movie: Deliverance (1972)

Content warning: rape. Not discussed here in detail, but rather more graphic in the movie.

Assigned for Rebecca Gayle Howell’s seminar on “The Documentary Imaginary: One Way It Means To Be an Appalachian Writer,” and I have never seen this iconic movie before, so bring it on.

I am reminded of Urban Cowboy, how I recognized the moment in time, the cultural marker the movie made, felt nostalgic for some of its imagery, felt drawn to its presumptions, at the same time that I bridled against its crimes: stereotypes, misogyny, a casual good humor towards domestic violence. I gave it some slack for its datedness and enjoyed it some but still gave it 5 rides. And in many of the same ways, I meet Deliverance.

Four city boys take a weekend canoe trip down a backwoods Georgia river about to be dammed, which in the words of one of them, will “rape this whole goddamned landscape.” They take a decidedly nasty attitude towards the local hillbillies, who are short on teeth and don’t talk like the city boys–although it’s interesting to note that from my perspective the city boys sound pretty country, too. They have some small-scale internal conflict among them, but it’s mostly an idyllic float down the fictional Cahulawassee River. Until it isn’t.

I find myself unhappy writing about what follows, and geez, this is an awfully well-known movie. If you don’t know the plot, a simple web-search will fix you right up.

The cultural markers Deliverance has left behind are the dueling banjos, and the rape scene. The movie, it’s true, is so about more than that; but I found the rape scene quite disturbing, and didn’t realize how much so til I started trying to write about it. These are interesting observations that I imagine will be relevant to the discussion we’ll have in class, of “the documentary imaginary.”

Further, I imagine that we’ll be talking about the stereotyping of the Appalachian “mountain man” hillbilly. It’s quite ugly. Also ugly is the city boys’ attitude towards the locals when they arrive on the scene; really, they weren’t setting themselves up for any kind of good relations. A good movie in many ways; iconic, yes; musically interesting. But hard to watch, and ugly, despite the beautiful scenery. I did not find it redeemed by its profundity or higher themes or teaching value in the way that perhaps Boys Don’t Cry was. Maybe it’s just the datedness again. But I struggled; and ultimately, this movie gets the same rating as Urban Cowboy, and for similar reasons.

I look forward to being educated.

Rating: 5 missing teeth.

7 Responses

  1. I love a review that makes me think, and question my own take on a subject. Which yours did, for me, on the movie “Deliverance.” First, clear up some confusion for me: You referrred to “misogyny,” and a “casual attitude toward domestic violence.” Were you referring to “Urban Cowboy” or “Deliverance,” as I failed to notice any such examples in the latter.

    I take issue with a couple of your conclusions, including “ugly is the city boys attitude towards the locals.” Actually only one of the “city boys” had that attitude, Lewis (Burt Reynolds), and I took it to be more a reflection of his own “alpha dog” personality than any disdain for the hillbillies. His life is competition and one-upsmanship, and he’s going to do that no matter the arena he’s in, or who he’s doing it with.

    The film strikes a primal chord in me, and I daresay, in most men of the baby-boomer generation. Certainly the rape scene is first and disquietingly foremost, but there’s so much more.

    The banjo scene strums another chord in me, pun certainly intended. Hope tempered with a healthy dose of reality. It shows no matter how diverse our backgrounds there is always common ground, that our spirits can soar together, should we dare to seek it out. But most of us never go that far; the emotional baggage, and years of self-fulfilling preconceived notions have beaten the curiousity out of us. It’s plain safer not to take a chance. And worse yet, never ask why. As race-relations-hair-trigger Rodney King asked, “Can’t we all get along?” Yes…to a point.

    You write, “I did not find it redeemed…” No, imo, there wasn’t redemption. That was the point. Four men step out of their comfort zone (three actually. Lewis was in his.) Ed and Drew are quintessential Betas to Lewis’ Alpha, living in a gray world docked to Lewis’ black-and-white. Bobby is the don’t-rock-the-boat company man, a counterpoint to Lewis’ Big-Brother-is-out-to-get-us screed.

