Background

John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) has become a major cultural American touchstone. Although it may be more of a thriller than a horror, you can find countless references and homages to Deliverance in many a modern eco-horror film. For example, The Blair Witch Project and The Ritual (though not American) certainly could not have existed in the way they do without Deliverance coming first.

Unlike many of the films on my list, Deliverance received great critical success upon its release, winning three Academy Award and five Golden Globe nominations. In 2008, it was selected to be preserved in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Roger Ebert, however hated the movie, claiming that it had no real purpose or theme:

Dickey, who wrote the original novel and the screenplay, lards this plot with a lot of significance – universal, local, whatever happens to be on the market. He is clearly under the impression that he is telling us something about the nature of man, and particularly civilized man’s ability to survive primitive challenges… But I don’t think it works that way… What the movie totally fails at, however, is its attempt to make some kind of significant statement about its action… What James Dickey has given us here is a fantasy about violence, not a realistic consideration of it… It’s possible to consider civilized men in a confrontation with the wilderness without throwing in rapes, cowboy-and-Indian stunts and pure exploitative sensationalism.

Deliverance was also a major box office hit, becoming the fifth-highest grossing film of 1972, earning a domestic total of over $46 million on a $2 million budget.

In order to keep that budget small, the production accepted a number of financial short-cuts. For example, the film wasn’t insured and the actors did their own stunts. This is wild, since Jon Voight had to climb up an incredibly tall and steep cliff, and the four major actors had to canoe in treacherous waters, and purposefully fall down a set of rocky rapids. In fact, in the capsizing scene, Burt Reynolds broke his coccyx (tailbone). When Ned Beatty was thrown overboard and sucked under by a whirlpool, a production assistant had to dive in after him, but they didn’t surface for thirty seconds. Supposedly, Beatty claimed that, while he was under water, his first thought was, “how will John finish the film without me? And my second thought was, I bet the bastard will find a way!”

In another (far more safer) effort to cut costs, local residents were cast in the roles of the hillbillies. Many of these people were actually illiterate.

This is the film that shot Burt Reynolds (Lewis) to stardom. Reynolds views Deliverance as “the best film” he’s ever been in.

The movie was shot primarily on the Chattooga River, which divides South Carolina and Georgia. Additional scenes were shot on the Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, Salem, South Carolina, and Sylva, North Carolina. Shots of the town which did not call for the actors to be present were shot in Monaca, Pennsylvania.

Whether the film caused an increase or decrease in similar camping/canoeing adventures is in contention. On the film’s IMDB trivia page, it both says that,

Sales of camping equipment plummeted and the Appalachian camping industry was nearly bankrupted following the film’s release.

and

In the year after the film’s release, more than thirty people drowned in the Chattooga River while trying to replicate the characters’ adventures.

The final scene of this movie is what inspired the final scene of Carrie, which then inspired the final scene of Friday the 13th. 

Plot Summary

A group of middle-class male friends from Atlanta leave their wives and families behind to embark upon a canoeing trip along the Cahulawassee River in Northern Georgia. They chose this river because it is about to be destroyed due to the building of a dam on the river, which will inevitably flood the surrounding area. Before getting on the water, they first stop at a local gas station/general store to find hired workers to drive their cars to their destination point at the end of the river. The four men act superior to the hillbilly locals, although Drew (Ronny Cox) enjoys a duet of “Dueling Banjos” with a mute boy named Lonnie (Billy Redden). On their trip, the men hunt fish using top-of-the-line arrows (Ed also tries hunting deer, but fails due to his “buck fever”) and carefully navigate their two canoes through rocky rapids. Their trip takes a dark turn on the second day during a pit stop along the river. The two men in one of the canoes, Ed (Jon Voight) and Bobby (Ned Beatty) encounter two backwoods men watching them through the trees. Ed and Bobby assume that these two men are nervous to be found out in the woods due to a hidden whiskey distillery and promise that they won’t tell anyone what they saw. The two men, armed with a knife and gun, laugh at the clearly nervous urban outsiders, tie Ed to a tree by his neck using his belt , and force Bobby to strip down to his underwear. One of the men rapes Bobby while exclaiming that he looks just like a pig, instructing him to “squeal like a piggy!” throughout the assault. After this, a gun is leveled at Ed’s face and it seems like they’re about to force him to perform oral sex (the man holding the gun notes his “pretty mouth”), but Lewis (Burt Reynolds) and Drew appear.

