In retrospect, it’s a little bizarre to appreciate the impact that the disturbing Deliverance made in its day (1972). The movie was not only a hit, it was a zeitgeist hit. The movie was part of the public conversation of the day in a way that thrillers and action movies seldom are. The very thing that made the movie disturbing is what made it a popular must-see movie in the summer of ‘72. I saw it with my mom on a date at the age of ten on a double feature with The Wild Bunch (one of the greatest nights of moviegoing in my life) at The Tarzana Movies. One of the few cinemas at the time that had six screens (I remember I wanted to see Bert I. Gordon’s The Mad Bomber with Chuck Connors. And at one point I snuck into that cinema screen and watched five minutes – as Bret Easton Ellis would say, “Ahhhh…the seventies”).

The story tells the tale of four fellas from Atlanta – three of them upwardly mobile family men, Ed (Jon Voight), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox), who follow their roguish hunting enthusiast buddy Lewis (Burt Reynolds) for a backwoods canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River. Their excursion is a week before a dam is to be finished that will flood the river under ten miles of water. The difference between the suburban husbands and the bachelor Lewis is striking. Lewis talks tough, acts tough (he alone is not intimidated by the backwoods characters they come across), and looks every inch a macho man (before the red shirt he wore as The Bandit, the weird scuba vest he wore as Lewis was Reynolds’ most iconic film outfit). Yet author James Dickey – and the movie – makes it clear Lewis is trying to live up to an idea of himself. He’s not full of shit, but he’s also not the authority he tries to come across as. The way he bluffs the hillbillies over the price of driving their cars down river is how he bluffs his buddies about his one-with-nature mountain man shtick. Behind Lewis’ back, Beatty’s Bobby asks the others, “Who does he think he is, Tarzan?” He’s full of consumed facts, rather than experience-derived wisdom. He is quite a good bow hunter – but he’s a sportsman, not a survivalist. He’s a one-weekend-a-month warrior – more balls than brains, more opinion than knowledge. Lewis has the same expert relationship with the woods and the river that the people who call up right wing talk radio have with politics. Yes, he possesses more instinct than his three companions. But even his instinct, like his whole macho projection of self, is a pose. Not to say the pose is a lie. Lewis isn’t a fraud – he believes the pose, and it’s a comfortable pose. But it’s not who Lewis is, it’s who he wants to be. The people Lewis models himself on can’t turn it off and on; Lewis can. If Lewis owned a sporting goods store and needed an extension on his business loan, he could drop the pose when he went down to the bank to have a meeting with the loan officer. He would and could dress and act and talk like Ed. And that wouldn’t be a lie either. Warren Beatty’s hairdresser in Shampoo, George Roundy, can’t pull off the loan meeting. Lewis could.
It would have been easy for writer Dickey to give the husbands a genuine (paid) river expert as their guide. He could have served the exact same plot functions as Lewis, down to the same colorful commentary that Reynolds spouts through the whole first half (the best half) of the movie. But Dickey wants us to know that as good a game as Lewis talks, he has more in common with the three husbands than the real river folk they come in contact with. Lewis has eaten shrimp scampi and fried calamari in a fancy Atlanta seafood restaurant. His cigars are Cuban, not Dutch Masters. He knows how to order a Brandy Alexander and a Harvey Wallbanger and how it’s supposed to taste.

Lewis has seen Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces.

Lewis knows who Roman Polanski is.

Among the other three, only Beatty’s Bobby is taken in by Lewis’ “Tarzan” act, but he’s new to the group. Voight’s Ed and Cox’s Drew follow Lewis’ lead, but they’re fully aware of what’s behind it. The fact it’s an entertaining pose is why they enjoy it. (The four men could be Hollywood filmmakers: you can imagine Spielberg, Lucas, and Scorsese as the husbands. And you can really imagine John Milius as Lewis.)

