Deliverance is one of the great films of the 1970s that moulded my love for film.
My first viewing of Deliverance left a large impression on me, so large in fact that I wrote a review for IMDb on August 28, 2005 at the age of only 12.
The header for the ten star review was simply ‘Atmopsheric’. For some reason, I immediately compared the film to Predator – ‘I thought the surroundings in Predator were good, but Deliverance beats it by far with the beautiful untouched countryside and the Cahulawassee River that runs through it.’ I continued, saying that Deliverance is a ‘masterful portrayal of each man’s change of character under stress’. I was initially surprised by the maturity of that comment, but I’m fairly sure I copied it from the DVD case. I rounded the review off by naming it a ‘real treat’ and a ‘top notch thriller’. Despite its plagiarism and mere 110 word length, I agree with the little I wrote 9 years ago. The film was 33 at the time; it is now 42 and as good as ever.
The film, which is based on the book by James Dickey, follows Ed (Jon Voight), Drew (Ronny Cox), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Lewis (Burt Reynolds). The three men are contented, middle-class executives who would gladly play golf in lieu of hunting, climbing and rafting. The only reason the trip happened was because of Lewis, a competitive, playground bully and some sort of survivalist. Unlike the others, he has no time for humour in the Georgia wilderness; he takes himself and the trip very seriously, appearing to consider it a spiritual exercise akin to the Aboriginal tradition of walkabout.
The unlikable Lewis takes a churlish disliking to Bobby, addressing him as ‘chubby’, barking orders at him and interrupting him with smug, portentous monologues about his ostensible understanding of their majestic, harsh surroundings. Before the relationships between the four men can be explored in a normal fashion, they are thrown into an extraordinary situation in a scene that has since become infamous for its line squeal like a piggy. What follows is a thriller that achieves an uncommon resonance because of the everyday, almost banal qualities of its characters; they are real people in a real situation rather than stock characters being assailed by monstrous caricatures.
Like I said in 2005, it is indeed a beautifully verdant film. The ‘Cahulawasse River’ isn’t a real river, the turbulent rapids and surrounding forests we see are that of the Chattooga River in Georgia. The landscape and their traversing of it is well captured; I shared the four men’s expressions of wired engrossment as they negotiated the dangerous rapids with the utmost concentration, and I felt their elation too when they reached the safety and tranquillity of the calmer waters. The excellent Blu-Ray surround sound places you there, it enveloped me with the interminable sounds of buzzing insects and rushing water. Despite everything that happens in Deliverance, the film certainly makes me want to travel.
The wild local people were well cast, they were seemingly picked from some West Virginia backwood, providing the film with a morbid authenticity. Perhaps the most memorable villager is the teenage banjo virtuoso played by Billy Redden in the famous Duelling Banjos sequence. He was picked from a school in the local area and isn’t actually playing the banjo, the arms and fingers we see belong to a musician sitting behind the bench with his arms through Redden’s sleeves. While the film is best known for its plucking banjos, it makes great use of a synthesiser in a few instances, producing this chilling monotone hum that works particularly well when Ed becomes entangled underwater.
The performances are good, but they aren’t given much dramatic range because large portions of the film the performances rely on physicality. I am nit-picking here and not entirely decided, but with his wide-eyed expressions and animated ungainly movements, I felt that Voight was at times rather exaggerated in his conveyance of being a city slicker unused to the rugged Appalachian terrain. It is perhaps Ned Beatty’s assailant Bill McKinney who deserves the most praise, because as Burt Reynolds points out during the 40th anniversary reunion of the four men, he kept his eyes open without fault for a quite remarkable length of time – anyone who’s been locked in a bitter staring competition can attest that it’s no small feat!
I haven’t read James Dickey’s novel, I have found it quite a difficult book to find, but I have heard that, unsurprisingly, the characters are given a more detailed backstory. I would have welcomed a longer film with greater character development, but it works admirably as a stripped down survivalist thriller.
Deliverance is one of those films that I will always be fond of. My first viewing came at a time when my cinematic horizons were rapidly broadening along with prized DVD collection, which I proudly ordered and compartmentalised in rectangular shelves across my bedroom walls. I’m glad that I can say without reservation that one of my favourite films still holds up.