This week’s adaptation film gem was based on a popular 1970 novel. Its author James Dickey was fortunate enough to be hired as the film’s screenwriter and could tailor his adaptation to his own needs and desires. Director John Boorman’s “Deliverance” is an outstanding action-adventure film that takes a turn into realistic horror when four buddies from the city take a canoe trip on the Cahulawassee River in rural Georgia and become stalked by a group of backwoods locals.
This exciting film stars Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds as Ed Gentry and Lewis Medlock, respectively. This film is widely known to have made Reynolds an A-list star after he spent years on television and as a B-film hero. The film also featured Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox in their film debuts. Author Dickey even plays a local Sheriff Bullard.
The film begins in a very light hearted manner as we hear a group of unseen guys talking about their weekend plans on the river, while the opening credits run. Lewis complains the power company is going to dam the river and ruin everything. “They’re drowning the river, man. It’s just about the last wild, untamed, unpolluted, un-fucked upriver in the South!… It’s gonna’ be a big dead lake…Your last chance to see that river.” Their plan is to leave Atlanta on Friday and be back on Sunday afternoon for football.
At their first stop for gas, one of the guys, Drew (Cox) begins playing his guitar, when a strange looking local boy suddenly starts playing along in unison. Their tune “Dueling Banjos” turns into a fully improvised jam session. This tune became a popular hit single on radios nationwide after the film’s release.
Then the guys need to find a pair of local drivers who will take their small utility van and station wagon to the end of the river once they begin their canoeing. When they ask one local mechanic, he sarcastically wonders why a bunch of city folk would want to canoe that hazardous river. Lewis responds, “Because it’s there!”
The local guy warns the group, “You get in there and can’t get out, you’re gonna’ wish it wasn’t.” Once on the river the four pair up into two canoes, with one experienced outdoorsman per canoe. Lewis goes with Bobby (Beatty); Ed and Drew take the other canoe. The approaching rapids cause feelings of tension for Bobby and Drew, whereas the pros Lewis and Ed can’t wait for the excitement. Director Boorman didn’t use stunt doubles and things look very real.
Later, after Lewis goes fishing with his bow and arrow, the pairs change and are separated; Ed and Bobby are then attacked by local mountain men. They tie Ed to a tree then beat and brutally rape Bobby, as his attacker demands that he “squeal like a pig.” Lewis comes to the rescue by killing the attacker with his bow and arrow. This leaves the men facing the moral dilemma—do they notify local authorities or just bury the guy in the river?
The film’s action photography is done by great Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who worked with Robert Altman on “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971) and would later shoot “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Deer Hunter.” I had the pleasure of seeing this masterwork for several days on a made for television boxing film “Flesh and Blood” at the State Farm Center (then The Assembly Hall) in December 1978.
Boorman’s haunting ending sequence was copied or borrowed by Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1977) and so many slasher/horror films that followed thereafter.
Reynolds serious performance was so unlike his other comical “good ole’ boy” roles of this period. This is especially true when he discusses his “ability to survive” and when he lectures to Bobby after he yells, “We beat it!” Lewis says, “You don’t beat it. You don’t beat this river!”
In Reynolds’ 1994 autobiography “My Life” he concluded “Deliverance” was his favorite, describing it as “the best film I made.” “Somewhere deep down inside, I know no other film may ever equal “Deliverance.” Later still, in Reynolds’ 2015 memoir “But Enough About Me”, he concludes, “I don’t know if it’s the best acting I’ve done, but it’s the best movie I’ve been in. It proved I could act, not only to the public but to me.”
“Deliverance” would receive three Oscar nominations for best picture, director and best film editing. 1972 was the year of better films like “The Godfather” and “Cabaret” that dominated the rewards that year. In 2008, “Deliverance” was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry, noting the film’s “cultural, historical and aesthetical significance.”