“You can’t judge them by the way they look.”
The big mistrust and division between our two political parties has been at the forefront of the news, alongside Georgia’s sudden, extreme political importance – and all year we’ve been hearing about and experiencing the effects of climate change: With those thoughts in mind, I remembered that I hadn’t seen the survival crime thriller “Deliverance” (1972) for a very long time. It proved to be quite a discerning choice. Not only did it give me enough to runinate on, but it’s an edge of your seat journey that hasn’t lost any of its excitement nor horror.
“You want to talk about the vanishing wilderness,” says Bobby one of the four city slickers from Atlanta that are going for a canoe trip in northwest Georgia. It’s a last chance to travel on this wild river which is scheduled to be dammed to create a reservoir and generate hydropower. “We’re going to rape this whole goddamm landscape,” we hear Lewis tell the group – as we watch bulldozers digging up the land during the opening credits shown side by side with pastoral sights of the Cahulawassee River.
“I think this is where everything finishes up,” says Bobby. “We may just be at the end of the line.” The men drive up to a gas station in a mountain hamlet which is populated by locals who appear to be unfriendly – or at least wary of the urban visitors. “Talk about genetic deficiencies,” says Bobby in a condescending way. Drew – the levelheaded one of the group – notices a young boy on a porch with a banjo, and brings out his own guitar to start a musical conversation – finding common ground. That’s the “Dueling Banjos” moment that has become so iconic. After, the four men will head on their dangerous and brutal trip down river.
“Deliverance,” based on the novel by James Dickey — who also wrote the screenplay — and directed by John Boorman, was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year and went on to be nominated for the Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Editing. Despite its unflinching subject (disclosure – the squeal-like-a-pig scene in the woods is visceral) the film became a big box office success and it made a star out of Burt Reynolds as Lewis – the fit outdoorsman who leads the group. Reynolds is the epitome of virility, with an open vest and a bow and arrow. “Machines are going to fail, and the system’s going to fail,” he asserts. “And then what? Who has the ability to survive. That’s the game. Survival.”
In order to save money, the production did away with insurance and the actors performed their stunts. There are some intense whitewater sequences that are captured showing you in long shots the faces and bodies of the actors experiencing the real thing. In another, awe-inspring moment, Ed – who has followed Lewis on these adventures before but is nervous about the outdoors – rock climbs a steep vertigo inducing cliff. John Voight actually did it.
Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Oscar winner for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) draws out the gorgeous natural beauty. As unrelenting and tense as the movie is – you also admire the environment. It’s stunning.
It’s an ambitious adventure where manhood is literally tested.
Lewis: “Why do you go on these trips with me Ed?”
Ed: “I like my life, Lewis.”
Lewis: “Yeah, but why do you go on these trips with me?”
Ed: “You know sometimes I wonder about that.”
Available to stream on HBO Max and to rent on Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Redbox, Apple TV, YouTube, DIRECTV and FandangoNOW.
Screenplay by James Dickey. Based on the novel by James Dickey.
Directed by John Boorman
Starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox
Bringing “Deliverance” to the Screen
Warner Bros had acquired the rights to James Dickey’s novel, and, after making Hell in the Pacific in very difficult circumstances, they felt I was the man to take it on. I’d never been to the south before, but the first thing I did was go to meet Dickey. We drafted the screenplay together. Always by correspondence, because whenever we met we never got much done. It was the drinking, really. On one occasion, he came to LA to work, but locked himself in a hotel room with a ballerina called Amy Burke. Warners were never very convinced. Once we had the script, they said: “We’ll do it if you can cast two stars.” I secured Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, but they were too expensive. Eventually, the studio said: “Make it with unknowns for $2m.” I had budgeted for a composer and orchestra to flesh out Duelling Banjos as a musical theme, but in the end I just hired a guitar and banjo player to do variations on it in the studios. That was the whole score. I found Ned Beatty and Ronnie Cox from regional theatre, and eventually went to Jon Voight to play Ed, the lead alongside Burt Reynolds. But he couldn’t make up his mind. In our last phone call, I told him: “I’m going to count to 10. And he finally said yes.” We needed someone who looked inbred for the banjo player. My assistant found this boy, Billy Redden, who looked extraordinary, but couldn’t play. So we made a shirt with an extra sleeve in it, and a musician crouched behind doing the fretwork as Redden strummed. There was a lot written afterwards about how Deliverance libelled mountain people. But the locals were thrilled with the film.
