If I had to pick one movie that still creeps me out, John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) would be it. Here, is a weekend warrior/survivalist’s worst nightmare, and utterly terrifying because it has more than a faint whiff of verisimilitude proliferating the humid river banks where the hunters suddenly find themselves the hunted (not a good place to be in). I don’t know if author James Dickey (who co-wrote the script with Boorman) ever had such harrowing experiences in the Appalachians – or knew of anybody who did - but I prefer to think he simply made the whole thing up from scratch. I sleep better at nights that way.
I suspect that part of the everlasting appeal of Deliverance is that it is a horror story for adults who don’t readily believe in the boogie man. Perhaps that is precisely why the film proves such an unsettling experience; because it challenges our expectations about what true evil looks like, while debunking the myth that there is safety in numbers. Boorman agreed to make the film while Dickey’s novel was still in galleys. But Dickey, a poet, made something of a damn nuisance of himself on the set and was quietly asked to leave. Evidently, whatever tensions existed between these two were eventually ironed out because Dickey returned to play the part of the Sheriff.
Deliverance opens innocuously enough with the arrival of four Atlanta businessmen up for a week of roughing it on the Cahulawassee River. The boys – tough guy, Lewis (Burt Reynolds), sensitive Ed (Jon Voight), wimp Bobby (Ned Beatty) and straight shooter, Drew (Ronny Cox) have been looking forward to this weekend of male bonding in the bush. What could be more wholesome or natural? En route to the river, they come upon a backwoods enclave of hillbillies at an out of the way gas station. Drew picks up his guitar and engages one of the locals, Lonnie (Billy Redden) in an impromptu bluegrass jam session. But the boy turns away from Drew at the end of their strumming, in a strange almost catatonic state. Bobby is condescending in his opinion of the hillbillies, loudly voicing that he suspects they all suffer from inbred genetic defects. Afterward, Ed proudly declares that they are off to conquer nature. But Lewis forewarns, “You don’t conquer it. It conquers you.”
Indeed, by their first night of camping an ominous tension begins to build among the friends. Lewis suspects that despite their remote location they are not alone. These suspicions are confirmed the next afternoon when Ed and Bobby’s canoe is intercepted by a vindictive mountain man (Bill McKenney) and his toothless compatriot (Herbert ‘Cowboy’ Coward). Ed is bound to a tree. But Bobby is forced to strip, is verbally humiliated and then viciously raped by the mountain man while Ed is forced to watch. Ed is spared a similar fate however, when Lewis happens upon the scene and kills the mountain man with his crossbow. The toothless man escapes into the forest, despite Lewis making chase.
The psychological ramifications of what’s happened weigh heavily on Drew, who refuses to partake in the burial of the mountain man. He would rather they all go to the authorities to report Bobby’s rape. But Lewis explains that at best they would all be incarcerated and eventually found guilty of the mountain man’s murder by a group of his peers. What happens next is open for speculation. After burying the mountain man in the woods, Ed, Bobby, Lewis and Drew get back into their canoes and head down river. Ed pleads with Drew to don his life jacket but Drew refuses, suddenly shaking his head and tumbling into the rapids where he drowns. The two canoes collide and Lewis’ leg is badly broken in the white water tumble.
Lewis tells Ed and Bobby that he suspects the toothless man is hunting them down as revenge for the mountain man’s murder. While Bobby stays behind to look after Lewis, Ed scales the craggy embankment high above them to wait out the toothless man’s inevitable return. By first morning’s light Ed sees what appears to be the same man scanning the cliff side for Lewis and Bobby. He takes dead aim with his bow and arrow but freezes at the last possible moment, momentarily impaling himself. The man lunges for Ed and Ed strikes him with a wayward shot that mortally wounds. Ed ties the body to a chord of heavy rope and begins to lower it and himself back to the stony grotto where Lewis and Bobby are waiting. Unfortunately, the rope frays and breaks plunging Ed and his trophy corpse into the river. Resurfacing, Ed drags the body to the grotto for Bobby to identify.
Ed now becomes the leader of the group. After sinking the toothless man’s body, he, Bobby and Lewis head down river where they make the gruesome discovery of Drew’s badly contorted remains caught between two large rocks. Ed gives a brief eulogy and then weighs down Drew. The trio make their way to the remnants of a town called Aintry where they relay their harrowing experience, Drew’s death – but minus the other murders – to Sheriff Arthur Queen (Macon Macalman), who confides in Ed that he has a brother-in-law who went hunting in the mountains a few days before but never came back. Ed assumes he has killed Queen’s relative, but pretends not to know anything when questioned.
