Deliverance (1972)

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*. I first read James Dickey’s novel when I was a kid, and I only remember being bored by it. I read it again recently and didn’t have that feeling at all, which makes me hope that maybe my mind hasn’t totally been eroded by television and the Internet.
*. Perhaps what struck me the most reading it again was the similarity to Fight Club. Ed, the narrator (Jon Voight in the film) is someone sick of the routine of his professional and private life. He doesn’t feel deeply or care about anything and is afraid he is just sliding friction-free through life. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is his Tyler Durden, an alpha male who offers his adoring acolyte a chance to be more.

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*. None of that is there in the movie because the “Before” section, introducing us to pre-expedition Ed, is collapsed into some voiceover banter that plays under the opening credits. I don’t object to Boorman leaving this part of the story out, but it does sort of leave the question of the title’s meaning up for grabs. In the novel, Ed is being delivered from his boring everyday life, achieving a kind of sexual release through violence. In the movie this is almost inverted, with the canoe’s finally docking at the soon-to-be-relocated Church of Christ (which is not in the novel) marking a deliverance from the river. The savage world has no real counterweight, and if anything it seems that at the end Ed hasn’t been made new so much as he’s been left suffering from PTSD. And if that makes you think of The Deer Hunter just a bit, well, it’s not the only correspondence between the two films I’d want to draw.
*. Aside from that, the movie is remarkably faithful to the book. The “squeal like a pig” line was a rare improvisation. Even the two key ambiguities — was Drew shot? did Ed kill the second hillbilly on the cliff, or someone else? — are maintained.

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*. Of course it’s all very archetypal in its undertones — the journey into the wilderness, the values of barbarism vs. civilization, ascent vs. descent, redemption through violence — which means it’s a story that will remind us of a lot of other stories.
*. The first thing we might think of is Heart of Darkness, but I think the connection here is limited. The Cahulawasee River doesn’t representative nature, or even some state of unevolved savagery, so much as a fast-forward to civilization’s future. The trip begins and ends in what look like junkyards or scrap heaps: what Bobby calls “the end of the line,” “where everything finishes up.” The dam might be a flood sent down by an angry god to punish the mountain people for their degeneracy.

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*. In any event, our feelings toward nature are, at least to some extent, fluid and culturally determined. In the days of Beowulf everything outside the mead hall was a dangerous wasteland where monsters like Grendel and his mom roamed. In horror stories told among frontier societies much the same attitude is taken, with a good example being the kind of thing seen in the movie The Witch (based on New England folktales), with its doomed family banished from the walls of their village and sent out into the scary wilderness. Nature in ye olde days was a horror show: the enemy of civilization.

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*. In a more Romantic era, like the nineteenth century, nature became a reviving force for good, an escape from ugly and dangerous urban living. Deliverance reverses polarity again, turning the Romantic myth of nature inside out. The group of buddies are city slickers to the core but they want to experience the majestic river before it is wiped away by the construction of a dam. What they find isn’t a nature that is too much for them, but a fallen world.
*. So instead of Heart of Darkness what Deliverance really recalls, or prefigures, is one of the main streams in American horror: the danger inherent in taking a wrong turn and finding oneself off the main highway, lost in the backwoods. How many times was this story to be re-enacted in the years to come? And yet before Deliverance it was hardly a staple. Now Deliverance may not be what many people would consider a “horror” film, but it only took a very slight tweak to get there.

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*. The film is one of those where the talent just came together. Dickey’s script works, though I think he had to be reined in somewhat and there are still some ghastly bumps (I share Vincent Canby’s morose reaction to “Sometimes you gotta lose yourself to find something.”). Boorman shows himself, again, to be one of the most brilliant painters of a mythic American vernacular. And when I say “mythic” I mean that when David Thomson questions how “accurately imagined” the film is he may be barking up the wrong tree. There’s nothing accurate about Point Blank either. These narratives are as much fantasies as Excalibur or Zardoz.
*. Moving through the rest of the credits, various stars were considered for the cast (Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Lee Marvin) but they went with younger unknowns, and it paid off. The photography by Vilmos Zsigmond is beautiful, not just in the dramatic shots of the wilderness, but even more so in the junkyards and town. The very air seems thick with rust, and indeed the colours were deliberately muddied and muted because the real river was too pretty. (I note in passing that when Thomson complains that Zsigmond “does not fully catch Dickey’s troubled apprehension of nature,” I’d say this is because nature is not the bad guy to be troubled by here). Finally, the music became iconic, as did the banjo-picking native.

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*. Does it still have the power to shock? It’s hard to think of too many male rapes we’ve seen in mainstream movies since. And we may be more comfortable today with the whole homoerotic angle of Ed’s worship of butch Burt in his muscle-top outdoor gear. Confronted by Lewis about this, it’s something Ed just can’t explain. I don’t think anything more needs to be said. Complete with cigar, Lewis is like a gay fetish model drawn by Tom of Finland.
*. Modern audiences might be a little harder on Drew. He seems too noble, and I wonder where his ideals would be more in place. Not in the mountains or in the city. I think he’s the one who belongs to an earlier time.
*. Finally, how do we view what the movie has to say about masculinity? On the one hand it seems pretty obvious. After his own masculinity is threatened (though, unlike poor Bobby, he remains unviolated), Ed must become a man when the father of the tribe is injured. It is Ed who must ascend the mountain and kill his lion, which affirms essential male values as well as a sense of cosmic balance. He can now go home and be comforted by his (pregnant?) wife.
*. We can roll our eyes at all of this, though we should acknowledge too that they were rolling their eyes at it back in 1972 as well. But such a message really is the point of the movie. It’s not complicated. What would later happen is that the horror genre would dumb it down even further, exaggerating the monstrosity and degenerate evil of rural America, replacing faith with fear. Meanwhile, our heroes got wimpier. Brad Pitt is no Burt Reynolds. Burt had hair on his chest.

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