Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Deliverance (1972)

Dir. John Boorman
Starring: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox

Deliverance has one of the most iconic soundtracks in existence – the famous ‘Dueling Banjos’. As Billy Redden’s blind albino boy picks away at his banjo, gazing sightlessly, the tone of eerie backwoods menace starts to be set.

The film sees the alpha-male Lewis (Burt Reynolds) persuade his three friends four that, instead of playing golf, they should get out of Atlanta and spend the weekend canoeing down an isolated river, the Cahulawassee, before it is submerged by a dam-building project. They discover the local inhabitants to be degraded and impoverished; Bobby (Ned Beatty) jokes openly about their “genetic deficiencies”. Nonetheless they take to the water and begin to enjoy their excursion downstream, negotiating patches of white-water as they go. The Saturday sees Bobby and Ed (Jon Voight) get separated from the other canoe. Pausing to get their bearings they are abducted at gunpoint by a couple of ‘mountain men’. Bobby is sexually violated; Ed is saved by the arrival of their companions. Lewis kills one of their abductors and the other flees.

The four canoeists then debate what to do with the dead body. Drew (Ronny Cox) argues that they should take the corpse downriver to the sheriff and state that they were acting in self-defence. Lewis argues that the local police, judges and juries would probably all be inter-related and they would never get a fair trial; he suggests they bury the body in the woods. Bobby, who does not want the story of what happened to him to become known, supports Lewis. So does Ed. They bury the man in a shallow grave and flee off down the river, convinced that they are being hunted down.

In many ways Deliverance is a film about two different cultures clashing. On the one hand there is modernity – the four ‘city boys’ from Atlanta, the construction work on the dam scheduled to drown the Cahulawassee River valley. On the other there is the wild (the ‘vanishing wilderness’ as Lewis calls it) – brutal and majestic scenery, a natural world of deer, trout and mosquitoes, and the clannishly inbred backwoods hillbillies who do not seem to have developed much over the past century. All four friends are disparaging towards the locals. Bobby is the worst, mocking a petrol station attendant’s hat and suggesting that everybody is inbred. They despise these backwoods folk and attribute all kinds of perversity to them; it is an irony then that they later fall victim to exactly this perversity. After this it is just a short step to assuming that they are being stalked and picked off by the toothless survivor. Bizarrely, the wilderness men are the ones with modern weapons (shotguns) while the modern men are the ones with the weapon of the wild (bow and arrows).

The catalyst for this is Drew’s death in the rapids. Lewis claims that Drew was shot. Whether he was shot or not is never made clear. While the viewer sees him topple in to the river, no bullet is seen or heard. When his corpse is discovered downriver a quick search fails to find any bullet-hole. What is known is that Drew reacted badly to the decision to cover-up their murder of the mountain man. When they dig the shallow grave he is obviously under a great deal of stress. He then refuses to put on his lifejacket when they take to the water. The paranoid survivors become convinced that they are trapped in the gorge and that an attacker is laying in wait for them. As Lewis has broken his leg it is up to the placid pipe-smoking Ed to take his place as ├╝ber-male. He scales the cliff and kills a gunman that he finds there. Except this man does not look much like the toothless old geezer that had earlier captured him. The suggestion is that an innocent hunter has been killed by mistake. But they convince themselves it is the right man and weigh his corpse down in the river to dispose of the evidence. They do the same with Drew’s body and concoct a cover story. When they finally find their way to Aintry at the end of the river the three survivors conspire to keep the truth of what happened from the local authorities. They act this way because of suspicion of the locals and a belief that the standards of civilised behaviour – such as fair trials – would not apply here. Essentially they treat the local inhabitants – the “crackers” - as sub-human, thereby justifying all their actions. Ironically the only one of the four who had seen the locals as anything more than this was Drew. It was he that connected with the banjo-player at the start (though he was rebuffed when he attempted to shake the boy’s hand), and it was he who argued that they should inform the police of what had occurred. When Ed later says of Drew “He was the best of us” he speaks the truth.


But the barely-human inbred Southern hillbilly has now taken on a life of its own. Thanks to Deliverance this type of character has become a stereotype. At the most pleasant end of the scale in Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel in The Simpsons; at the other end is the urban myth of the malign sexually-deviant inbred backwoodsman. If Duelling Banjos is one of the two things everybody knows about Deliverance without having seen it, the other is the infamous instruction for Bobby to “squeal like a pig!” If it is not bad enough that he is being raped in a wood by a yokel, the inference that the man’s sexual fantasy actually involves pigs is even more disgusting. Ed is thankfully spared from being forced to use his “pretty mouth”: “You gonna do some prayin’ for me boy. And you better pray good.” Whether this was a stereotype of mountain men prior to the film’s release, it certainly is one now.

Popular culture hence owes a large debt to Deliverance. I think, however, that what is most notable is its sense of immediacy. Reynolds, Voight, Cox and Beatty can be clearly seen in every action sequence. That really is Ned Beatty paddling furiously through the rapids. That really is Burt Reynolds being thrashed around as he tumbles down the falls (he even broke his coccyx while filming that scene). Ronny Cox has a double-jointed shoulder, and that really is his real arm twisted over his head, not a prosthetic. And that really is Jon Voight climbing up the cliff-face. Even more remarkably, to save money, the production skimped on insurance. This would of course find favour with the macho Lewis: “Insurance? I never been insured in my life. There’s no risk.”

What have I learnt about Georgia?
Georgia has tracts of wilderness, though this is under threat. Lots of the state’s rivers have been dammed to provide drinking water and hydro-electric power. I have read that the state as a whole contains no less than 3881 dams.

According to the film the people who love in these remote areas of wilderness are clannish yokels, distrustful of outsiders. And more to the point, outsiders are distrustful of these ‘crackers’. Whether the former statement is true I don’t know, but I can certainly believe the latter. People from big cities have a tendency to look down upon those who live in the countryside.

Can we go there?
Aintry County’ is entirely fictitious. Filming took place in the real-life Rabun County, up on Georgia’s northern border with North and South Carolina. This is in the southernmost reaches of the famous Blue Ridge Mountains. The ‘Cahulawassee River’ seen in the movie was based on author James Dickey’s own memories of canoeing the Coosawatee River in north-west Georgia and running in to moonshiners. Shooting for the movie, however, actually took place along the ‘wild and scenic’ Chattooga – and yes, you can go rafting along its length. Back in 1971 it had never been attempted in a canoe. The gorge in which the three survivors are trapped after tumbling down the rapids was the nearby Tallulah Gorge, beneath Lake Tallulah Falls. More details of precisely which sets of rapids were used can be found here.

Not every scene was shot in Georgia however. The cemetery where Ed sees coffins being dug up is the Mount Carmel Baptist Church Cemetery, which now actually does sit 103 feet below the waters of a lake – Lake Jocassee in South Carolina. The North Carolinian town of Sylva stood in for Aintry.    

Overall Rating: 3/5

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