Deliverance (1972)

Literary-oriented critics - Andrew Sarris once called them "bookish film critics" - will have no trouble ticking off what is wrong with John Boorman's movie of the James Dickey novel "Deliverance." 

Warner Brothers originally wanted Roman Polanski for director. The novel's famously macho author, James Dickey, wanted Sam Peckinpah. And originally under consideration for the leads (later taken by Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight) were Lee Marvin and Marlon Brando. But Deliverance as it was finally made is so indelible, even after 38 years, and its impact has been so lasting, that even those mouthwatering possibilities are obliterated by what John Boorman finally wrought. 

The plot - four Atlanta suburbanites on a back-to-nature canoe trip that turns into a terrifying test of survival - seems overly schematic; the underlying ideas on aggression and the territorial imperative are already slightly threadbare; dialogue tends to be ponderous. In the last analysis, none of that matters. "Deliverance" also happens to be the most stunning piece of moviemaking.

Boorman's understanding of the sheer kinesthetic power of film gives "Deliverance" a sensuous immediacy. As an adventure movie, it is absolutely uncompromising; you know the camera is in there with the actors when they shoot the rapids. Besides, the visual subtlety and brilliance of "Deliverance" enrich potentially banal ideas to make the experience of watching the film far more arresting, mere plot synopsis could suggest.

Boorman and his talented cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond totally avoid calendar art prettiness. The wilderness they see is strange, inviolable, unearthly, never romantic or reassuring. Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the rugged outdoorsman who guides the canoe trip, constantly lectures the others about the purity of nature and the corruption of civilization.  Nature turns out to be threatening and destructive rather than regenerative. The placidity of the water is misleading; murder and violation, rather than mystical conversion, are at the end of the journey.

 Like San Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs.' "Deliverance" focuses on a ritualized battle for survival, a primal masculine adventure. The heroes of both movies are decent, rather fastidious men forced to confront the violence in nature and in themselves. Peckinpah and Boorman come to opposite conclusions. In "Straw Dogs" Peckinpah is troubled by doubts, but he finally clings to the code of the Old Western, implying that in a savage world a baptism of blood is the first step to becoming a man; violence has a purgative effect on the intellectual hero.

The film has a ruthless logic that will upset audiences looking for another fable of man against the wilderness. This boyish adventure turns sour when one of the four explorers is sexually assaulted by a couple of hillbillies. The homosexual rape is a black joke on the men's dreams of camaraderie - the natural conclusion to their woodsie campfire reveries. 

The film is a confirmation of several important talents. Jon Voight's performance is extraordinary. He may never be a major star because he changes so much from film to film, taking chances and absorbing himself in difficult and unsympathetic roles; he seems to have no interest in selling an image to his fans.

"Deliverance" is imperfect, constricted by the relentlessness of the allegory, but it is a major work, important for the vision it brings to the urgent question of understanding and redefining masculinity. 

    1. Release date: July 30, 1972 (USA)
      Director: John Boorman
      Featured song: Dueling Banjos
      Music by: Eric Weissberg
      Adapted from: Deliverance

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