Deliverance (1972) dir. John Boorman
Starring: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox and Bill McKinney
By Greg Klymkiw
In this day and age, is it possible to imagine a filmmaker assembling a cast and crew willing to risk life and/or limb to make a movie? Not just any movie, mind you - I'm talking about a movie of such importance that rendering it properly would be so fraught with peril that the production company would never be able to secure anything resembling insurance.
Furthermore, would one be able to find on today's landscape a financier with the balls to green-light a movie so dangerous to its participants that the picture and the very act of making it would seem, to any reasonable individual, a completely irresponsible act? In an industry increasingly ruled by lawyers, accountants, insurance agents, frail, sensitive actors and their weak-kneed handlers and worst of all, powder-puff movie executives and administrators who can only do business by dotting all the "I-s" and crossing all the "T-s" , my answer to the abovementioned questions would be a pure and simple, "I think not".
That anyone would risk ANYTHING to make a movie at all these days seems to be a rare occurrence and with the lack of risk-taking at all levels, one sincerely doubts John Boorman's stunning adaptation of James Dickey's novel "Deliverance" would even be made today.
Well, I suppose it would and could be made in today's climate of caution, but it would be awful, or at best - not nearly as good - at least not if it was made with the sort of punch-pulling, namby-pambiness that renders most everything these days as rather trite, especially since most pictures will choose to use a battery of stunt men to take the places of actual actors engaging in acts of derring-do and digital effects to make up for the lack of being able to take the time, trouble and decidedly risky business to actually capture on film those said acts of derring-do.
One of the many things that contributes to the greatness of "Deliverance" is that we see real men in real canoes on a real (and really fucking dangerous) river. In fact, when I used the Blu-Ray technology to scan the more insane stunts, I was only able to detect one - COUNT 'EM - one instance where a stunt man was used.
And I was right - when I scanned through the generous extra features on the recently-released Warners Blu-Ray disc, my own findings were corroborated.
With "Deliverance", what we see is what we get - four great actors risking their very lives to make this movie. There are several terrifying instances of this, but two of them stand out. The first is when a characters's canoe turns over on the raging waters and he cascades over a rocky indent and plunges in such an awkward manner that the CHARACTER breaks his leg. Watching thew actor in question during the aftermath as he is carried along by the current, the pain on his face is so palpable that when it's finally revealed that his bone is actually jutting out of his thigh, there's no doubting his pain. While the actor in question didn't break his leg for real, he did, in fact, break his coccyx. The other terrifying moment is witnessing one of the characters scaling a huge, treacherous rock cliff. It's an extremely harrowing scene and even more so when you start to realize that this is the actual actor scaling the actual cliff. To say this enhances the drama would be an understatement. (And never mind the actor - think of the camera people and director who would have been dangling perilously with the actor to capture these harrowing shots.) Narratively, his goal is one of life and death. If he does not accomplish his mission, everyone in the party is lost - therefore, the narrative importance of making this real cannot be underestimated.
And why, you ask, is the character scaling this cliff armed with a crossbow gun? And just who is the grizzled, toothless psychopath waiting at the top with one mean-ass shotgun Well, by now, only those living on the moons of Jupiter DON'T know what "Deliverance" is about. For those aliens, the answers to the above questions will not only be found watching the movie, but within the brief plot summary below:
Four city slickers take a weekend canoe trip along a raging river in the deep South that will soon be flooded and consumed by a huge, man-made lake. When they are attacked by crazed hillbillies with a penchant for forcible sodomy, they must not only survive the perils of nature, but dig deep to discover their dormant savage nature and defend themselves at all costs. It's pure and simple and through that purity and simplicity, the filmmakers have delivered an astoundingly rich and complex work.
With his novel, the late, great American poet James Dickey used this simple narrative coat hanger to explore man's relationship to nature and his inner beast. Director John Boorman pushed the simple narrative further to explore the notion of the effects of man playing God and the results of trying to beat and/or control nature. Clearly a perfect creative team, Dickey (who also wrote the screenplay adaptation) and director Boorman, successfully collaborated on a movie that thrills us viscerally and engages us intellectually and finally, just plain scares the shit out of us.
And to reiterate, it's not just the action and suspense that grabs us. The characters are perfectly etched and rendered. The four motley city slickers are a typical mixed-bag, not just for the drama, but are, like life itself, a microcosm of people we all know - including, perhaps, ourselves. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is Mr. Macho Man - he loves nature, he loves danger and he's as gifted in traversing raging white water as he is with using a cross-bow to secure their food and, eventually, to defend themselves against the toothless, drooling, inbred, sodomy-loving hillbillies (Bill McKinney and Herbert "Cowboy" Coward). Ed (Jon Voight) is, by default, a rugged-enough hunk, but he has suppressed his true nature so long that it takes quite awhile to find the way back to manliness. Drew (Ronny Cox) is a guitar-picking, folk-singing bleeding heart Liberal who also gets to be part of a scene that has already - among several in this movie - become indelibly etched on the memory banks all who see it. Drew is front and centre of the "duet" sequence involving the traditional backwoods song "Dueling Banjos". And last, and certainly not least, Bobby (Ned Beatty) is a jovial, ribald, bumbling fat man who suffers the most savage indignity and learns to "squeal like a pig" in a scene that is so horrific that it's both painful to watch and unforgettable. These four men are strange bedfellows, but it's their very differences that make them a good team and ideal company for each other.
Boorman attacks the material with both intelligence and ferocity. Supported by the stunning location photography of the brilliant Vilmos Zsigmond, "Deliverance" is a movie that knocks you on your ass the first time you see it and is so exquisitely rendered that repeat viewings never disappoint. The picture continues to creep you out, thrill you and stimulate the old brain juice - again and again and again.
Another astonishing thing about "Deliverance" is that its stylistic and storytelling techniques are not dated. It feels as fresh and vibrant today as when it was made back in 1972. On one hand, it is a product of its time in that it explores such dangerous territory unflinchingly, but aside from some big-ass old cars that nobody drives anymore, it feels like it could have been made yesterday.
Finally, that's what renders it a classic. There's nothing ephemeral about this movie. It is a picture for now and forever.
"Deliverance" is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video. It's an astounding transfer that happily and wisely does not attempt to blunt the raw quality of Zsigmond's photography which, by the way, has some of the finest day for night work in cinema history. On HD, it's as stunning as it was when I first saw it on a big screen in 1972.