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50 years of 'Deliverance': John Boorman's masterpiece remains as profound as ever

'Deliverance' - John Boorman

John Boorman’s 1972 film Deliverance is a rare piece of cinema in the sense that after first watching it, you are never the same again. A survival thriller, it follows four businessmen from Atlanta who head into the Appalachian backwoods in the northwest Georgia wilderness for a weekend of canoeing down the Cahulawassee River.

What ensues is a tense fight for survival against the unrestrained mother nature and the unfettered brutality of man, without the protection that the civilised world that they live in offers. It remains a reminder of what will happen if we take our environment and democracy for granted, something that has never been as pertinent. 

Out in the sticks, there is no warm home to return to and no payphone to call the police. This is what Thomas Hobbes called ‘The State of Nature’ in Leviathan, and it is utterly terrifying, more so than any supernatural evil we see in horror movies. 

Produced and directed by Boorman, Deliverance stars Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox, and Billy Redden, with the latter trio making their feature film debuts and subsequently etching themselves into pop culture history. Giving the film the authentic feel that has made it so timeless is that the screenplay was adapted by James Dickey from his 1970 novel of the same name, meaning that even though Boorman changed parts of the story, the simple but profound themes of his original work were not lost.

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Adding to this sense of authenticity is that the shooting was primarily situated in Rabun County in northeastern Georgia. This also happened to be where a 15-year-old Billy Redden was discovered by the legendary casting director Lynn Stalmaster and was immediately suggested for the banjo-playing local in the iconic ‘Duelling Banjos’ scene. 

The first of the movie’s two most famous scenes, the duel Redden’s character has with Ronny Cox’s Drew sets a precedent for the rest of the film, with this brief moment of elation brought into question when the boy does not acknowledge the bespectacled soft drink executive after their successful duet, one of the first indications that our four protagonists are not welcome here, and what they represent is the antithesis to the locals’ way of life.

It must be said that for the four leading men, Reynolds, Voight, Beatty, and Cox, each of their respective performances rank amongst the very finest they ever gave. Reynolds as the tough property developer and part-time outdoorsman, Lewis, is arguably his best role. Voight’s less macho, but intellectual Ed is right up there with his characters in Midnight Cowboy and Catch-22. As for Cox’s Drew and Beatty’s Bobby, both are so outstanding for debut performances that they struggled to surpass them over the rest of their careers. 

Another astonishing aspect of the film is the vistas captured on the canoe trip. Filmed in the spectacular Tallulah Gorge and on the Chattooga River, again, this helped to instil the movie with the sense that mother nature is both beautiful and domineering, something that would have fallen flat if shot in any other way. Out here, cradled in the verdant bosom of the gorge travelling down the river, the quartet are like insects stuck on a bathroom wall, and they can be annihilated at any point, as they soon find out.

Before too long, we come to the movie’s other notable scene, which also just so happens to be one of the most harrowing moments in movie history. As the four friends find themselves separated, Bobby and Ed land, encountering a pair of mountain men in the woods, both with missing teeth and one carrying a shotgun that he wields with frightening insouciance. After an altercation, where the wisecracking Bobby angers the leader of the two men, Ed is tied up, and Bobby is forced to undress. The ringleader then toys with Bobby, telling him he looks like a hog whilst ripping his pants off and instructing him to “squeal like a pig”. 

He then sodomizes Bobby while Ed watches in horror as the other mountain man laughs in a terrifyingly unhinged way, suggesting that such acts are normalised out here. Now, Ed and Bobby have had their first encounter with the primal way things are in this untamed part of the world, and they are never to be the same again. I’ll leave it here as to recount what follows would spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it. 

Regardless, this brutal depiction of rape is one of the clearest reminders of the horrors that humans are capable of and the protection that democracy and civilisation supply. Interestingly, James Dickey appears in the film towards the end as Sheriff Bullard, which brings the film to a satisfactory close, but again, we won’t go into that for fear of ruining it. 

Notoriously, during the filming of the canoe scene, Dickey turned up inebriated and engaged in a vitriolic argument with John Boorman, who had edited much of his script. Things got so heated that the argument broke into a brief fistfight, with Boorman suffering a broken nose and four shattered teeth. The writer was eventually evicted from the set, but Boorman refused to file charges. In a miraculous turn of events, the two reconciled and became good friends, which prompted Boorman to give Dickey the role of the Sheriff. 

Certainly, Deliverance was always destined for greatness, despite what format it arrived in. It is no secret that Dickey originally wanted master of the revisionist Western, Sam Peckinpah to direct, and Gene Hackman to play Ed, which would have made for a much grittier viewing experience.

Showing just how different Dickey and Boorman’s ideas for the movie were at the start, the director wanted Lee Marvin as Ed and Marlon Brando as Lewis, which would have given Deliverance a completely different spirit to the uber-realistic one that is so cherished today. Other actors considered for the film were Robert Redford, Henry Fonda, Warren Beatty, and Henry Fonda, with the deliberation of what each would have brought to the fore an enjoyable mental exercise. 

Whilst Deliverance is a masterwork of modern cinema, it is also noted for the tangible effect it had on the area it was made in. Following its release, then-Governor of Georgia, and future President Jimmy Carter, established the state’s film commission, which aimed to encourage movie and television production in Georgia, something that 50 years on has made it one of the top five production destinations in the entire country, a testament to the multifarious brilliance of Deliverance

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