Warner Bros. // 1972 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // September 10th, 2007
This is the weekend they didn't play golf.
Based on the best-selling novel by James Dickey and directed by John Boorman (Excalibur), Deliverance ranks among the most famous films of all time. The "Dueling Banjos" scene and the (in)famous "squeal like a pig" scene come to mind instantly when thinking about this movie. To some extent, the fame of these two scenes overshadows this meticulously constructed and multi-layered film. At the same time, this is not an entertaining movie by any stretch of the imagination.
Even if you haven't seen the film, is there anyone that does not know the story? Four men from Atlanta, Lewis (Burt Reynolds, Smokey And The Bandit), Ed (Jon Voight, Coming Home), Drew (Ronny Cox, Robocop), and Bobby (Ned Beatty, Network), decide to go on a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River. This is their last chance to take the trip because the river is being dammed to make way for a large hydroelectric facility. Needless to say, the journey turns into a horrifying nightmare.
The key to understanding and appreciating the quality of Deliverance is seeing through the literal actions occurring in the "squeal like a pig" scene. (Note that I did not write that you will "like" or "enjoy" the film.) If the only notable event in this movie was the rape of Ned Beatty by a mountain man (Bill McKinney, The Outlaw Josey Wales), Deliverance would have been forgotten 35 years ago and this "Deluxe Edition" would have never been released. Thus, the film must have some enduring qualities beyond one shocking scene. Unfortunately, some critics think that there is not much substance behind the violence. For example, upon its initial release, Roger Ebert wrote that the film was "pure exploitative sensationalism," that it "fails [...] to make some kind of significant statement about its action," and that it is "a fantasy about violence, not a realistic consideration of it." While I can understand this kind of reaction, I disagree with the assessment completely. Also, I find Ebert's criticism odd given the high praise he has bestowed on violent movies, including Pulp Fiction, The Wild Bunch, and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia.
Deliverance is a film that builds itself methodically and efficiently. The opening 15 minutes introduces images, words, and events that foreshadow the wickedness to come. In the introduction, a construction crew strips and dynamites the landscape while Lewis talks about the "rape" of the land. The banjo duel occurs minutes later. On the surface, the scene appears to show a harmony between the city folk and the hillbillies through the medium of music. This is true up to a point, but it should be kept in mind that a duel is a competition with winners and losers: Drew starts the contest in earnest by saying "I'm with you," but ends by exclaiming "I'm lost." Soon after, Lewis, brimming with arrogance about his own abilities and a lack of respect for the locals, hits a dead end when trying to find the river. The hillbillies mock his mistake. In this way, the film reveals that the destruction of nature, macho posturing, conflict between the city folk and hillbillies, and the disconnection of modern civilization from nature will loom large. Further, this opening strongly establishes that the four urbanites are unaware that they are both out of their element and on hostile ground against two foes: nature and other men. They are in for a shock.
Is the shock that ultimately arises necessary for the movie to make its point? That's not a question I can answer definitively. However, the minds behind this movie have their own views. In his commentary, Boorman describes the mountain men as the "malevolent spirits of the forest," representing nature's vengeance against the city men for their rape of the environment (i.e., the killing of the river). Alternatively, in 1970, Dickey wrote that the book "is intended as a commentary on the threat of violence that is trembling near us every day of our lives. Such violence need not take place in the isolation of a mountain river, but poises ready to explode unexpectedly and horribly in every city street and in every home." I think both interpretations are valid, but Dickey's view taps into a more universal fear of unexpected and unexplainable violence by strangers and even those familiar to us.
So, what is the movie saying? A journey to reconnect with nature and assert masculinity leaves all involved mentally and physically shattered to varying degrees, ranging highly traumatized to fatal. Moreover, there does not appear to be a road to recovery for the survivors. They are incapable of dealing with the ordeal they have endured. When Bobby tells Ed, "I don't think I'll see you for a while," it's clear that these events will never be discussed again. Everything is buried literally and figuratively, but it always threatens to rise back to the surface without warning. Peace of mind is gone forever. However, it goes even further than that: Ed's wife soothes him when he has a nightmare by saying, "It's all right. It's all right. Shh. Go to sleep. Go to sleep." He slowly falls back asleep. And so, they may have started their journey as men, but they have returned as scared (and scarred) boys. They may have survived, but they are not heroes. Thus, the film leaves us with a devastating critique of male rites of passage and macho exploits.
The performances are uniformly exceptional, and a major reason for the film's success. All the actors from Reynolds to McKinney to James Dickey (as the sheriff) fit their roles flawlessly.
The DVD's technical aspects are superb. The video transfer is excellent; Boorman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's (The Long Goodbye) desaturated compositions of the forest and river are both beautiful and foreboding. The sound is similarly outstanding.
Kudos to Warner Bros. for this "Deluxe Edition"; it delivers the goods with respect to extras. The holdovers from the 1999 release are the theatrical trailer and the short 1972 making-of featurette "The Dangerous World of Deliverance." The additions include a new commentary by Boorman and four retrospective featurettes on different aspects of the film. The new featurettes are comprised of recently recorded interviews with the cast, crew, and Christopher Dickey (son of James). The commentary and featurettes are insightful, covering all aspects of the film from casting, budgeting, themes, stunts, symbolism, photography, and beyond. One of the most interesting observations comes from Beatty when describing the reactions people had to the film upon its release. He says that "women seemed to know exactly what it was about," while men would make comments about canoeing or having shot a bow and arrow.
This is a classic and intelligent film, but the events that occur necessarily limits its audience. Indeed, many will want turn away from it (if not simply stop watching completely) during the rape and murder scene. This is understandable. Unlike most movies, the violence in Deliverance is neither trivialized nor presented as entertainment. This approach can have the effect of blinding some viewers from seeing anything beyond the brutality. Further, the non-triumphant and bleak conclusion is something that some viewers will reject outright.
Deliverance is an important and rewarding film that is worth watching, but it's tough. While I admire the craftsmanship of the movie, I can't say that I enjoy watching it. It is well made, thought-provoking, and unforgettable, but there is no escaping the disturbing violence and the conclusions the movie draws. If you haven't seen or heard about Deliverance, consider yourself warned. It is a haunting experience.
Not guilty. This release is worthy of being called a "Deluxe Edition."
Review content copyright © 2007 Roy Hrab; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by John Boorman
* "Deliverance: The Beginning"
* "Deliverance: The Journey"
* "Deliverance: Betraying the River"
* "Deliverance: Delivered"
* "The Dangerous World of Deliverance"
* Theatrical Trailer
* DVD Verdict Review of Deliverance
* Roger Ebert's Review
* New York Times Interview with James Dickey, March 22, 1970 (Free Registration Required)