    Forgive my panoramic existential drawstrokes here. “Deliverance” is about the male experience in a long-distance, high-tech world ruled by a few alphas, the height to which Lewis can only dream. Naturally he fights back, and suffers the agonizing physical consequences. Drew might be the lucky one. His spirit decided he didn’t belong in this world and checked out (or was he shot? Or are they one and the same? Fittingly, we just don’t know. Closure suggests some sort of redemption).

    That brings us to Ed and Bobby. We can easily visualize Bobby as the lifetime middle-management worker drone, disliking what he does/what its doing to him, but doing it to provide for his family. And he needs to believe he’s doing the right thing. Trusting that it will all be worth it. And we see what happens to him. “Oink” is just a four-letter word.

    Ed is the “hero,” who goes against his very nature to transcend his own physical and emotional limitations, reluctantly rebelling against a system stacked against him, to the point of taking another man’s life in order to save his “tribe.” Just doing “what a man has to do.” Yes he saves his tribe, both physically and from a judicial system he and Bobby once believed in. Nightmares for the rest of his life are his reward. No redemption.

    Actor Ned Beatty (Bobby) reportedly is uncomfortable talking about the film in certain circles these days (take a guess why—we have a winner! First prize, a whitewater float trip and a “pork is the other white meat” t-shirt). He did tell “Slant” magazine that women get the movie more than men do. Simply, that its a “fear of willingly going to an unknown place, and being violated there.”

    It’s unfortunate that despite his lengthy and varied acting resume, what’s the first thing to come to mind when we hear Beatty’s name. That’s the price of truth: we’re uncomfortable with it, but can’t let it go.

    • Hi, Dave. Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response.

      Sorry I was unclear: yes, the misogyny (etc.) comment referred to Urban Cowboy and not Deliverance. There were almost no appearances by females characters at all in the latter, so not much opportunity for that sort of thing.

      I saw three of the four “city boys” take a poor attitude toward the locals. I read Drew as seeing his banjo-duel partner as an equal; Bobby took the most overtly derisive attitude; and Ed and Lewis more passively followed that lead with body language and the odd syllable. (I speak from memory here, but I did go back on the night of my viewing and watch that opening scene again to be sure.)

      And, I think we’re talking about two different kinds of redemption. I meant not redemption within the plot of the film, but redemption of the film’s choice to show its viewers such disturbing content–a larger point that made it worth it for me.

      I think your “panoramic existential drawstrokes” are a pretty natural response here, probably a common one and (I think) almost certainly the intended one. It’s a story about those “bigger” themes you cite. Your reaction as as male of a certain generation is certainly valid. I encountered this movie for the first time in 2017 (and I don’t fit the demographic you mention!), and it clearly struck us very differently. Which is fine!

      Your engaged response here helps to make the point that there’s a lot to this movie, a lot to discuss… I’m really interested to see what the seminar makes of it, and my classmates. Maybe I’ll have some observations to share after.

      Thanks for taking the time!

      • Sorry, I should have said – my observations of the city boys’ bad attitude in my last comment above come from the first scene, when the four of them pull up to the gas station. Bobby makes the overt comment, and Ed and Lewis sort of “hmm” along. In the next scene, when Lewis and Ed go down the road to find the Somebody brothers, Lewis definitely takes the alpha-dog lead you describe. Maybe we were thinking of the two different scenes. I still think that Lewis’s attitude towards the Appalachians is different from the way he alpha-dogs his friends, though.

  2. […] viewing for school, for the same seminar on “the documentary imaginary” that assigned Deliverance. It won’t surprise you to know then that I was comparing them as I watched this […]

  3. […] Sherman’s March is the third movie assigned for that one seminar (see also The True Meaning of Pictures and Deliverance). […]

  4. […] and several readings. (You’ve already seen the movies reviewed here.) As I moved from Deliverance to The True Meaning of Pictures, I noted my clear preference (not for the first time) for literal […]

  5. […] good chunk of the movie deals with media portrayals of Appalachians. Deliverance makes an appearance, of course. Ashley visits with Billy Redden, who played Lonnie, the younger, […]

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