship over who is the best at being a man. That is until the second act twist where one man is sexually assaulted. They have now encountered a brutal force that has torn masculinity from them, and they have to kill it. This eventually leads to paranoia as the canoe trip goes further off the rails. The once bare-chested Lewis finally ends up whimpering in a boat with a bone jutting out from his leg, barely able to speak. Ed is thrust by default into the leader’s role and ends up making a terrible mistake that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Bobby emphasizes that they can’t tell anyone what really happened out there for two reasons: he doesn’t want to go to prison and doesn’t want anyone to know about his sexual humiliation.
What the film also does in a very problematic way is the Otherization of the South, particularly poor & uneducated “hill people.” Every single person that isn’t part of our main four is presented as dumb & a scary threat. There’s never an effort made to humanize them beyond the opening dueling banjos moment. They are present as hideous and deformed, signaling that “ugly people are stupid & violent and vice versa.” Any cursory analysis of history shows that the most violent and dangerous figures are those with access to vast stores of wealth and check out the body counts.
The director John Boorman made some upsetting yet illuminating comments about his experience filming in the Georgia mountains, “these are the descendants of white people who married Indians, and they were then ostracized by the Indians and the whites, and so they had to turn in on themselves, and this strange, hostile, inward-looking group grew up around that history. And you can see, in some of those people’s faces, traces of the Indian.”
Boorman never cites his sources, and I assume it was an ignorant conjecture on his part. But those remarks from the person making this film allow us to understand how rural Southerners are being portrayed. The addition of his inference that they are bred with Native American implies an inborn “savagery” based on popular stereotypes. There’s also that liberal air of pity in his statements that these “poor beasts” just can’t help how strange they are. Educated wealthy Southerners are rarely portrayed in this light. If you ever encounter a movie about racism, the perpetrator is usually a rural person made to appear ugly by common social standards. Slavery was not operated by poor Southerners but the rich & mighty. Jim Crow was not instated by those in poverty but those in wealth. Yes, poor whites are almost always enlisted to defend this racist status quo, but the roots seem more embedded in the cities and suburbs of the region than the mountains.
I couldn’t help but think about Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and its questions about the violence of individuals versus institutional violence. We have another study of that in Deliverance. The violence of the hill people is not excused, it is an act of vile assault, and there is a valid excuse that Lewis’s actions are self-defense. However, the reminders that the communities these men are traveling through will be obliterated with the formation of a new dam refocuses our attention on the violence of institutions. Is it any wonder these rural people have become aggressive towards any stranger that sets foot near their homes? Lewis’s excuse when burying the body is that soon all of this will be one giant lake, and the body will be buried so deep that it won’t matter; no one will ever find it, and the men will be free.
When we examine Deliverance, I argue we should look at what the film says about the rise of the industrialized South. The 1970s was a period of tremendous corporate growth in the region as urban sprawl began to rear its head for the first time. Industrialization had dug in its heels and with that notoriously anti-union sentiments, equating unionization to being anti-Christian & anti-American. The people whom Deliverance poses as the adversaries have refrained from joining the transformation of nature. We never truly get to know them in the context of this picture, and that distance is frustrating. I certainly don’t think Boorman lets Ed off the hook as the film’s final scene makes sure, but I do believe he never sought to humanize the people of this land.