Southern Movie 60: “Deliverance” (1972)

It was fifty years ago today – August 18, 1972 – that the film adaptation Deliverance was released. Based on the 1970 debut novel of James Dickey, this movie is best-known for two infamous scenes: “Dueling Banjoes” and “squeal like a pig.” The latter, of course, has been used for decades to frighten fellow campers and kayakers— “I think I hear banjoes,” some jokester on a trip will claim. But, as powerful as they are, the movie is more than those two scenes. Directed by John Boorman and filmed mostly in Rabun County, Georgia, its stellar cast features Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Jon Voight, and Ronnie Cox, whose characters are taking a guys’ trip down the river when things go horribly wrong.

Deliverance opens with scenes of huge bulldozers and dump trucks destroying the rural landscape. As we look over the huge wound amid miles and miles of misty green mountains, voices are heard: a group of men, one among them exhorting the rest to leave their comfortable suburban lives and make the best of this one last chance to ride the river rapids before a dam eliminates the whole thing. After massive blast of dynamite wrecks another corner of the torn area, the scenes shifts to a yellow International Scout and a wood-paneled station wagon barreling down winding two-lane roads among those mountains. Canoes are strapped on top, and the continued voiceovers tell us what the men are going to do. The main voice insists that, if they’ll agree to go out on the river, he will have them home in time to watch the Sunday football game and gawk at the cheerleaders. We sense from this dialogue and the chuckles that we have one fiercely individualistic outdoorsman and three barely willing participants in this plan.

After they’ve left the paved road and driven up a dirt road in the woods, the cars stop in front of an old shack that is surrounded by rusty car hulls and other detritus. They get out, and one asks if they are lost. The driver of the station wagon kicks an old can and remarks condescendingly about the junk. His passenger gets out with a guitar. The other two men, from the Scout, are standing closer to the atop an embankment. Soon, when a person appears, we see that the shack is a gas station, and it is where the four travelers will try to find people to drive their cars to Aintry, the spot where their canoe trip will end. We quickly see that the condescending station-wagon driver (Ned Beatty) is mouthy but not confident, so the leader of the group in the Scout (Burt Reynolds) steps up to make the deal. At first, the old Appalachian fellow wants to know if they’re from the power company, which is building the dam, then he shrugs them off when he finds out that they’re not. 

Though we’re less than five minutes into Deliverance, one of those two famous scenes is upon us. While the old fellow puts gas in the Scout, the guitar picker (Ronnie Cox) is tuning his instrument when he gets a retort from a banjo picker on the porch. It is a boy with a buzz cut and overalls, who by appearances could be assumed to be inbred. He doesn’t speak and is emotionless at first, but slowly the two musicians find their song and play it with vigor, while a handful of dirty, rough-looking men emerge from the woods individually. Soon, both pickers are smiling and playing, while the assembled group enjoys the music. The old fellow at the gas pump even starts to dance. After the song” Dueling Banjoes” is over, though, the guitar man tries to shake hands with his newfound musical companion, but the strange boy jerks his head to the side, a gesture that says, I don’t know you and don’t plan to.

A short ride up the hill, and the guys are at a ramshackle garage made from old boards. Everything in this tiny community is dilapidated and mean. In the car, Lewis asks his passenger Ed (Jon Voight) about the station-wagon driver Bobby (Beatty). We find out that Lewis doesn’t really know the other two, but Ed does. Bobby is a successful insurance agent, and Lewis replies that he has never had insurance in his life, nor wanted any. Here, they are looking for the Griner brothers, who the old fellow at the gas station said would handle their cars. Inside the house, Ed sees a grizzled old woman and a severely handicapped child, while Lewis walks down the hill, following the clanging sound of blacksmithing. Lewis opens the barn door and startles the man working there, causing him to smash his finger. After a tense moment, Lewis asks him about driving their cars to Aintry. The man wonders why— they’re on a canoe trip.

“What the hell you wanna go fuck around that river for,” Griner asks roughly.

“Because it’s there,” Lewis replies, turning his back on the man.

