#457) Deliverance (1972)

#457) Deliverance (1972)

OR “Paddle Your Own Canoe”

Directed by John Boorman

Written by James Dickey. Based on his novel.

Class of 2008

The Plot: Businessmen and acquaintances Ed, Lewis, Bobby and Drew (Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox) take a long weekend getaway for some camping and canoeing down Georgia’s Cahulawassee River, soon to be flooded by a newly-built dam. What starts out as a relaxing vacation in the great outdoors slowly turns into a wide-awake nightmare. These “city folk” experience everything from a near-death experience on the rapids to a traumatizing encounter with some local hillbillies (Bill McKinney & Herbert “Cowboy” Coward). It’s a scary, thrilling survival film, complete with iconic banjo music!

Why It Matters: Wow, someone really likes “Deliverance” over at the NFR. Their write-up calls the film a “gripping Appalachian ‘Heart of Darkness'”, praises the “visual flair” of Boorman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and calls the Mountain Men “two of the more memorable villains in film history”.

But Does It Really?: “Deliverance” is one of those movies that isn’t perfect, but does succeed at what it’s trying to be. Boorman et al create a backwoods atmosphere that is both idyllic and terrifying, and effectively set the scene for a realistic tale of flawed men trying to brave the elements. The film’s iconic first half makes the second half a bit of a letdown through no fault of its own, but overall “Deliverance” is a strong movie with an equally strong legacy. Though I do question how it took 20 years for “Deliverance” to make the National Film Registry.

Everybody Gets One: James Dickey had been an English instructor and a copy writer for Coca-Cola before becoming a published poet in the 1960s. “Deliverance” (his first novel) was published in 1970, and its film rights were immediately snatched up by Warner Bros. Despite some initial friction with director John Boorman over script re-writes, Dickey got along well with Boorman, who cast Dickey as the Sheriff at the end of the movie.

Seriously, Oscars?: One of the biggest hits of 1972, “Deliverance” received three nominations: Best Picture, Director, and Editing. Unfortunately, 1972 was also the year of “The Godfather” and “Cabaret“, and “Deliverance” went home empty handed. The film did, however, win an unexpected major showbiz award: Steve Mandell & Eric Weissberg took home the 1974 Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance for their rendition of “Dueling Banjos”.

Other notes 

  • Like so many great movies, we got our main cast because every other actor in Hollywood passed. Everyone from Steve McQueen to Henry Fonda to Marlon Brando were considered for or offered the roles of Ed and Lewis. When Lee Marvin passed, the 48-year-old actor suggested that Boorman cast younger leads that would be up to the movie’s demanding physical scenes. All four eventual leads were in their early to mid-30s during production.
  • This is Ned Beatty’s film debut! Ironically, Beatty was the only main cast member who had ever paddled a canoe before, even though his character is supposed to be the least experienced.
  • I didn’t realize “Dueling Banjos” is right at the beginning. It’s pretty much the only moment of levity in an otherwise tense film. Ronny Cox may have been this movie’s fourth Ghostbuster, but he and his guitar get the film’s most iconic moment.
  • Why is Jon Voight wearing Burt Reynolds’ mustache? Did Reynolds lose a bet?
  • Speaking of, it’s so interesting seeing Burt Reynolds in a movie where he’s playing a character, rather than a variation of his screen persona. His Lewis speaks with a Southern accent, and is a bit more militant than, say, The Bandit. Reynolds does, however, sneak in his trademark high-pitched laugh at one point.
  • Shoutout to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Like he did for the Northwest in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller“, Zsigmond does a marvelous job capturing the deceptive peacefulness of the Georgia backwoods. Take away the film’s perpetually foreboding atmosphere and these shots would be picturesque. There’s also some brilliant camera compositions going on during the dialogue scenes, leading to some wonderful visual storytelling. How the Oscars continued to ignore Zsigmond’s work is appalling.
  • The canoeing scenes may be my favorite in the movie; the last bit of fun before it all goes to hell. On a related note: due to the film’s low budget, the actors did their own stunts, and were uninsured.
  • Full Disclosure: I have repeatedly held off viewing “Deliverance” for the blog because of the “squeal like a pig” scene. Having now seen it, the sequence earns its reputation as one of the most unforgettably disturbing moments in this or any film. It’s like a nightmare that you can’t shake after you wake up. The only real downside is that nothing in the rest of the movie can top that for sheer shock value or stake-raising. Like the car chase in “The French Connection“, this scene causes “Deliverance” to peak too soon.
  • This movie made me realize that I haven’t seen too many of Jon Voight’s performances (the only one that comes to mind is “Seinfeld“). He is definitely an actor who works from the inside out; each thought in Ed’s mind comes across on Voight’s face. It’s a subtly brilliant performance.
  • The movie’s other drawback for me is that it falters once the group is split up. Turns out I enjoyed watching these four character bond more than I enjoyed Ed’s personal journey. There’s nothing bad about the film’s second hour, it just becomes a different, less exciting movie.
  • For years, the internet has told me that the deputy in the hospital (whom I’ve dubbed “Officer Cheekbones”) is a pre-fame Ed O’Neill. Turns out it’s a similar looking actor named Lewis Crone in his only film appearance. O’Neill was still a young athlete in 1972 and wouldn’t begin his acting career for another few years.

Legacy 

  • “Deliverance” was the movie that catapulted Burt Reynolds from TV star to movie star. Reynolds spent the rest of the ’70s as a bona-fide A-lister, complete with trademark mustache and a relationship with Dinah Shore!
  • The film’s success not only made Georgia and the Chattooga River (filling in for the movie’s fictitious Cahulawassee) popular tourist spots, it also inspired then-Governor Jimmy Carter to start a state film commission. Today, Georgia is the most popular U.S. state outside of California for film production. Tyler Perry wouldn’t build his studio just anywhere.
  • “Squeal like a pig” and “You got a real purdy mouth” have become cultural shorthand for backwoods hillbillies. I bet that wouldn’t be the case if everyone remembered the context those lines were spoken in.
  • Also a cultural hillbilly shorthand: “Dueling Banjos”, easily one of the most popular instrumentals in film history. One only needs to hum the first five notes for people to get the reference.

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