Even though it contains one of the most infamous scenes of the ’70s, there’s so much more to John Boorman’s shattering action thriller Deliverance than “Squeal like a pig!” Adapted for the screen by poet James Dickey from his own novel, the picture follows four city-slicker Southerners during an ill-fated trip down the (fictional) Cahulawasee River in the dense wilderness of rural Georgia. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the de facto leader of the group because he’s a veteran outdoorsman, Ed (Jon Voight) knows his way around the woods but can’t match Lewis’ wild-man bravado, Drew (Ronny Cox) is a soft-spoken urbanite more comfortable with a banjo than a rifle, and Bobby (Ned Beatty) is an overweight everyman along for the ride. Spurred on by Lewis, the men decide to take a canoe trip before the river is dammed to create a lake; for Lewis, the challenge is conquering a disappearing wilderness, and for the others, the kick is escaping the urban grind.Right from the opening frames, Boorman creates an ominous atmosphere, best exemplified by the legendary “Dueling Banjos” scene. When the gang pulls up to a riverbank settlement, Drew engages an odd-looking (and presumably inbred) boy in a banjo-picking contest, but the musical bond shatters when Drew tries to shake the boy’s hand; the scene perfectly conveys that Lewis’ group has gone someplace where they don’t belong. Ignoring these portents, the gang hits the river and encounters rougher water than expected, figuratively and literally. Before long, their weekend of “roughing it” devolves into a violent nightmare when the boys find themselves at odds with violent locals.
In the unforgettable “squeal like a pig” scene, for instance, Bobby is sexually assaulted by a vicious redneck (Bill McKinney), an act that compels Bobby’s compatriots to seek bloody revenge. The great accomplishment of Deliverance is that Boorman and Dickey convey the disturbing notion that nature itself is battling the interlopers—the rednecks are like antibodies battling invading toxins. Boorman also creates a dreamlike quality, notably when a wounded Ed climbs a sheer cliff as the sky undulates with unnatural colors behind him. Throughout the film, Boorman treats merciless rapids like a special effect, showing how easily a river can swallow a man.
Realizing Boorman’s vision perfectly, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond found innovative ways to shoot in difficult situations and captured the terrifying beauty of a resplendent backwoods milieu. As for the acting, all four leading players contribute some of the best work of their careers. Voight is humane and vulnerable, perfectly illustrating a man driven beyond his natural capacity for violence by an insane situation, while Beatty and Cox present different colors of modern men whose animal instincts have been dampened so thoroughly they cannot withstand nature’s onslaught.
Yet the picture in many ways belongs to Reynolds, who instantly transformed from a lightweight leading man to a major star with his appearance in Deliverance. Funny and maddening and savage, he’s completely believable as a he-man whose bluster hides a deep need to prove his own virility. The physicality of Reynolds’ performance is incredible, whether he’s steering a canoe or working a bow and arrow, and Reynolds went just as deep psychologically.
Deliverance is hard to watch given the intensity of what happens onscreen, but the acting, filmmaking, and writing are so potent that it’s impossible to look away. Accolades showered on the film included Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Editing.
Deliverance: OUTTA SIGHT