“It’s there alright,” Griner says more to Ed than Lewis. “But you get in there and can’t get out, you’ll wish you wasn’t.”

Ed then walks over to Lewis, who still has his back turned, and says, “Look here, Lewis, let’s go back to town . . . and play golf.” Here, the exchange gets even more tense, as Lewis winks at Ed. He offers Griner thirty dollars for the task, and Griner replies that he’ll do it for fifty. “Fifty, my ass,” says Lewis. Griner challenges him to repeat himself, and Lewis does, so Griner backs down to forty. They have a deal. Lewis hands the money over his shoulder, keeping Griner at his back, and storms to his vehicle. Drew wants to know if everything is alright, and Lewis forces upon him that it is. 

In the next scene, we see more of Lewis’s mannish arrogance. The Griner brothers load up in a rusty tow-truck, one putting a gun in back-window rack, and they begin to lead the way to the river. But Lewis cuts across their yard and gets in front of them. Ed advises that they let the locals show them the way, but Lewis tells him that he’s missing the point. When they take a wrong fork and have to back up, the Griners are waiting on them, and the brother that Lewis talked to says with smile, “Where you goin’, city boy?” Lewis shouts back, “We’ll find it!” as another Griner shouts back, “It’s only the biggest fuckin’ river in the state!” 

After blasting their way down a one-lane dirt path, screaming at each other as the Scout is slapped by tree branches and shaken by ruts, Lewis screeches to halt. He implores Ed to listen. Lewis hears the river and jumps out of the truck, leaping up the embankment. Looking back at Ed, who has stayed in the car, Lewis whispers, “Sometimes you gotta lose yourself . . . before you can find anything.” Ed gets out, and they marvel at the shimmering river that is just past the trees. The four men then put their canoes in the water and begin their trip. Bobby worries out loud that the cars won’t be at their end point, but Lewis insists that they will. The Griners watch this scene from atop the embankment then leave without saying a word. 

Out on the river, things begin mildly. They go over some rocky spots with relative ease. Then, the banjo boy appears on a rope bridge above them. Drew tries once again to be friendly toward him, but the boy just stares. It is awkward and foreboding. The first rapids come up after that, and for a moment, we watch Man versus Nature in the Georgia wilderness.

A half-hour into the film, the four men reach their first night of the trip. As they pull onto the shore, Lewis is admonishing Ed once again that the world has gotten too civilized, and Ed retorts that he likes his life. As this conversation ends, Lewis shoots a fish with his bow and arrow. This will be their dinner. They camp in the darkness, Drew plays guitar, Bobby says silly things, and Ed relaxes, but Lewis’ survivalist ideals hang over them like a cloud. Amid the pitch-black darkness, Lewis suddenly stands up and, without a word, appears to go looking for something he has sensed or heard. The other men wonder what is happening, then Lewis shows back up behind them, which frightens them. That ends the night, and everyone heads for sleep.

In the morning, Ed is the first one up. He decides to take to the bow and attempt to hunt. Tiptoeing through the woods, he encounters a deer and gets within mere feet of it, something few hunters experience. He draws back an arrow, but shakes with such severe nerves that he misses. Back in the camp, Ed attempts to tell the others about it, and they half-debate the merit of shooting an animal. Lewis is once again interjecting his tough-guy ideals, and Bobby responds that he doesn’t give a shit. In a quiet word, Lewis tells Ed to take that “chubby bastard” with him today.

The first scenes of day two on the river are peaceful: smooth sailing, fingerpicked guitar music in the background. We follow Ed and Bobby, while Lewis and Drew are nowhere to be seen. But everything changes when Ed and Bobby stop on the shore. Two men, one with a gun, are waiting on them, and one steps out front to say, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” We quickly sense that this is bad. 