We rehearsed for quite a long period, because we had to get the actors up to scratch in archery and canoeing. I had already been down the Chattooga, a ferocious river, to make sure it was safe. But I did the scene where their canoe breaks apart on another river, which was dammed. I got them to close all the sluice gates upstream, so only a trickle came down. That let us build rails on the riverbed, so we could mount the canoe on them, and trigger the breakup later. When we came to shoot, I was down at the bottom of the cataract on the phone to the dam. But I got impatient and got them to open all the gates. We just about survived the avalanche of water. All the Warners execs walked out without a word at the first screening. They said: “There’s never been a film in the history of Hollywood without women in it that made a lot of money.” But it made $46m, the No 5 film that year. And it’s entered the language, as poor Ned Beatty can testify. Wherever he went, people would say: “Squeal like a pig!” It went on for years. (theguardian.com)
Jon Voight on “Deliverance”
We were all taking risks, but John was fearless. At one point, one of the actors freaked out and said: “I can’t do this any more.” And John says: “It’s very simple.” He grabbed an oar, jumped into the canoe and goes downstream, around stuff, and over a log. With that done, nobody could deny him. I almost got killed climbing the cliff; I decided I needed to do it so it could be shot in closeup, which wouldn’t be possible with a stuntman. I was about 10 feet up on the face, which was slippery and almost perpendicular. I told the two grips below me: “If I start to fall off, I’m going to push off the rocks. And you’ll catch me.” I started to slip, called out and one of them caught me. There was a sharp rock inches from my head. The movie still has significance: the idea of people facing violence and what our responsibility is, how we have to step up. We leave the protection of others to certain members of our society: policeman and the military. But in some way we lose part of our manhood by hiding, by coddling ourselves into thinking we’re safe.” (theguardian.com)
About Screenwriter and Author James Dickey
On February 2, 1923, James Dickey was born in Buckhead, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. His interest in poetry was awakened by his father, a lawyer who used to read his son’s famous speeches. As a boy Dickey read the work of Byron, and later, a volume of Byron’s poetry was the young poet’s first purchase. As a boy—at six feet three inches—Dickey went on to become a high school football star, eventually playing varsity at Clemson College in South Carolina. In 1942, Dickey left school to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. In between combat missions in the Pacific, he read the work of Conrad Aiken and an anthology of modern poetry by Louis Untermeyer, and developed a taste for the apocalyptic poets, including Dylan Thomas and Kenneth Patchen. When he returned from the war, Dickey enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where he studied anthropology, astronomy, philosophy, and foreign languages, as well as English literature. Encouraged to write more poetry, Dickey spent his senior year focusing on his craft, and eventually had a poem published in the Sewanee Review. Determined to write, he pursued graduate work, first at Vanderbilt, then at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
The Air Force recalled Dickey to train officers for the Korean War. On his return he took a position with the University of Florida, though he resigned in April 1956, discouraged by the institutional nature of teaching. At the age of thirty-three, Dickey moved to New York City, where he was hired to write advertising copy at the prominent McCann-Ericson agency. He stayed in New York for several years before moving to Atlanta agencies. In 1960, Dickey’s first collection, “Into the Stone and Other Poems,” was published, and he soon abandoned his lucrative career to devote his life to writing poetry full-time.
