Every so often a film's image in popular culture is defined by a moment completely out of character with the film as a whole. One could argue that this is true for the ending of The Wicker Man, or the lengthy fight sequence in They Live. But there can be no better example of this than Deliverance, whose five minutes of light-hearted duelling banjos masks a gruelling, harrowing and edgy thriller that will haunt you for days on end.
In another director's hands, James Dickey's novel about four wannabe "city boy" adventurers could have ended up as a very simple, nuts-and-bolts exploitation film: a clash of civilised and savages, townies versus hicks, and the last man standing wins. But in what remains his best film, John Boorman manages to take this limited narrative and turn it into both a frightening voyage of discovery and one of the best environmental films ever made.
Deliverance draws on a recurring theme in Boorman's work of man versus nature, or more precisely the unquantifiable power of the natural world compared to the humans who attempt to dominate it. In his later career, Boorman would make these kinds of points a lot more heavy-handedly: the sheer quantity of tree-hugging in The Emerald Forest makes Terrence Malick look like a gun-toting industrialist. Here, however, there is a very good balance between the film's political message and the drama of the characters through which such a message is communicated.
As the film begins, we are introduced to our four modern men - modern in the sense that they live over and above the landscape and are imposing their authority on it even by the act of going on the river. The local hicks warn the men that what they are doing is stupid, but they dismiss such comments as superstitious crazy talk and stick rigidly to their plans. The car journey to the river is intercut with scenes of bulldozers ferrying rock from a quarry and huge cliff walls being dynamited, as if every action of Man against his habitat is one of exploitation or destruction. They even invoke the great explorers of old having just safely barrelled through the rapids.
But although these men come from the same stock, we are slowly but surely introduced to little fissures in the group. Burt Reynolds' character seems to be more 'at one with nature' than the others, and feels genuinely sorry that the river will be flooded while the others are just there for the fun. Dru, played by Ronny Cox, is the most na´ve and childlike of the four, bringing his guitar everywhere and spending the opening act riding through rapids with no life jacket and a beaming grin. Ned Beatty is overly cautious, being the most out of shape and reluctant to be ordered around, and Jon Voight has some pretentions towards being like Reynolds but is ultimately out of his depth; he carries a bow, but gets the shakes whenever he tries to use it.
Aside from a direct warning against exploiting one's surroundings, there is a more subtle thread in Deliverance about the character of modern Man and how He is more or less incapable of returning to 'the old way of life'. All four men, even Reynolds, are at heart white-collar workers, who feel at home in their busy offices with paper and coffee, or in their large homes with loving wives. Their affection for nature is entirely playful, since none of them would choose to give up what they have to live like a hunter-gatherer. They enjoy pretending to be wild when in fact they are nothing of the sort, and as long as their journey is filled with beauty and adrenaline, their experience of 'nature' fits in with their worldview.
But, as the darker, less merciful side of nature begins to rear its ugly head, these men quickly become overwhelmed by their surroundings, and we understand just how little they really know. If Reynolds et al are an expression of Man's desire for dominance of nature, mitigated by a faux fondness of its beauty, then the hicks or in-breds are a manifestation of nature itself: uncompromising, ruthless, set in its ways and not so much of a pushover. The crucial mistake of the gang is not being among nature of itself: their mistake is assuming that they are in control.
The famous rape scene, in which Ned Beatty is made to "squeal like a pig", is an ironic role reversal based upon one of the film's opening lines. Over some long aerial shots of the river, Reynolds remarks that in building the dam, people are "raping" the river and the surrounding countryside - and here we have nature raping man, not in self-defence or out of vindictiveness, but because that's the way it has always been. Boorman shoots these sequences very sensitively; his camera does not revel in Beatty's humiliation, with a clever combination of wide shots and close-ups on his face doing more than enough to terrify us.
Had Boorman not set up the themes of the story, and brought them out of the woodwork so accessibly (no pun intended), scenes like this would appear gratuitous or exploitative. But just like the ending of The Wicker Man, the brutality of Deliverance is justified because it vividly conveys the themes and ideas of the film. Scenes like this demonstrate that, under the right circumstances, visceral, gut-wrenching horror can say as much about a subject as a dozen boring conversations. As with The Wicker Man or Alien after it, the violence in Deliverance instinctively shocks but remains with you until its symbolic significance becomes clear.
Those who are unconvinced by this need only look at a scene just before the rape sequence, in which Jon Voight is crouched behind a tree trying to shoot a deer. There is nothing tense or threatening about his situation, save for the small matter of finding breakfast. But even so, he hesitates, his hand shudders and the arrow flies off into the trees causing the deer to flee. The set-up is the same as before: Man assumes he is in control, attempts to enact that control, and finds that he can't.
Deliverance is also a very well-directed piece of work and a lesson in great low-budget filmmaking. Although the film looks rough and ready in places, it also has a great drained-out beauty to it. This is achieved through Vilmos Zsigmund's trademark use of 'pre-fogging', in which the celluloid is partially exposed before shooting to create a muted colour palette. Because the budget was so low (around $2m), all the stunts are real, right down to Ronny Cox tumbling head-first into the rapids. Boorman's camerawork is inventive and precise, following the men above and below the water as they struggle to the surface and fight for breath.
Deliverance is also notable for its limited use of music. Aside from its duelling banjos at the start, there isn't really any soundtrack to speak of. The film is comparable with Get Carter, which introduces its jazzy theme in the opening minutes and then fleetingly revisits it at key moments to add tension or terror. The little banjo touches as the survivors float around the river are few and far between, and every time they pop up our eyes dart frantically to the trees, searching for further enemies who might spring out at any moment. Like any great Western, Deliverance knows how to use the stillness of the landscape to create tension, and its use of background noise like water rushing or birdsong will shred your nerves to breaking point.
Deliverance is a great film with exceptional performances from its cast: Voight is every bit as good as he was in Midnight Cowboy, and Reynolds has never better, carrying himself in several scenes like a young Marlon Brando. It also remains Boorman's best film, being more substantial than Point Blank or Hell in the Pacific but also much less indulgent than his later works. Like Get Carter it isn't quite flawless, as things take a while to get going and still feels rough around the edges. But that's a small price to pay for a top-notch thriller which is intensely terrifying and terrifyingly intense.