The second infamous scene in Deliverance lasts about seven minutes. Ed and Bobby  are ordered at gunpoint to comply. Ed is strapped by his neck to a tree, while the toothless, gun-toting man guards him. The other man (played by Clint Eastwood mainstay Bill McKinney) has Bobby to strip down to his tighty-whiteys and taunts him for a bit before putting him on all-fours, yanking his drawers down, and sodomizing him while he is face down in the dirt. The rapist further taunts him during the assault to “squeal like a pig.” After he is finished, leaving Bobby silently traumatized and with his bare butt in the air, the rapist goes to Ed and takes the strap off his neck. Ed, who has just witnessed the rape, falls to his knees with the gun at his neck. The rapist asks what they should do with him, and the toothless one says, “He’s got a real pretty mouth.” Ed’s eyes widen, but what he sees that the two other men don’t is that Lewis has arrived on the shore. He has his bow drawn back and is ready to shoot. The toothless man hands the gun off, tells Ed that he will do some “praying,” and begins to open his trousers, when the arrow pierces the rapist straight through. Ed uses the opportunity to snatch the gun, and the toothless man runs away. Drew comes out of the boat with the paddle, chasing the toothless man away, before tending to his naked friend who lies in the leaves and mud.  The rapist drools and dies slowly, and after showing no mercy, he will get none.

After the rapist is dead, the debate begins about what to do. These are civilized men from the civilized world. Drew believes they should carry the body with them, take it to the police, and explain the situation. Ed is flabbergasted and has no idea what to do. Bobby is silent and stares at the dead body, but does make one move to commit some sort of violence against it, which the other men stop him from. Lewis, by contrast, handles the situation entirely different. Unlike the others, he recognizes that any reporting of the killing and trial by jury will be handled there, where the victim is known by everyone and the killers are outsiders. His idea, instead, is to dispose of the body in the vast wilderness and escape this land without retribution from the dead man’s kin and friends. Drew asks what will happen if the toothless man goes to the police, and Lewis answer is: and tell them what? Drew is the main one who can’t handle it, but Lewis reminds them all of the truth: the dam is about to flood the whole area, including the place where they will hide a corpse. Drew’s challenge is still that he is worried about the law, to which Lewis retorts, “What law!? Do you see any law out here?”

Ultimately, they decide to handle it democratically. First, Bobby votes to bury the body. Lewis has already spoken. It is up to Ed. Drew speaks to him feverishly about the consequences, but Ed sides with Lewis. They carry the rapist’s body upstream into the woods and dispose of it, then head back to the canoes.

In the boats, Drew is clearly distraught. Despite the rapids, he refuses to put his life jacket on, and at points, stops paddling. The three others may have outvoted him and gotten their way, but his inability to accept the outcome will cause them harm. As the four enter the rapids, with rock walls on both sides, they are all nervous, fighting the rapids and fearing discovery by the dead man’s friends. Then, Drew falls out of the canoe on purpose. He leaves Ed without steering, and the canoe jams between two rocks and breaks in half. This causes Lewis’s and Bobby’s boat to capsize, too. Now, all of the men are in the water.

By the time, they come to rest in a calm cove, Lewis’s leg is broken so severely that his torn flesh hangs out of the seam of his pants. Drew is nowhere to be found, and Ed calls out over and over, “Drew! Drew! Drew!” Lewis, who is in agonizing pain, knows that he is dead. Ed swims out to their floating gear but see nothing of his friend. Bobby remains helpless.

By now, just past the halfway mark, Deliverance has become a full-on Man versus Nature story. The strongest man among them is wounded to the point of being no help. They have three men and one boat, and their gear is soaked and useless, in part because there is no land they can reach. They are in a river gorge whose rock wall goes straight up. So, Ed begins to climb the wet rock wall, with no gear and no idea of what he will find at the top.

Halfway through his climb, Ed looks back and comments on what a wonderful view he has from there, but has to continue into the night. Once at the top, he falls asleep. However, he wakes in the morning to realize that a man is standing nearby with a rifle. Ed readies an arrow and aims, but he begins shaking like he did with the deer. He holds on so long that the man sees him, aims, and shoots, which causes Ed to release the arrow. Ed is hit in the side and almost rolls off the cliff, and the man ambles toward him. It is too late to ready another arrow, so Ed pulls out a Bowie knife as the man approaches and aims at him point-blank— but he misfires as he falls. We see that Ed’s arrow went right through the man’s neck.