On the first day Drew announces, “Ed, I’m riding with you, because I’ve seen the way Lewis drives these mountain roads he don’t know nuthin’ about.” The first day of the trip, it’s Ed and Drew in one canoe, and Lewis and Bobby in the other. And Lewis barks orders at Bobby all day long. And not out of expertise, or in good-natured fun, but as a bully. He refers to Bobby as chubby in a way that diminishes him; it marks him as a soft man. He’s the effeminate member of the male group. Even if they were thirty pounds heavier, it’s a lack of respect that neither Ed nor Drew would tolerate. But since Bobby does tolerate it, it solidifies his position in the male dynamic. Later that night Bobby whines to Ed about Lewis’ treatment with real anxiety, but it’s not the tone of an indignant grown ass man. It’s the tone of a whiny adolescent. Neither does he express his anxiety towards the object of his torment. Instead he tattletales to a reasonable surrogate (Ed) in the hopes that he’ll intervene.
Likewise the next morning, Lewis tells Ed, not Bobby, “You take chubby boy today,” further diminishing Bobby in the masculine group dynamic. This trip down the river isn’t a roller coaster. It requires the individual achievement of each man working in tandem with each other. What they’re doing is legitimately dangerous. It’s not like on a fishing outing Bobby is the most hapless of the fishermen or the most clumsy on the basketball court. Yet to my novice eyes it looks like Bobby does a good job. He lacks the confidence of the other men, but he’s not an uncoordinated liability. Bobby deserves the recognition of his individual achievement, and it’s the mark of Lewis’ cruelty that he denies him the Hawksian recognition of, ‘Good Job.’
Inside of the group, Ed is the most trusted and liked. One, because he’s everybody’s point of contact. Bobby doesn’t know Lewis, he’s invited on the trip by Ed. Drew knows Lewis, but not like Ed does. In Dickey’s novel, Ed is a graphic artist and Lewis is a landlord. It makes you wonder how Ed and Lewis became friends? How did they meet?
What made Lewis invite Ed on his first hunting trip? What made Ed go? In the film, Lewis asks him, “Why do you go on these trips with me, Ed?” But Ed replies the way a movie character would, “You know, sometimes I wonder about that.” No he doesn’t.
Lewis is quick to make speeches of his philosophy to the group. He also makes speeches of same to Ed in private (“Machines are gonna’ fail”). But the speeches to Ed are much more intimate. When the group is his audience, Lewis’ braggadocio, his survivalist rhetoric, his reckless driving, his daring to provoke the scary backwoods river folk is a performance designed to entertain an audience of one, himself.
But when the audience is Ed by his lonesome, it may be written by the same speechwriter, but it’s delivered intimately to and for Ed. A homoerotic courtship plays itself out between Ed and Lewis in the film’s first half. Not dissimilar to the courtship dance between Randolph Scott and Richard Boone in Budd Boetticher’s “The Tall T.” Lewis doesn’t need or want Drew or Bobby’s company. He’d much prefer if Ed went on this trip alone. And not for obvious reasons. For reasons not only does he not understand, but for reasons it would never occur to him to examine. Ed takes Bobby along to the woodsy weekend the way a pretty girl takes her fat girlfriend along to the club to meet a boy. It’s Ed that Lewis wants to go down river with. It’s Ed that Lewis wants to face the rapids with. The fact that both men are too shy to share a canoe together during the rough riding of white water is almost adorable. When they do share the canoe, as Ed lounges and Lewis fishes their dinner out of the river violently with his bow and arrow, Lewis performs his macho pose for Ed and Ed alone (it begs the question, who cooked the fish that night that Lewis spears with his arrow?). As Lewis prims and poses and opines for Ed’s viewing pleasure, he tells him sarcastically, “You got a nice wife. You got a nice kid.” Ed, not offended but amused, replies, “You make that sound kinda’ shitty, Lewis.” To which Lewis (and especially Burt Reynolds) smiles and asks, “Then why do you go out on these trips with me, Ed?” Ed drops his smile, and makes an unaggressive stand for self, “I like my life, Lewis.” Lewis repeats, “Why do you go on these trips with me?”

“You know, sometimes I wonder about that.”

You know, maybe that line is better than I gave it credit for.

