DELIVERANCE. Best survival thriller ever?

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself ‘fore you can find anything.” DELIVERANCE is a brutal lesson in survival in the US South.

Mariusz Czernic

8 August 2023

deliverance burt reynolds

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself ‘fore you can find anything.” – that’s what one of the main characters in Deliverance says, the leader of a survival expedition, prepared for various hardships that come with a journey into the wilderness of the southeastern United States. Despite being ready for challenges, this adventure enthusiast can’t predict that human nature can be more unpredictable than the wilderness. A raging river can be tamed, but a person – not always. A weekend escapade, meant to be a break from the stresses of city life, becomes a cruel test of character for four men. Can something more than just trauma be gained from such a lesson?

The Director

When John Boorman, the director of Deliverance received the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1970 for his film Leo the Last, he was considered a creator of original and daring cinema, rejecting traditional filmmaking methods, bringing prestige to studios but not necessarily profits. However, he himself aimed to create a commercial hit. Enthralled by the magical medieval legends, he dreamt of making a film about the sorcerer Merlin from the Arthurian legends. Yet, the president of United Artists, David V. Picker, presented him with an equally enticing proposal – to switch Merlin for Gandalf, as the studio had acquired the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Within six months of 1970, John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg penned an almost 180-page screenplay (available to read here), which didn’t come to fruition due to financial and technical reasons. The concepts within this script were later used by the director in subsequent films (particularly in Excalibur, 1981). Interestingly, Boorman’s first and biggest box office success wasn’t a fantasy tale, but rather a very down-to-earth and to a large extent, realistic film.

The novel

deliverance bow hunting

The instigator of the entire mess without which the film wouldn’t exist is the American writer and poet James Dickey. His novel Deliverance, published in 1970, marked his debut as a novelist, as he had primarily worked with poetry before. He also became the author of the screenplay, hoping for a notable directorial name like Sam Peckinpah. However, while the American Peckinpah was working on Straw Dogs (1971) in Cornwall, Englishman John Boorman ventured to the United States to film the wild province of Georgia. Not the first and certainly not the last time this British director proved his penchant for challenging directorial endeavors in adverse weather conditions (considering he had previously directed Hell in the Pacific and later The Emerald Forest, set in the Amazon jungle).

The protagonists of Deliverance are four urban Americans from Atlanta: Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds), Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty), and Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox). Their goal is a kayaking rafting trip down the Cahulawassee River – a tribute to the “living” nature as a “dead” lake is planned to be created in that area soon. The river, with its unique rhythm, draws these men in; deprived of such excitement in the city, they seek thrills in the countryside. However, fate is capricious, and the characters find something other than what they expected. Their journey to Aintry takes an unexpected turn, leading them into a psychological labyrinth where they must confront questions of morality and survival instincts.

The masculinity

Deliverance banjo man

In many American films of that era, critics saw allegorical connections to the Vietnam War, and John Boorman’s work is no exception. American men who are impressed by a macho style visit an exotic region to prove their masculinity and unite with nature, but from a different perspective, they become “violators” of a foreign environment, not understanding its rules and unable to adapt. Consequently, this notion of masculinity doesn’t pass the test and falls victim to the cruel revenge of those who guard the provincial culture. On the other hand, the theme of dam construction and the flooding of these areas, presented by the characters as something cruel to living nature, can symbolize hope, representing the destruction of a corrupted environment and the arrival of a new, more human-friendly civilization.

The screenplay itself is quite harsh, stripping the adventure of all the romantic trappings typically associated with the genre. However, the eminent Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond contributed significantly to the atmosphere. Undoubtedly, the most challenging to film was the kayaking trip on the Chattooga River in Rabun County. The efforts of the filmmakers and actors, who performed their own stunts (interestingly, they were uninsured), resulted in gripping – yet not exaggerated or unbelievable – action sequences, where danger and emotions are palpable. The scene in which Jon Voight climbs a steep cliff with a bow and arrows is also full of tension. When the toughest character played by Burt Reynolds is injured and weak, someone else must find the courage within themselves to fight the enemy. Meanwhile, the cinematography captures everything in cool tones to emphasize the grim atmosphere and thereby strip nature of its paradise-like charm.

The rape

deliverance rape scene

Another significant element contributing to the quality of the production is the soundtrack. However, the decision was made not to hire a composer to create an original musical score. Instead, Boorman chose to use Arthur Smith’s bluegrass composition Feudin’ Banjos (1955) as the main theme. Two banjo virtuosos – Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell – rearranged and performed the piece for the film. Under the new title Duelling Banjos, the composition topped charts and won awards (including a Grammy in 1974 for Best Country Instrumental Performance). Equally important is how well this music fits into the narrative, characterizing both the characters and the world they inhabit. In one scene, Drew characterizes Lewis as someone who has seen the forest but doesn’t understand it, someone who wants to unite with nature but can’t. This musical scene shows that Drew – despite appearing out of place due to his lack of courage – is the one who makes the most effort to understand the environment and is closest to connecting with rural culture.

Besides the “dueling banjos” sequence, there is another recognizable element strongly associated with the discussed film. I’m referring to the pivotal scene involving a homosexual assault. Despite having around 160 roles to his name (including an Oscar-nominated supporting role in Network, 1976), Ned Beatty heard the phrase “Squeal like a pig,” which accompanies this intense and difficult-to-watch scene, throughout his career. Among the four main actors, two were newcomers – Ronny Cox and the aforementioned Beatty – both of whom came straight from the theater to the film set (they even acted together in two plays: The Great White Hope and King Lear). On the other hand, the role of Lewis Medlock was somewhat a mockery of the dominant macho culture in cinema, and it was played by Burt Reynolds, who had already portrayed similar roles in Westerns (such as Navajo Joe, 1966; 100 Rifles, 1969). In later years, when summarizing his career, Reynolds stated that Deliverance was the best film he had been a part of. Jon Voight, who had numerous excellent performances in remarkable films – from Midnight Cowboy (1969) to The General (1998, again directed by John Boorman) – couldn’t say the same.


deliverence kayaking

Deliverance is a tense and unsettling exploration of uncharted, remote territories where initial excitement and optimism must eventually transform into fear, disorientation, and a sense of failure. Genre-wise, it’s a classic survival thriller, but it rises significantly above the average. Its strength lies in the captivating cinematography set against the majestic backdrop of the Appalachians, the skillfully crafted atmosphere of isolation, believable characters, and the unconventional use of music. While violence isn’t abundant, when it does appear, it hits hard and lingers in memory. Since its worldwide premiere in New York on July 30, 1972, more than 50 years have passed, yet this film still leaves a tremendous impression. After every screening, it prompts reflection on the primal human instincts that can turn the visually perfect world into a dark nightmare.

Mariusz Czernic

Mariusz Czernic

Tries to popularize old, forgotten cinema. A lover of black crime stories, westerns, historical and samurai dramas, gothic horror movies as well as Italian and French genre cinema.

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