Deliverance (1972) is British director John Boorman’s gripping action-adventure about four suburban businessmen on a disastrous weekend’s river-canoeing trip. It ranks as one of my favourite films. I can never tire of seeing it. The horror starts in this clip below.
As one of the first films with the theme of city-dwellers against the powerful forces of nature, the exciting box-office hit is most remembered for its inspired banjo duel and the brutal, violent action (and sodomy scene). Based on James Dickey’s adaptation of his 1970 best-selling début novel of the same name. He contributed the screenplay and acted in a minor role as the town sheriff.
The stark, uncompromising film was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing), but went away Oscar-less. The beautifully photographed film, shot entirely on location (in northern Georgia’s Rabun County bisected by the Chattooga River), was the least-nominated film among the other Best Picture nominees. Ex-stuntman Burt Reynolds took the role of bow-and-arrow expert Lewis after it was turned down by James Stewart, Marlon Brando, and Henry Fonda on account of its on-location hazards.
The increasingly claustrophobic, downbeat film, shot in linear sequence along forty miles of a treacherous river, is seen as a philosophical or mythical allegory of man’s psychological and grueling physical journey against adversity. It came during the 70s when many other conspiracy or corruption-related films were made with misgivings, paranoia, or questioning societal institutions, like the media;
Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976), politics; The Parallax View (1974), All The President’s Men (1976), science; Coma (1978), Capricorn One (1978), The China Syndrome (1979), and various parts of the US itself; Race With The Devil (1975), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and later Southern Comfort(1981).
A group of urban dwellers test their manhood and courage. Totally vulnerable in the alien wild, they pit themselves against the hostile violence of nature. At times, however, they are attracted to nature, and exhilarated and joyful about their experiences in the wild. Director Boorman pursued the same complex eco-message of Man vs. Nature in other films, including Zardoz (1973) and The Emerald Forest (1985). As they progress further and further down rapids and along uncharted territory, the men ‘rape’ an untouched, virginal wilderness, just as they are themselves violated by the pristine wilderness and its degenerate, backward, inbred inhabitants. Basic survivalist skills come to the forefront when civilized standards of decency and logic fail.
The river is the potent personification of the complex, natural forces that propel men further and further along their paths. It tests their personal values, exhibiting the conflict between country and city, and accentuates what has been hidden or unrealised in civilised society. The adventurers vainly seek to be ‘delivered’ from the evil in their own hearts, and as in typical horror film mode, face other-worldly forces in the deep forest. Flooding of the region after the completion of a dam construction project alludes to the purification and cleansing of the sins of the world by the Great Flood.
The film was also interpreted as an allegory of US involvement in the Vietnam War. These men (the US military) intruded into a foreign world (South-East Asia), and found it raped or were confronted by wild forces they could not understand or control.