Lewis shoots an arrow through the man who raped Bobby, and Ed is able to wrest the gun out of the other man’s hands during the chaos. The man with the arrow wound dies, but the other man manages to run away. The four men debate what is to be done with the dead body: do they bring it with them to turn it over to the cops, or do they hide it out in the woods? All but Drew agree to bury it in the woods, given the fact that a dead body would mean a local trial in which the jury would consist of this hillbilly’s peers. After burying both the body and the gun, they return to their canoes, but Drew refuses to put on a life jacket, and throws himself into the water. This causes both canoes to capsize, and, as they go through a particularly treacherously rocky stretch, Lewis emerges with a major wound. They are unable to find Drew’s body, one canoe is completely destroyed, and seriously injured Lewis claims that Drew was shot by the second hillbilly. Lewis also states that the hillbilly is still tracking them. In order to stop this man from hunting them, Ed climbs up a cliff and shoots a man who looks like the hillbilly with a bow and arrow. Throughout the rest of the film, they are unsure whether or not this was the right man. The three remaining men hide this body in the water after loading it with rocks, and continue down the river. They come across Drew’s body and decide to also hide him under the water. When they finally reach their destination, the three men agree to tell authorities that there were only three of them to begin with in one canoe, and that Lewis was hurt near the end of the river (to prevent a search of upper section of the river where they hid the bodies). They are taken to a hospital and are cared for, but Lewis is told that his leg may need to be amputated. Local cops are deeply suspicious because one of their brothers-in-law went missing recently after hunting near the river. Before Bobby and Ed leave the town, the sheriff warns them to never return.

Notes & Quotes

  • Bernice Murphy’s chapter on the rural poor in her Rural Gothic is a really great reading of this film. She labels Deliverance the “ur-text” of the “Type 1” of backwoods horror, which is defined by its middle-class, urban protagonists who are just “passing through” rural America, and the antagonists who are defined by and monstrasized by their poverty and backwardsness. She notes that these films often include sexual assault and typically take the tone of a thriller rather than a horror film.

The quartet after killing the first redneck.

  • Burt Reynolds’s character stands out from the rest of the group because he seems the most capable, but he’s also the most annoying. He is a member of the urban middle class, and yet, it seems that his biggest hobby is survivalism. He dons a bomber jacket with a patch that states “Survivalism” on it, and is constantly patronizing the other members of the team with his wilderness tips and vague sayings. He also feels the need to show off his knowledge to the local hillbillies whom they hire to drive their cars, by cutting them off on their way to the river and speeding down a path, which turns out to be the wrong way. Prior to this, he does his best to haggle with the men they hire, despite the fact that he knows these people are far more poor than he. I guess it’s not too surprising that he is the one of the three remaining men to get injured, as he seemed the most capable. Once he is injured, it’s up to Ed to, as Lewis obnoxiously states, “play the game.”

  • There seem to be two extremes of relating to American nature present in Deliverance: on the one side, there is ecophobia, present through the human desire to control (and destroy) nature through the building of the dam. On the other hand is ecophilia, which is equally unhelpful. 1 The four tourists of nature spend most of the first half of the film commenting on the beauty of the wilderness, as well as nature’s regenerative ability for the human soul. They desire to tap into their primal side, a hope that seems directly tied to their masculinity, and hunt using bows and arrows rather than guns in order to achieve this dream. Their hunting is leisurely rather than utilitarian, as is their choice to canoe down the river when they have perfectly good cars. For these men, nature functions as a site of enjoyment and regeneration rather than something that is valuable in its own right. The fact that the dam is about to destroy the river signifies to these men only that this is their last chance to enjoy this bit of nature.
  • The hillbilly figures are marked by their poverty in a number of ways. Their teeth reveal a lack of dentistry and health insurance, while the unhealthy look of the young mute boy denotes the genetic fears that colored popular opinions of the American south during the early 20th century (as Murphy notes in Rural Gothic). Additionally, they all seemed to know each other, which not only signifies a small town, but it might also point to incest. This is pushed further when Ed and Bobby (and the audience) are unable to determine whether or not Ed killed the right hillbilly- they all look the same!

  • Finally, the way that the two hillbillies first appear to Ed and Bobby in the woods, as well as the later fear that the second hillbilly continued to track them, causes the backwoods white characters to take on an American Indian position. This is probably done purposefully, as the film seems to repeat a lot of anxieties that early white colonists (here represented by the middle-class city-slickers) felt towards the American Indians (here, the rural poor).
  • The boundary between animal and human is continuously blurred throughout the film. Not only is Bobby compared to a pig throughout the rape scene, and made to “squeal like a piggy,” but the men come to feel like they are being tracked and hunted. In order to prevent their own deaths, they decide to turn it around and hunt the remaining local redneck who attacked them.

 

Did Ed shoot the right hillbilly?

  1. Sara L. Crosby discusses the negatives of ecophilia in her article “Beyond Ecophilia: Edgar Allan Poe and the American Tradition of Ecohorror.”

Deliverance (1972) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.