John Boorman’s Deliverance, based on a novel of the same name by James Dickey, was released in 1972, the same year as Werner Herzog’s acclaimed Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Both movies depict groups of men foraying into the untamed wild, attempting to bend Nature to their will.
Deliverance is available on the pay-per-view service BookMyShow Stream. For the first few minutes, the main characters are either heard or seen in the distance. Their idle chatter and the rugged beauty of the terrain, beautifully lensed by legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, foreshadow the misadventure that awaits Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Ed (Jon Voight), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox).
The quartet, led by the macho Lewis, has decided to sail down a river before it gets dammed. When locals warn the thrill-seekers of the perils of their canoeing trip, Lewis exults in the dangers that lie ahead. Filled with suspicion about “The System”, Lewis predicts that humans will have to crawl back into the lap of nature when all else fails. Of all his gnomic pronouncements, this proto-MAGA male is right about this one.
Some portions of Deliverance play out like a horror film, but without the gimmicky jump scares. There is neither facile moralising nor easy short-cuts as the men take on seen and unseen elements.
The remarkably brave stunt work by the actors and heart-stopping moments of caneoing suggest a straight-forward survival drama. There’s more to the film, in Lewis’s arrogance and the inbred local residents. Boorman, a British director who previously made the masterwork Point Blank (1967), was surely aware of the lingering effects of colonisation when he placed a bunch of city slickers in a place whose resources have been plundered over the years.
If Deliverance feels familiar, it is because sections from the classic have popped up in other movies, from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction to James Watkins’s Eden Lake. Tarantino references a deeply disturbing sequence from Deliverance, but for crude shock value. In Eden Lake, Watkins follows a young couple’s battle against a bunch of nasty small-towners while bypassing the allegorical undertone and understated mastery of Boorman’s film.
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