Deliverance: Deluxe Edition Review

John Boorman is a master of visual style and his films are full of images which are hard to forget. Unfortunately, he has often saddled himself with ineffective scripts which have been weak on dialogue and sometimes lacking sufficient narrative cohesion. The best example of this is Exorcist 2 The Heretic which is a wonderful piece of film making as long as you don’t attempt to follow the plot or listen to what the character are saying to each other. Even a film as good as Excalibur is constantly dragged down by clunking expository dialogue. That said, at least Boorman has a truly cinematic vision - he thinks big and isn’t afraid of making an idiot of himself. Boorman’s cinema is grandly, madly ambitious and he has the same taste for extravagant follies as Griffith, Welles and Huston.

Boorman’s best film remains Deliverance, largely because two sensibilities hit each other straight on with highly effective results . James Dickey’s poetic, ambiguous novel is a perfect match for Boorman’s visual flair - and the script by Dickey himself is much better than the work Boorman did with the dreaded Rospoe Pallenberg. The dialogue is terse and convincing, doing the job of revealing the true nature of the story how man and nature are inextricably linked. As for the filmmaking, it's constantly astonishing, particularly the tracking shots which sometimes seem to be virtually impossible.

Incidentally, a word about genre. Deliverance is all sorts of things – a commentary on modern man, a study of man versus nature, an exciting action adventure. But what makes Deliverance fundamentally a horror film is that it confronts deep fears about what might be lying in wait for us beyond the city limits, and suggests that the greatest horror might just be human beings and what they are capable of - and having used this for a stunning scene of brutality, the accusation is then swung around and levelled at us. It’s a film about the dark corners of humanity, and as such fits into the genre very nicely. Add to this, of course, the fact that the climb up the bluff in the dark is a classic bit of horror-suspense, and the central rape scene is shocking and disturbing. Then there’s the final great image of the hand rising from the water, a classic horror sign-off.

This piece contains spoilers and anyone who hasn’t seen the film is advised to skip down to the review of the disc

The plot is simple. Four city dwellers, Ed (Jon Voight), Lewis (Burt Reynolds in one of his most interesting performances that proves his talent once and for all), Drew (Ronny Cox) and Bobby (Ned Beatty) take a weekend trip into the backwoods to canoe down the Cahulawassee river. They look out of place - which they are - and uncomfortable - except for Lewis who is in his element going back to nature and treats everything as a test of his manhood. Their first meeting with the locals is seemingly friendly, as Drew plays “Duellin’ Banjos” with a withdrawn child. However, the scene turns slightly sinister when Drew tries to shake the boy’s hand and is rejected out of hand. Bobby’s reaction is “Give him a couple of bucks”, as if the country was there solely for their entertainment and patronage. Boorman builds an incredibly economic sense of an alien world, beyond the comprehension of outsiders - little details, like the old woman tending a sick child in a derelict shack, speak volumes, as does the joke scene where Lewis and Ed are unable to find the river - which is, as they are informed by the delighted locals, “Only the biggest fucking river in the State”.

Of course, the river - treacherous, massive, bringer of life and death - is a metaphor for all the things that the urban lifestyle has shut out of modern life. Three of the men treat it as a big laugh, but Lewis has the hunter’s respect for his quarry - he points out that you don’t beat the river. There is something inexpressibly poignant in the oft-repeated scenes of sand and gravel being pumped into the valley by huge cranes. Something is being lost in contemporary living, and the need for man to capture it before it goes is one of the classic American themes. The irony is that in it’s dying moments, the river proves to be the undoing of the men, as if it is asserting its power once and forever before man attempts to tame it. I’m rambling, but this central theme of loss is central to several of Boorman’s films - remember Lee Marvin unable to comprehend the fact that there is no money to recover in Point Blank, or the story of the end of the age of magic in Excalibur, or the joyous celebration of a long-ago childhood in Hope and Glory?

