Based on James Dickey’s novel, John Boorman’s 1972 thriller Deliverance follows four city slickers from Atlanta as they take a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River, a fictional waterway in the hill country of North Georgia. This will be the last time the river will be a river and the local village will be the local village: A dam under construction will soon flood both out of existence, and uproot the townspeople, taking an entire way of life with it. Boorman lingers on shots of bulldozers moving dirt around these vast unnatural canyons, and he lingers later on the local church, the symbol of bedrock moral and spiritual value, getting carried off on the back of a flatbed. For the locals, the presence of these outsiders, paddling merrily down the Cahulawassee one last time before it’s obliterated, must feel like the final insult. And, in one of the most notorious scenes in American cinema, they make them pay for it.
There’s no mistaking the bold dichotomies at work here: Man versus nature, civilization versus savagery, city versus country, strong versus weak. For better or worse, Deliverance doesn’t smuggle its themes onto a wayward river adventure, but uses its adventure to demonstrate its theme, which risks making it heavyhanded and schematic. Yet Boorman and his actors, shooting on lakes and rivers in Georgia and South Carolina, took great care in making Deliverance persuasive on a purely visceral level, to where it doesn’t often feel like a thesis in action. Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ronny Cox, and Ned Beatty are all superb as the ill-fated quartet, who begin their journey with some uneasy exchanges with the inbred natives and soon encounter greater tests to their manhood than negotiating the rapids. An assault on Beatty prompts the men to retaliate, but they’re soon reduced to playing the world’s most dangerous game on someone else’s turf.
Will they be man enough to survive? The question distinctly echoes another film from that period, Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 Straw Dogs, and reflects a culture that was reexamining conventional notions of masculinity, sometimes crudely, as gender roles were starting to shift. Boorman has a broader agenda than Peckinpah, touching on the wisdom of progress and the breakdown of communication between two markedly different American tribes, but they share a talent for making those themes felt. The two famous sequences—Cox’s “Dueling Banjos” showdown with an inbred kid and the Beatty’s rape—are small masterpieces of escalating tension and suspense, and the quartet’s fight for survival has a tactile desperation that keeps the messaging at bay. For a time, these men represent nothing beyond raw human terror.
Key features: Most of the features—including a superb Boorman commentary and a handful of documentary featurettes—are imported from previous editions, but the new Blu-ray version gathers the four lead actors for a great reminiscence about their at-times difficult experience on set.