In the year of 1972 came both a Rape/Revenge film that was despised by critics and the public – The Last House On The Left – and a Rape/Revenge film that both the critics and the public universally loved and admired – Deliverance. Deliverance, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by American poet James Dickey, was directed by John Boorman, director of such odd films as Exorcist 2: The Heretic and Zardoz. It was the film that made a star out of actor Burt Reynolds, and it is fondly remembered by critics as one of the greatest American films ever made for its distinct style, story and visual impact. However, behind the scenes, Deliverance was famous for its incredibly tough production – so much so that James Dickey’s son, Charles Dickey, wrote a novel taking about the nightmarish production of Deliverance. Director John Boorman and writer James Dickey fought almost daily about the film, and due to the fact that the production wasn’t insured – an effort to try and reduce costs – all the actors had to do their own stunts which, due to the nature of the script, meant that actors put themselves in quite dire situations just for the film. Burt Reynolds famously broke his coccyx whilst filming a river rapids scene and Ned Beatty almost drowned in a whirlpool. Nonetheless, the effort paid off as Deliverance earned a $44 million profit at the box office and became an iconic piece of 70s cinema with its more famous scenes, such as the duelling banjos scene and the ‘squeal like a pig’ rape scene, being referenced over and over in popular media for decades to come.
However, when boiled down to its basic constructs, Deliverance shares a lot in common with the Rape/Revenge genre of film as a large part of the story is dedicated to a character being harrowingly raped, and in the succeeding scenes the protagonists murder the rapists for both revenge and survival. What makes Deliverance stand out amongst other Rape/Revenge films, however, is that whereas Rape/Revenge films usually feature a female protagonist in peril and contains themes centred around womanhood and female power (or powerlessness) around misogynistic forces, Deliverance features a male protagonist being subjected to homosexual rape, and the film revolves around themes of masculinity, survival and morality. Although the Rape/Revenge elements aren’t the crux of the plot, the themes of morality and survival definitely carry themselves over to many Rape/Revenge films that succeeded Deliverance: for example the symbolism of the outdoor wilderness setting is something that would influence films such as the famously controversial I Spit On Your Grave.
As with many Rape/Revenge flicks, the story of Deliverance is quite simple: 4 friends from the city travel to the deep south in order to take a canoe trip down one of the longest rivers in America before it’s destroyed by a dam. However, as per the genre standards, this simple trip starts to go awry pretty quickly as the men find themselves under threat by the locals, the harsh rapids and even their own morality. From the beginning of the film, the story of Deliverance makes it quite clear that these 4 men are out of their depths when it comes to living in the harsh side of the country. It’s firmly established that all 4 men have average, non-threatening jobs and lifestyles. They’re lawyers, insurance brokers, landlords; men with desk jobs who have little experience of the wilderness and see it as more of a romanticised holiday, a simple experience where the old ways are king and not as the brutal, unforgiving landscape that it can be. The beginning of the film firmly establishes one character, Lewis, as the roguish type who can handle himself in survival situations, but even then, the movie establishes that this isn’t true, so the vulnerabilities of each character is laid bare before the viewer as they begin to struggle in the wilderness.
In Deliverance, every single hurdle during the plot is portrayed as a product of the environment: the rapids that break the canoes, the death of Drew, Lewis’ broken leg. Even the rapists, whose characters aren’t developed at all, are portrayed as a product of the environment; as just another hurdle on this canoe trip that the men were not ready for. In a way it’s quite disconcerting to see two characters as a comically inept ‘redneck rapists’ stereotype (although this stereotype could have originated from this movie), but their onscreen impact is very powerful nonetheless. There’s a reason why the term ‘squeal like a pig’ is referenced again and again in modern media, and it’s because the rape scene is harrowing in its delivery. Although it’s not a very visceral scene that’s quite toned down in comparison to other Rape/Revenge flicks, the use of audio whilst the shot focuses on someone forced to witness the rape is nonetheless powerfully depressing to experience as a viewer. The sequence of distinct cries and grunts lay out the sequence of events during the rape and a viewer is forced to envision in their own mind what is going on second by second, and it makes this scene very distressing to witness even 40 years later after the film’s original release. The revenge, however, is very quick in comparison as the revenge elements are only a part of the film and not the whole crux of the story, so both rapists get killed off pretty quickly in fairly uninteresting ways. The rape itself, and the reaction of the victim, isn’t really addressed for the remainder of the film, and this can be interpreted in two ways: either the rape is being portrayed as not a big thing in comparison to the other things that the men have to go through, or that the victim is projecting a facade in order to maintain his masculine dignity. In all honesty, either interpretation can be true as nothing in the story denies either side.
As for the characters, I feel that there’s a distinct cynicism that comes with each one of them. I personally don’t find the characters that likeable, but I feel that that may be the point. Each character has a distinct flaw that, although realistic in nature, it gives them a reason to dislike them. Lewis is headstrong but far too cocky, Bobby is a joker but he’s also judgemental and borderline racist, Drew is kind but far to naive for his own good, and Ed is the ‘down to earth’ character but his projected innocence is what makes him unlikeable. Personally, I find that these character flaws don’t really ruin the main characters for me, but it gives the film a distinct cynical edge, one that is contrasted by the very cynical plot. Deliverance is not an emotionally manipulative film where bad stuff happens to good people in order to get a rise out of an audience, it focuses on negative human qualities in order to portray a serious situation in a fairly realistic light: a serious situation of normal people being pushed to the edge and having to live through a brutal situation whilst fighting against their already established ideas of morality. For example, when the first rapist is killed, the characters have a large argument about what to do with the body because they have predisposed ideas of law and justice that come from living in the city. In the moment, one can understand why the argument is going on because of the characters and their defined personalities grating against one another, but this argument is also very illogical in a way because the situation and indeed the environment does not desire an argument about law and the jury system. This acknowledgement of consequence is something that no other Rape/Revenge film would tackle because many Rape/Revenge films are all about pure survival, and generally the question of morality is passed aside for the sake of cathartic justice. Whether intentional or not, Deliverance questions this survival instinct that other Rape/Revenge films display and instead pulls it down to a more realistic level with themes of one’s own pre-disposed ideas of morality and guilt. It’s a really clever addition which makes the movie stand out amongst many other Rape/Revenge flicks that flooded the market back in the 1970s.
I can definitely understand the reasons why Deliverance was universally loved back in its heyday: it’s a thematically rich film that pulls apart romanticised ideas of masculinity and morality. It’s a film about survival and friendship that pushes its characters to the limits whilst inserting a lot of questions about consequence that not many stories address. To this day, Deliverance still carries an undeniable impact, but there is one big problem that persists, and that problem really has nothing to do with the movie’s intentions. As I’ve stated before, certain scenes from Deliverance have been referenced, re-done and parodied many times over the course of 40 years, and these parodies have watered down the original impact far too much. It’s hard to see the original intention of some of the movie’s more famous scenes because of the number of comedians and filmmakers that have parodied them. In my opinion, to watch this movie today is to see a movie destroyed by its own popularity. However, a lot of what makes Deliverance good does still stand out 40 years later. So, in conclusion, I’d say that Deliverance is good, but not great, mainly because of what people have done to it over the years. It’s still a well-made, thought provoking movie, but it’s intentions just aren’t as powerful as they were back in 1972. I’d definitely say that it deserves a watch, but it’s also a fine example of how over-exposure can ruin a film’s intentions.