The four men initially enjoy their trip through the rapids - Bobby is patronised endlessly by Lewis, who calls him “Chubby” and considers him incompetent. It’s ironic that Ned Beatty was the only one of the actors to have had previous canoe experience. But there are little sinister touches - my favourite is the moment when the men see the banjo boy standing on the bridge, staring at them emotionlessly. After the first night rituals - sitting round the campfire, making banal philosophical statements, singing sentimental songs - Ed goes off to kill an animal, and prove his manhood to Lewis. We are already aware that Ed is a man of thought rather than action, although Lewis seems to respect him more than the others. Ed’s failure to shoot a deer will have a big significance later on, but he seems to regard it as a failure - the first of two that day.

Ed and Bobby set off in front of the other two men, and travel gently downstream, stopping for a rest in a shady grove. They see two men weaving in and out of the trees and try to be friendly. But their efforts to communicate are greeted with hostility, and soon the two men, who appear to be hunters, have taken them into a clearing at gunpoint. It has to be said that the two hunters are as frightening as any human monsters ever to appear in a film. True, they appeal to a racist stereotype of hillbilly types, and one of them has the worst teeth in any film set in the recent past. But Bill McKinney - a fine actor wasted in too many identical roles, but watch his lovely comic turn in Bronco Billy and admire his subtle wit - is genuinely terrifying; self-righteous, determined, brutal, he decides to teach the city dwellers a lesson they won’t forget. He compares Bobby to a boar, having forced him to strip, and after riding him declares “He’s not a boar, he’s a sow” and forces him to squeal. Bobby’s efforts prove unsatisfying, and so McKinney declares he will give him a reason to squeal and then rapes him. It’s a horrible sequence with a queasy fascination, and Beatty is brilliant in it. Going beyond the call of duty, his face registers genuine terror and pain and humiliation - we sense that jolly, fat Bobby has had more than his share of humiliation in his life and feels that this is the living end. Boorman refuses to show the rape in any detail, focusing on close-ups of Beatty’s face, and then cutting to Ed, who has been strapped to a tree. At least one writer has called the scene homophobic, but I don’t think it is. There’s no suggestion that McKinney is homosexual, but there is strong suggestion that he is on a power trip and is using Bobby in the most degrading way he can contemplate. Finally finishing with Bobby, he cuts Ed loose and discusses with his toothy pal what to do, whereupon toothy utters the immortal line, “He’s got a real pretty mouth ain’t he.” Before Ed is forced to “pray” for the men at gunpoint, Lewis arrives - in a rather convenient nick-of-time manner - and shoots an arrow through McKinney’s chest. Toothy runs off, pursued by an oar-waving Drew, and McKinney dies in a protracted, painful manner. There’s a lengthy argument about what should be done with him, Drew insisting that they should tell the police about what happened. Drew’s naivety is punished a short time later, but he is outvoted by the others who decide to bury McKinney by the river, where he will be covered when the dam is built.

There follows a dangerous trip down the rapids by the men, who are now terrified and just want to get back to civilisation. But Drew is suddenly pitched out of the canoe by some force - possibly a gun shot - and Lewis is thrown into the river, seriously injuring himself. Drew vanishes and Lewis has to be ferried along in the remaining canoe - one having been rendered useless by the force of the water. Lewis then passes the responsibility for saving them to Ed, saying, “Now it’s your turn to play the game”. Interesting statement, as if it’s all somehow happening in a safe environment where they can leave and find each other undamaged by the experience. Interesting too that Drew is the one to be killed, since it was he who thought he could link with the backwoods at the start with the duet. Perhaps he is punished for his over-confidence ?

Ed, concerned that he could neither kill the deer nor save Bobby from being assaulted, decides to scale the bluff to find the surviving hunter, who is up there with a gun and seems to have picked off Drew. He climbs up at night, in a terrifying ascent which seems to last forever. Voight did his own climbing - the picture was apparently uninsured because of the dangers - and it’s obvious that the actor as well as the character is discovering new sides to his personality. Upon reaching the top, Ed is slightly awed by looking down at the power of nature, realising the mens’ insignificance. He manages, after a night’s sleeping, to shoot an arrow through the tormentor, although again the death is horrible and messy. Ed barely escapes with his life after falling into the water, and the dead body is left in the river, the hope being that it will just disappear. The three remaining men find Drew’s body, lolling like a rag doll, and take it back with them, hoping to explain it away as an accident. However, and this is the key point in the film, when they get back to civilisation, they can’t just leave the river and their experiences behind. Ed and Bobby are more nervous, more aggressive. Bobby’s beaming self-confidence vanishes, and the two men come to blows over the story they have to tell the police. The performances here are, again, incredibly subtle, especially that of Voight, who manages to appear completely neurotic without going over the top.

