Deliverance (1972) – Film Review

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Burt Reynolds as Lewis in Deliverance (c) Warner Bros

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything” – Lewis, Deliverance 

Burt Reynolds (who for quite some time I mistook for my Dad on account of their similarly then-impressive side burns) stars together with Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox in John Boorman’s multi-award nominated Deliverance based on the 1970 novel by James Dickey who also wrote the screenplay (and appears in the film as the Sheriff)).

This is a raw and brutal story about the delicacy of the male – particularly the white male – psyche and the seething discord between liberal suburbia and redneck ‘merica.

Four well-heeled men leave Atlanta on a canoeing trip down the Cahulawassee River before the surrounding countryside is flooded as a dam is built – as Lewis (Reynolds’ character) says “… to push a little more power into Atlanta, a little more air-conditioners for your smug little suburb and you know what’s gonna happen? We’re gonna rape this whole god-damned landscape. We’re gonna rape it.”

Lewis, together with his fellow self-styled woodsman Ed (Voight) and two novices Bobby (Beatty) and Drew (Cox) encounter the locals at their first stop on their way to the river. As Cox tunes his guitar, we hear the same chords being strummed on a nearby banjo: is this a duet between a polished guitar playing suburbanite and a country boy with dirty feet and a talent for the banjo, or is it a challenge? As they continue to perform what will become known as the eerie bluegrass instrumental Dueling Banjos that reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts in 1972, we suspect that our protagonists have likely misread this encounter. The increasingly frenzied playing eventually defeats Cox who declares “I’m lost” and smiling, the boy continues to a triumphant finale and afterwards refuses to shake Cox’s outstretched hand, turning his head away from it.

Duelin’ Banjos meanders like the river throughout Deliverance, its underlying menace clear as riffs from Yankee Doodle meander through the track and eventually fade to a slow staccato at various key points throughout the film. Interestingly, the off-screen story behind this track is similarly confrontational as Arthur Smith who originated the track Feudin’ Banjos upon which Duelin’ Banjos was based, successfully sued Warners for the latter’s use without permission or a credit in the film. Smith later received a film credit and a share of the film’s royalties in settlement.

The night before the canoeing trip, tensions between the men surface and we see four stereotypical male traits emerge in each of them. Lewis declares to the group that “that’s the game: to survive”. However when the remaining three gossip behind his back: “does he think he’s Tarzan, or what?” doubting that Lewis can “hack it”, we’re left wondering whether the game that is being played is back in the city or here in the wilderness. Ed competes hotly with his friend Lewis for the ultimate survivalist mantle. Bobby shows entitlement and superiority, referring to the locals encountered earlier that day as “genetic deficiencies” and later that night, to his air mattress as an “instant broad…and if you fellas will excuse me, I’m gonna go be mean to my air mattress”.   And finally we have Cox, the most reserved and sensitive who his friends agree, is “the best” of them. When the four (two to a canoe) are separated as they take on the rapids down the river, Bobby and Ed encounter two locals in a wood in a brutal and violent exchange that changes the course of the film and their journey. At that point, Cox serves as the moral compass as his friends shed their city trappings and descend in to a more feral state of being in order to survive Lewis’ game.

The parallels between America then and now are striking, particularly given that Deliverance was released in the same year that five “plumbers” broke in to the DNC’s HQ at Watergate during Nixon’s presidency: an event that would lead to Nixon’s resignation to avoid almost certain impeachment and likely imprisonment.

Things weren’t much better politically or socially across the pond.

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Bloody Sunday rang in my second year and saw Northern Ireland’s “descent in to terror” making 1972, with 479 deaths, best known locally as the year that recorded the highest ever number of casualties during the Troubles. It also served to widen the divide between communities as Edward Daly, a retired priest and featured in the above image says in his autobiography, Mister, are You a Priest?

“Countless young people were motivated by the events of that day to become actively involved in armed struggle and, as a direct result, joined the Provisional IRA,”

Ironic then and now, that such division and violence occurred in the same year that the UK embraced globalisation, with Parliament voting to join the EU (then, the European Common Market) with Edward Heath then Prime Minister declaring in Brussels just days before Bloody Sunday:

“I am not thinking today of the Age of Imperialism, now past: but of the lasting and creative effects of the spread of language and of culture, of commerce and of administration by people from Europe across land and sea to the other continents of the world.

These are the essential ties which today bind Europe in friendship with the rest of mankind.

What design should we seek for the New Europe?

A Europe in which we shall be working for the progressive relaxation and elimination of east/west tensions.

A Europe conscious of the interests of its friends and partners.

A Europe alive to its great responsibilities in the common struggle of humanity for a better life.

Thus this ceremony marks an end and a beginning.

An end to divisions which have stricken Europe for centuries.

A beginning of another stage in the construction of a new and greater Europe.

This is the task for our generation in Europe.”

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My Mum and Dad, the latter evidencing “those” side burns in and around 1972

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