The 1972 nature thriller “Deliverance” is considered to be a landmark film that’s still held in high regard. It’s based on and follows closely James Dickey’s novel from 1970. Dickey played a key role in bringing the film to the big screen. He wrote most of the screenplay along with director and producer John Boorman. Dickey even has a small role in the film as the sheriff that we see close to the end. “Deliverance” went on to earn three Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director and it’s preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress..
But for us moviegoers, those things aren’t what “Deliverance” is remembered for. The movie took the man versus nature dynamic, injected several disturbing regional elements, and created a unique thriller that still holds up today. It’s the story of four Atlanta “city boys” who drive into the forested north Georgia hills to canoe down the Cahulawassee River before it’s ruined by the construction of a dam. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the only one that could be called a true outdoorsman. Ed (Jon Voight) has a little experience with camping. But Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox) are new to the wilderness.
The four take off through the hills looking for the most remote place to drop their canoes. But before hitting the water they need to find someone to drive their vehicles ahead to where their canoe trip ends. They come across the home places of some mountain locals and we immediately see they are out of their element. Boorman and Dickey create a pretty thick tension between the two groups that is only eased when Drew (who is plucking his guitar while waiting on Lewis) is joined by a local boy and his banjo. This is one of the film’s most memorable scenes but for me it’s also the best. The two play “Dueling Banjos”, a composition by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. The song was incredibly popular and will always be associated with “Deliverance”. The problem is it was used without permission which led to a lawsuit. But it’s perfect for the scene which really sets the tone for the entire film. There is a sweetness about the scene but more than that there is a creepiness to it as well. The young banjo player (played by Billy Redden) has the look of being inbred and as a result perhaps mentally retarded. We see him one more time on an overhead bridge as the boys head down the river. It’s a creepy scene that sets the table for what’s ahead.
The guys are able to hire some locals to take their vehicles downstream and they soon find themselves on the river. They go on the trip with the intentions of enjoying nature’s beauty but they also encounter some of nature’s harsh challenges. Things are made even more difficult when they cross paths with two armed backwoods mountain men (Bill McKinney and Herbert Coward). A violent encounter follows which turns their trip deadly. If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t ruin it for you, but the four find themselves fighting for the lives. The sharp contrast between the sheer beauty of their surroundings and the threat it poses is ever-present and the twisted hillbillies seem like another arm of nature.
The movie was filmed on the Chattooga River between South Carolina and Georgia. The locations perfectly compliment the story and it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the environment. Boorman captures the high cliffs, raging rapids, and green lush forests with some sharp and clever camera work. And aside from the wonderful “Dueling Banjos”, the film’s carefully implemented score mixed with the natural ambience is perfect for the tone that Boorman is trying to maintain. The visuals and sound are a big reason that “Deliverance” works so well.
Also worth noting are the fantastic performances. Burt Reynolds is very good as the tough guy of the group. He flexes his brawn through his tight leather zipper vest and at times you truly believe the groups survival depends on him. Actually Voight carries most of the screen time and he’s very good. The movie is also significant in that it features the debut performances from Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox. All four are very well cast. The movie is also strengthened by some great smaller supporting roles which bring the locals to life. McKinney and Coward are believable and terrifying and I still find Redden’s character one of creepiest I’ve ever seen. Oh, and keep an eye out for a young Ed O’Neil in a small role as a policeman close to the end of the film.
While “Deliverance” is a good movie, I do think it stumbles a little at the end. It’s not that it’s a bad ending, it just doesn’t measure up to the level of intensity and suspense that had built up throughout the film. The ramifications of the events that take place do come to a head and certain decisions have to be made. But they never feel as important or as pressing as they should be. I don’t mean to second guess Dickey’s script, but it seems as though he could have put together a tighter and more satisfying ending.
Even though it may not end as strongly as it starts, “Deliverance” is a memorable movie and like I said, it still holds up today. Anchored by some solid performances, strong direction, and a sharp aesthetic, “Deliverance” creates an atmosphere as threatening as it is beautiful and throws it’s characters right in the middle of it. It’s a haunting and sometimes unnerving ride that will leave you never wanting to vacation in the south again.