DELIVERANCE The Cutting Room - Episode 17 Joseph Christiana 8/20/12
I hesitate to say that the landmark 1972 film of Deliverance is John Boorman's. It's certainly competently handled and, yes, there are strokes of directorial acumen in it. But the story's greatest strength undoubtedly lies in its symbolism. And though I haven't read the original novel by James Dickey yet, I'm familiar enough with his poetry to say that those primordial driving forces are likely coming from the novel and the Dickey-penned script, which served as the source material for Boorman.
The simplicity of the plot is deceptive if you're not paying close attention. On the surface it's a tale about four city dwellers who take a canoe ride down a remote and sometimes dangerous river that's scheduled to be choked off and erased from existence by the wheels of progress and industry. The river winds its way through an eerie backwoods community comprised of strange and sometimes malformed mountain folk and the city slickers don't get very far downstream before one of the most fearsome things a man might imagine happens to one of them. They find themselves having to fight to stay alive.
Before we dig deeper into what makes this film a classic that has and will continue to endure the tests of time, I'd be remiss not to mention a few of the iconic moments Boorman and Dickey create along the way. The first is at the very outset of the journey when one of the slickers picks up his acoustic guitar and jams with one of the local mountain folk kids. They play a version of Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith's instrumental composition Feudin Banjos and the child's disturbing appearance and savantism are at once so unsettling and beautiful that an air of mystical doom is instantly cast onto the adventure. This is Ides of March stuff here. And the infamous banjo riff has become synonymous with our fear of those toothless folk, imagined or not, of rural America.
The second iconic moment in the film is the centerpiece of the picture and it's what qualifies it as horror. Like JAWS did with swimming in the ocean, what Boorman and Dickey have happen to poor chubby little Ned Beaty up in dem da'r hills taps into some essential, primal fear inherent certainly in every man… but every woman too, I'd venture to guess. I'm not sure how much of a spoiler this will be, but let's just say that blubbery Beaty is made to squeal like a pig while rolling around in the mud with one of the locals. It's tragic and horrifying and the scene now lives in nervous laughter of any city slicker hiking in the woods.
The film is brilliantly cast and more than well directed. But again, the genius of the film lies in its poetic symbolism. The use of a simple journey as a vehicle to explore the vast regions of the human condition is one that lends itself readily to mythological implications. A few works that employ this device, the ones that have become part of my personal mythology are Homer's The Oddessy, Faulkner's As I lay Dying, Twain's Hucklberry Finn, King's Stand By Me, Hemingway's Old Man and The Sea, Melville's Moby Dick and Conrad's Heart of Darkness, along with Coppolla's adaptation of that novel. These are just the works that come readily to mind. There are others, certainly. But the point is that the genius of all of them is the deceptive simplicity of the plot structures. They are all open narratives centered on a journey whose underlying meaning is open to interpretation and provokes it. I think Deliverance deserves a place among these giants of art.
So what vast region is being explored in Boorman and Dickey's story? Well, the beauty of symbolic journeys is that the exact meanings are difficult to pin down. You almost do it injustice by trying to name it. But here goes anyway:
If we consider the river as a symbol of life itself, we see that there is no end and no beginning to it. It's something much greater than you, but it's something you must come to terms with, somehow, as you travel down it as far as it agrees to take you. Along the way, it'll invigorate you and inspire you and show you wondrous beauty. But at some point it'll throw you from your boat and break your bones and make you face your greatest fear.
The river in Deliverance teaches the city slickers a thing or two about their Hemingway-esque male urges that have been suppressed and dulled by the machinations of civilization. More than anything, this film is about the need to explore and test those urges on the river of life. It's about that numb feeling you get when you spend so much time in the 'burbs and the cities and forget not only that you are a part of nature, but you are nature itself. It's about that sudden feeling you get when you want to be alone at the foot of a mountain walking through great shady pines. It's about the root of those urges.
The city dwellers sense their disconnection. The culture they're from has in fact forgotten that the connection to nature ever even existed. It's quite literally about to kill and rape it.
Well, the hillbillies that live on the river, those malevolent spirits of nature, they have something to say about all that first. And this river, boy, you can call it 'life' if you want, it's gonna change you before it's done with you. It's gonna learn ya fear and make you squeal like the dirty little pig that you are. Now whachoo gonna do about it?