A tense action tale mingled with a horror story, John Boorman’s 1972 Deliverance showcases – through the clash of urban sensibilities and rural stubbornness – the complexities and contradictions of defending nature (itself a magnificent foe here) against human greed.
At the end of Deliverance, there is a question that remains unanswered: What is more terrifying, nature or human nature? Do we feel safer in highly populated urban centres or isolated deep inside the woods? Would we rather be surrounded by people and far from wild animals in the city or away from human beings and protected by trees in the wilderness? When confronted by the story of these guys, it does not matter if we are urban types or rural sympathisers. For in the film we witness the worst of both worlds.
Friends Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Ed (Jon Voight), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox) travel to a remote place in the state of Georgia to take a canoeing trip down the Cahulawassee River, before the whole place is drowned to become a lake. Midway through their trip, Ed and Bobby are assaulted by two local mountain men. When one of the bullies is killed by Lewis, reluctantly they decide to bury the body and get out of there. A perverse cat and mouse game ensues as the men are confronted by their fears while their relationship evolves and surprising traits of their personalities come to the fore.
One could perfectly well view these guys as arrogant types who are visiting the wilderness with no respect for the natural environment and the communities that live in the area. Their encounter with the boy playing banjo implies a community shrouded by backwardness and made of people who live detached from civilization – too obtuse to be dealt with on equal terms. Like the corporate world which is flooding the valley to create a lake, these guys appropriate the exotic location on their own terms and disregard the people who are closest to that place. Ironically, the whole trip down the river is Lewis’ idea, who loathes society’s endless pursuit of profit and progress.
.The System and the Ability to Survive.
At the outset we might even think that whatever happens to them will be well deserved. Then the ‘squeal like a pig’ scene changes everything. Now, confronted by the cruelty and ignorance of inbred hillbillies, we switch sympathies towards the main characters. And although for the rest of the story we stay on the side of the city guys, their moral weakness (or is it really shrewd pragmatism?) towards the murder of two mountain men paint a less than rosy picture of the men. Their actions and attitudes are arguably defensible from a standpoint of survival and self-defence. However, the film endures surely for its realistic depiction of good and ordinary people who when caught in extraordinary situations feel compelled to do bad things.
And so, these good guys, who initially do not seem so good, symbolise a theme that is central to the film’s meaning. It has to do with the fact that nothing is what it seems. Every assumption ends up being false. Initially, the locals are shown as simple-minded and naïve, and then the boy with the banjo beats Drew in the solo and the mountain men attack half of the group, revealing their flawed humanity. Between these two events, Lewis shows his awe for the mighty river before those same waters hurt and kill some of them. These city guys, with their arrogance and condescending attitude, seemed fated to be devoured by mother nature, and yet prove to be worthy types.
What would any of us do in the aftermath of Bobby’s rape and the killing of his rapist? Drew, who has been placed in the position of defending the rules of civilised life to mirror us, knew exactly what actions to take. Report to the police exactly what happened and they surely would understand the murder of the local man as justified self-defence. However, is the fact that he dies on the way down the rapids meant to be interpreted as a defeat of the liberal mind? Lewis would argue that civilised constraints do not serve you well in that kind of environment, where the life of man is nasty, brutish and short. In a place like that, all that matters is the ability to survive. And when they peel off their patronising of those mountain men, the three of them do survive.
They survive such a hostile environment: not only they escape the attack from the locals but they overcome the violence and chaos that comes from nature itself. And despite Lewis’ poison against the evils of civilization and the controls of the system, it is the river that he would like to see preserved that kills his companion. And that’s the lesson that comes from such a place: we might not be able to beat the river but do not let it beat us either. For, as Ed says before their ordeal begins, ‘no matter what disaster may occur in other parts of the world or what petty little problems arise in Atlanta no one can find us up here.’