Exhausted and bewildered, Ed rushes over to see if the man is dead. He is. Ed begins to mutter, No, No, thinking that this was not actually the toothless man who escape the scene of the rape. He pulls back the dead man’s top lip and sees a full set of teeth, then with his thumb pulls down them— they are false teeth. It is him. Now wounded, Ed has a broken bow and no arrows, and a dead body to dispose of. He throws the bow over the Cliff. Bobby, who is still waiting below, sees it come down and hit the water. Back at the top, Ed ties a rope to the body and begins to lower it down carefully. 

With just under a half-hour to go, the situation is getting worse and worse for the men who just wanted to take a weekend canoe trip. One is dead and gone, one has been raped, one is severely injured, and one has been shot. That would be bad enough, but they’re also deep in the woods, stuck in an impassable gorge, and probably being hunted by the vengeful families of a men they’ve killed.

Back down in the water, Ed gets down by using the same rope he is lowering the body with, but falls into the water rather than go down easy. Bobby is there to extract him and praises Ed over and over for killing the man. He also asks if Ed is sure that was the other rapist, the one with the gun, not “just some guy hunting.” Ed grabs the dead man’s hair, turns his face to Bobby, and yells, “You tell me!” Lewis is still lying on a rock ledge, completely unconscious. Bobby remarks that he thought that Lewis had died at one point during the night.

The only thing left to do is keep going. They lie Lewis down in the canoe, sink the dead body, and shove off. Some ways down the river, they find Drew’s corpse wedged among some rocks. Bobby says to no one in particular, “There’s no end to it.” They tie Drew’s body to the side of canoe, floating in the water beside it, and continue. If the rapids weren’t bad enough, Lewis writhes and moans in pain as the bumpy ride goes on and on.

Eventually, the canoe makes it to the end point. Bobby keeps saying, “We made it!” As they pull the boat into the shore where two old car hulls lay, Lewis is weeping like a child. Before they disembark, Ed emphatically tells them, this is the story they must repeat: Lewis’s leg was broken in that last section of rapids, and Drew drowned there, too. It is important that they not say anything to send people looking upriver. Bobby stares dumbfounded, but Lewis is muttering to Ed that he understands. 

After rowing through a bit more water, this time peacefully, they land, and Ed jogs up a logging road into the place we saw at the beginning of the movie. We can feel his exhaustion as he tops the hill and sees both the yellow Scout and the wood-paneled station wagon waiting there. Also there is family and a truckload of their belongings. A boys steps and asks if he’s there for the cars. Yes, he tells the boy, then asks if they have a telephone.

In the next scene, medics are loading Lewis into an ambulance. Ed gets in and rides with him, while Bobby stands with two sheriff’s deputies. As Ed rides off, he looks back at Bobby with an uncertainty about what this weak man will say.  

After Ed receives medical treatment for his gunshot wound, we see him arrive at large white house whose sign reads Colonial Lodge. On entering, he sees Bobby sitting at a long dinner table with several older couples. The proprietor invites Ed in to sit down and eat. As they serve his plate, the tension is so thick that it could be cut with a knife. Then, Ed breaks into tears while the other stare at him slack-mouthed, then they resume with friendly banter.

The next day, the sheriff arrives and is talking to Bobby when Ed sees them. Ed darts outside and sees the broken canoe has been recovered, and that means that they won’t believe his story about the accidents taking place near the end of the trip. In the hallway, he accuses Bobby of cracking under pressure. The men tussle, but both insist that they’ve stayed strong. Then, we see them at the riverside, watching while law enforcement and locals search and dredge the river. The sheriff explains that one of the men standing nearby has a brother who went hunting a few day prior but never came home. They are reasonably sure that Bobby and Ed know something about him.

Afterward, the Bobby and Ed are being carried back to the hospital in a cab, and the driver’s slow monologue reminds them the whole area will be underwater soon. They have to pause while the white, clapboard Church of Christ that marked their landing point is hauled up the road on a flatbed. On arriving at the hospital, the doctor tells them that Lewis may lose his leg. Lewis, who goaded the men into the trip in the first place, who became helpless, and who had to be carried out by the same men whose manhood he didn’t respect.