In 1961, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent a year in Italy with his family. Two of his most famous volumes of verse, “Helmets” (1964) and “Buckdancer’s Choice” (1965), for which he was awarded both the Melville Cane Award and National Book Award, were published soon after. Dickey then taught, lectured, and wrote. “I came to poetry with no particular qualifications,” Dickey stated in Howard Nemerov’s Poets on Poetry. “I had begun to suspect, however, that there is a poet—or a kind of poet—buried in every human being like Ariel in his tree, and that the people whom we are pleased to call poets are only those who have felt the need and contrived the means to release this spirit from its prison.” Applauded for their ambitious experimentation with language and syntax, Dickey’s poems address humanity and violence by presenting the instincts of humans and animals as antithetical to the false safety of civilization. Called “willfully eccentric” by the New York Times Book Review and “naturally musical” by the Chicago Tribune Book World, Dickey’s work testifies to the power of the human spirit, especially under extreme conditions. From 1966 to 1968, Dickey held the position of Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, an office that would later become the Poet Laureate. In 1970, he penned his best-selling novel, “Deliverance.” The book, which was later made into a major motion picture, exposed readers to scenes of violence and nightmarish horror, much as his poetry had done. Though the novel was well received, Dickey remained devoted to poetry. “Poetry is, I think, the highest medium that mankind has ever come up with,” he asserted in a 1981 interview. “It’s language itself, which is a miraculous medium which makes everything else that man has ever done possible.” In 1977 Dickey read at President Carter’s inauguration, and later served as the judge of the Yale Younger Poets Series. By the end of his life, Dickey had gained fame for his poems and stories of the South and recognition for his Renaissance lifestyle. A writer, guitar player, hunter, woodsman, and war hero, James Dickey died in South Carolina after a long illness in 1997. (poets.org)
About Director John Boorman
John Boorman was born in Shepperton, Middlesex on 18 January 1933. After the Blitzed childhood he evoked in “Hope and Glory” (1997), national service and a spell in dry-cleaning, he progressed from journalism into television, eventually becoming the head of the BBC’s Bristol-based Documentary Unit in 1962. His first feature, “Catch Us If You Can” (1965), an attempt to repeat the success of “A Hard Day’s Night” (d. Richard Lester, 1964), is handicapped by the fact that the Dave Clark Five are infinitely less interesting, musically and as screen personalities, than The Beatles. However, within the format of the UK pop musical, the film shows traces of a distinct directorial personality. As the group make their way West, Boorman catches glimpses of interesting, unusual English landscapes: considering that he would specialise in alien or alienating worlds, it is intriguing that even at this early stage, he was casting his eye around for the fantastical among the greenery. Boorman was drawn to Hollywood for the opportunity to make larger-scale cinema and in “Point Blank” (1967), a potent distillation of a Richard Stark novel, brought a stranger’s vision to the decaying fortress of Alcatraz and the proto-hippy world of San Francisco. After “Point Blank,” Boorman re-teamed with Lee Marvin (partnered with Toshiro Mifune) for the robinsonade of “Hell in the Pacific” (US, 1968), a war movie with a slightly too fable-like gimmick: the relationship of nations encapsulated by two representative soldiers stranded together on an island and forced to put aside war to survive…returning to the UK, to a London that had stopped swinging, he made “Leo the Last” (US/UK, 1970), which, with the presence of Marcello Mastroianni importing a Fellinian influence, won him a Best Director award at Cannes… “Leo the Last” was unhappily reworked as the dire “Where the Heart Is” (US, 1990).
Boorman achieved much greater resonance with “Deliverance” (US, 1972), adapted from another pulp novel (albeit one by a poet, James Dickey). City folks Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty trespass into the Appalachian backwoods and discover their inner savagery as they feud with degenerate rednecks…Though he only approached the taut perfection of “Point Blank” and “Deliverance with The General” (1998), a black and white biopic of an Irish criminal, Boorman’s films are almost always ambitious and original…Even at his most ‘Hollywood’, Boorman is committed to his own material and culture: “The Emerald Forest” (1985), a rainforest adventure, casts his actor son Charley as an eco-warrior Tarzan, and commingles commercially-required elements – action and near-nudity – with anthropological detail and the gorgeous threat of the green inferno. “Beyond Rangoon” (US, 1995) and “The Tailor of Panama” (US/Ireland, 2000) are politicised travelogues, with stars and intrigues, more interested in their gaudily corrupt settings than the editorial condemnations. “Hope and Glory,” which recreates ’40s suburbia in the studio, is at once heritage wartime nostalgia and a spirited raspberry to the form, incarnated by Sammi Davis’s joyful welcome to the bombs that destroy her stifling neighbourhood. (screenonline.org.uk) Boorman’s later credits included “In My Country” (2004), a…drama about the consequences of apartheid in South Africa, and “The Tiger’s Tail” (2006), with Gleeson well cast as a driven Irish businessman whose ruthless real-estate dealings begin to take a toll on his sanity. The drama “Queen & Country” (2014) is a sequel to “Hope and Glory.” Boorman also co-wrote the drama “The Professor and the Madman” (2019). (britannica.com)