Lewis is taken to hospital to recuperate. But Queen places a Deputy (Lewis Crone) on his hospital room door before asking Bobby and Ed why four life jackets were recovered from their boat. Bobby becomes flustered and suggests that perhaps there was an extra one. But Ed calmly tells Queen that Drew was not wearing his at the time of his death. Unable to pinpoint the exact lie, Queen instead offers the men a warning – to never return to his county and never even think about ‘trying anything like this again’. Ed and Bobby nervously agree, then hightail it to Lewis’ room so that they can get their stories straight. Lewis pretends to be suffering from amnesia when questioned, leaving Bobby and Ed feeling secure in their deception. However, the film ends with Ed’s reoccurring nightmare, seeing a cold dead hand slowly rising from the muddy Cahulawassee.
Deliverance is superior grand guignol, deftly played with a dark voracity and an ever pervasive knack for extolling the apocalyptic from the every day. Before James Dickey left the set he played a minor cruel joke on the cast, telling each member separately that the situations depicted in his book were drawn from real life experiences, then swearing each actor to secrecy. In the end it turned out to be a lie, told to conceal the fact that Dickey had made up the novel from his own imagination. John Boorman handpicked his cast, with Ronnie Cox and Ned Beatty being the first to sign on the project.
The director’s first choice for Ed was always Jon Voight, even though the actor was uncertain he wanted the role. Boorman told him he had just thirty seconds to decide. Voight took ten minutes but eventually signed on the dotted like. Boorman also chose to override the studio’s strenuous objections to casting Burt Reynolds as Lewis, citing Reynolds spotty track record of three failed TV series and a few minor B-movies. In the final analysis, Boorman had the ideal cast. There’s a genuine camaraderie between the stars and that’s a commodity you cannot put a price on. Without it, you have just a seedy B-movie. But Reynolds, Voight, Beatty and Cox are wholly believable as lifelong friends. As such, we invest more in their survival. It’s as though they’ve invited us along on their trip. Jon Voight gives the standout indelible performance in the film, as the shell shocked survivor who will likely never recover from his weekend in the country.
Warner Home Video repackages yet another disc released as a single back in 2007, this time with a handsome booklet and one extra feature to whet the consumer’s appetite for a repurchase. Frankly, I’m getting rather tired of Warner’s approach to multiple issues and reissues of 1080p Blu-rays, adding one or two extras to mask the fact that they’ve been rather lax in giving us an abundance of new discs of movies yet to make the transition to hi-def. Warner’s upcoming roster looks more promising, thank heaven for that. But I digress.
This is the same 1080p transfer from 2007. That said - all the superlatives afforded that transfer still apply. This disc excels at extoling Vilmos Zsigmond’s naturalistic and grainy cinematography. Colours are bold and contrast levels are handled with superior care. The rugged foliage is vibrant with a lot of fine detail evident throughout. This transfer will surely not disappoint. The audio is identical to the aforementioned release and exhibits the same dated sonic characteristics. But it’s also quite acceptable.
Warner ports over all of the extras from 2007, including a comprehensive audio commentary by Boorman, an equally comprehensive 57 minute documentary and a retrospective featurette. Warner adds a brand new 30 minute featurette in 1080p with Reynolds, Cox, Beatty and Voight reunited at Reynold’s ‘museum’ in Jupiter Florida. Okay, I’m not complaining about this. It’s nice. But realistically, it covers a lot of the same territory as the 57 minute doc, produced back in 2007. And to what purpose?
I mean, couldn’t that money used to bring together these stars again have been spent on padding out the extras of other upcoming Blu-ray releases that have NO extras? What I would appreciate from Warner is a renewed commitment to restore and release more vintage catalogue titles that have yet to see the 1080p light of day. How about Raintree County, or The Merry Widow, or The Red Badge of Courage, or Marie Antoinette or…I could go on, but won’t. As for Deliverance – it’s a no brainer. If you don’t already own it in hi-def then you should and this new incarnation is definitely the way to go. But if you already own this one you can easily do without this repackaged re-release. PS – what a lousy airbrush job on the cover art! P.U.!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)