The final touch in the film is the attitude of the Sheriff - played by James Dickey. His deputy wants the men to be held for questioning, but the Sheriff’s attitude is more complex. He doesn’t quite let on whether he knows the truth or not, but he warns Ed never to return to the place, and the tone of subdued threat demonstrates that he means it. The final scene is justly famous - a beautiful vista of the river surrounded by forest, suddenly interrupted when a hand rises out of the water. Again, the metaphor is obvious. You can bury the past, but you can’t destroy it. The dream haunts Ed and we sense, despite his return to his nice, comfortable life, that it always will. Ed has, after all, revealed his true nature - behind the bourgeois trappings, he is just as much of a primitive as anyone else, and is capable of anything in the name of self-preservation.

The incredibly beautiful and evocative photography of the river and environs, by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, is intentionally at odds with the bloody, violent story and is probably the least subtle paradox in the film. But this is the best film about the clash between urban and rural culture, and it raises disturbing questions about whether there can be cultural hegemony in a place where everything is eventually reduced down to primitivism. The film is interesting because it doesn’t patronise the backwoods people, showing instead how the town people can’t understand a way of life which is so alien to them. That theme is also examined in Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, which is more exciting and less thoughtful. Also integral to the film is the need of modern man to find and master the beast within himself - Lewis asks Ed why, if he is so happy, he feels the need to go on these weekends - contrasted with the impossibility of ever putting the beast back in the box once you have let it out. In subduing the elemental - represented by the dam - modern man, at the same time, wants to embrace it. It’s this paradox which makes Deliverance so difficult to forget.

The Disc

Warners first released Deliverance back in 1999 and it’s taken a long time for them to revisit the title and give it the special treatment it always deserved. Finally, a ‘Deluxe Edition’ has arrived on Region 2 and, generally speaking, it’s a beauty.

The film is presented in its original Scope ratio of 2.40:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s a new transfer, supervised by Boorman and his DP Vilmos Zsigmond. It’s a dark, grainy and slightly soft visual presentation but this is the look which the filmmakers were aiming for – Boorman hired Zsigmond after seeing his similarly earthy work on McCabe and Mrs Miller. Some people may dislike this image for that very reason but no-one is likely to be disappointed by the level of detail, which is excellent, or the absence of over-enhancement or print damage.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack makes the film sound as good as it ever has done. Due to the filming conditions, most of the dialogue was looped in post-production along with sound effects. This means that it’s a bit pointless moaning, as I usually do, about the lack of the original mono track and this presentation is so centre-channel based that it’s barely surround at all. There are a few separations between the front left and rights but generally speaking, this is a very inoffensive remix.

The extras are superb. Along with the theatrical trailer, we get an original 1972 featurette, “The Dangerous World Of Deliverance” which has some interesting behind-the-scenes footage. The new features are a 50 minute documentary, broken up into four parts, and a commentary from John Boorman.

The documentary is fascinating, containing interviews with the four main actors, joined by Bill McKinney. As you’d expect, Burt Reynolds is dry and funny – thankfully not repeating the slur on McKinney which is contained in his autobiography – and Jon Voight is serious and intense. We also get comments from Boorman, Zsigmond and James Dickey’s son. My only reservation is that it would have been nice to have a ‘Play All’ feature.

John Boorman’s commentary is a model of the form. This time, he’s on his own and he manages to speak for the whole length of the film without repeating his stories or becoming precious. Boorman is a very intelligent man and he teases out the themes of his film far better than anyone else ever could. It’s a privilege to listen to him.

Subtitles are included for both the film and the documentary. There are a generous 30 chapter stops. The menus are simple but nicely designed.

Deliverance is as good a film as John Boorman has ever made, which makes it essential viewing for anyone remotely interested in movies. This new DVD presents it very well and does a good job of placing it in context. Definitely recommended.

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