As Deliverance wraps up, Ed and Bobby enter the hospital room. A deputy is there, and Lewis is sleeping. When he wakes up at his friends’ presence, he says slyly that he doesn’t know what happened— can’t remember a thing. Ed and Bobby go up to where their cars are, but before leaving, the sheriff arrives and makes one more go at questioning them. He senses what they have done, but can’t prove it. Ed gives him hard stares and cold answers, while Bobby winces at what he believes to be mistakes. Ultimately, the sheriff tells them not to ever come there again. He wants the town to “die peaceful.” As they leave, Bobby says goodbye to Ed and tells him, “I probably won’t see you for a while.” 

On his way home, Ed stops and takes one more look at the river, which is already flooding, and also sees a graveyard where men are unearthing coffins to move them. At home, his wife and child are there, but Ed doesn’t seem pleased or content. The movie ends with Ed’s nightmare that the man he killed has floated to the surface of the flooded lake. He gasps, his wife comforts him in the bed, and the credits roll.

The writer Isabel Machado put it well in an article for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture: “The imagery, stereotypes, and symbols produced by the film still inform popular perceptions of the US South, even by those who have never actually watched it.” Yes: even by those who have never actually watched it. I will readily admit that the rape scene is deeply disturbing, especially the first time you see Deliverance. A high school friend used to make cackling references to the scene, saying “Squeal like a pig!” and we would all laugh, not really knowing what he was talking about. Seeing the scene is another matter, and seeing it makes you know that it isn’t funny. In fact, in a case of bitter irony: it is so not-funny that jokes about it have emerged to deal with how not-funny it is. 

Deliverance makes real what is carried to an surreal extreme in horror movies like 1973’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The premise is basic: city folks, suburbanites, or sometimes college kids leave the comforts and certainties of the civilized world and make a foray into or across rural America, and while there, they encounter what is uncivilized. In the South’s wilderness, they are faced with an uncaring natural world and dog-eat-dog lawlessness. In horror movies, this is presented through wild psychopaths, like Leatherface and his family, but in Deliverance, we see it in the form of otherwise ordinary people, albeit gun-toting hillbillies who enjoy their home-field advantage. At the Griner brothers’ garage, this advantage is exhibited in mostly real-world terms. However, in the rape scene, it is taken much farther. In the latter scene, the vacationing mens’ apologies and pleas are useless, and the backwoodsmen use the opportunity to commit anal rape against one and demand oral sex from the other. What makes it more disturbing than the strange atrocities committed by Leatherface’s family is that this could really happen. The four men in their canoes are prepared and equipped to take on the natural wilderness (the woods, the rapids) but they are not – with the exception of Lewis – prepared to take on the people of the wilderness— almost none of whom are helpful, friendly, or accommodating. 

The movie also says something about how we treat these rural Southerners. The Appalachian people are helpless against the power company’s dam, which will flood the area and run them off their own land. It will cause them to move churches and unearth graves, if they don’t want to lose them. They are expected to accept this and move along. More specifically, after killing the rapist, Lewis presumes that local law enforcement, courts, and juries will offer nothing resembling justice or fairness toward outsiders. Having faced down the rapist’s immoral behavior with violence, he believes that everyone here will be equally immoral, that vengeance against him will matter but justice for Bobby will not. That said, the dead man becomes a throwaway: a person (?) with no redeeming qualities from a culture with no redeeming qualities. In civilized society, the dead deserve funerals and proper burials, but not this guy. Drew is the only one who argues in favor of treating both the local justice system and the dead man like they would treat people in their urban/suburban world. The other three vote to toss the dead man aside and evade any recognition that they played a role in his death. 

In the end, we see that, however harsh he may have been, the mechanic Griner gave good advice to the men from civilized society. His words were meant to serve as a warning against taking on the landscape of the rural South: “It’s there alright. But you get in there and can’t get out, you’ll wish you wasn’t.” But he might have been talking about the people, too. It leaves us to wonder about the story and its title: Deliverance. Who was to be delivered, and from what, or from whom? 

Read more Southern Movies posts.

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