On the second day of the trip, it’s Ed and Bobby in one canoe and Lewis and Drew in the other. Ed and Bobby get quite a bit ahead of the others (indicating that maybe Bobby isn’t as awkward at this river rafting business as we’ve been led to believe).
They pull off to the side of the river to take a break and wait for the other two to catch up. Up to this point Boorman has demonstrated a suspenseful forward momentum that he never demonstrated earlier and would never demonstrate again. Partly because the scripts for John Boorman movies are usually lousy (save for this one and Hope and Glory) – even as in Point Blank – when they’re based on good books. Up until this point we know the movie, the story and the characters are heading somewhere…but unless you’re hip to the plot…you really don’t know where. Nor would you be able to guess. Most audiences who saw the movie in 1972 were completely unprepared for the dramatic turn of events. It’s why they were so effective. Most audiences felt there would be some dramatic turn of events due to the men riding the treacherous rapids down river. It’s clear something is going to happen on this trip. But other than his fun and games with the fella’s wolf pack hierarchy, the filmmaker doesn’t foreshadow or indicate in the slightest what that something is.

That something is the most profound and disturbing violent sequence in early seventies studio cinema not directed by Sam Peckinpah. It’s also become one of the most iconic. Throughout the seventies and eighties people would indicate it unspoken simply by imitating the opening cords to the film’s unofficial theme song Dueling Banjos. However, enough time has passed that not every new viewer will come to the movie with foreknowledge. Normally I don’t care about revealing any plot detail. I’m not reviewing movies for a daily newspaper, I’m conducting analysis on movies that are generally forty years old. Nevertheless in this instance I’ll confine that analysis to the film’s first half. At some point I’ll find another piece for myself to write where I can describe the ten-year-old me viewing the film’s inciting incident of violence and my interpretation of it (obviously I didn’t understand exactly what was physically happening. What I understood was the character was being humiliated. And I was right).
What both the story and the theme of Dickey’s book is really about is what happens after the inciting incident of violence. Boorman’s narrative led to the hillbillies all along like bloodhounds following a scent. But Dickey’s narrative propulsion was towards the four angry men’s angry debate about what to do next. Almost any other scenario you could name and the story would just be a struggle for survival with a lurking enemy still at large constituting a threat. With almost any other scenario, once the men got down the river they’d run to the authorities and tell them what happened, and that would be that. But the men in Deliverance are presented with a social taboo, that to one degree or another, will hang over all of them for the rest of their lives.
But they’re also presented with an opportunity to bury their secret because of the dam’s completion and this entire area being flooded under ten miles of water. And as Lewis stresses to the other three, “Man, that’s just about as buried as you can get.”
In other words, what happens in the woods, stays in the woods. And these four men can go back to their four ordinary lives with no one but themselves the wiser.
With the movie provoking the audience with the question, “What would you do?”
Once the debate scene is over, the movie is never as effective again. The ambiguity of exactly what happened to Ronny Cox sets the whole third act off on the wrong foot. I’m fully aware it’s supposed to be ambiguous. But Boorman’s staging of the action and his directing of Cox’s reaction at first confuses and ultimately irritates. Even if he judged it important that the characters be in the dark about what befalls Drew (I don’t think it’s necessary), the audience shouldn’t be in the dark. From here on to end the movie gets slack. Ed’s/Voight’s rite of masculine passage is never as tense or exciting as it should be. It’s so academic that the outcome is never in doubt. Now if his face was blown off and it was left for Bobby to save Lewis, that’s a story! And what should be as equally tense as anything on the river, the survivors facing the authorities and brazing it out, is as dynamic as watching the hands of a clock. Because Boorman makes the unfathomably perverse choice of presenting this entire section under-dramatized. It’s so undramatic he could’ve cut to still pictures and had a novelist narrator fill you in on what happened. James Dickey himself plays the sheriff, and for the half-assed way Boorman films this section of the film he’s effective. But this is the moment the movie needs another juicy character to come in and bring the story home. With the right actor in the right third act, the sheriff character could of won the game by stealing home from his position on third base. But why Deliverance dribbles to its conclusion is also as obvious as a zebra in your kitchen. While thematically it’s rich, and structurally it’s daring to sideline Burt Reynolds’ Lewis just before the third act…in this movie, cinematically, it’s suicidal.