Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing.
Late last summer, my family celebrated my parents’ 50th anniversary with a vacation in the Ozarks. My parents are from the Missouri bootheel and we’ve been taking family trips to the Ozarks my entire life. It was a fitting way to celebrate. On my drive down through the winding country roads from St. Louis, I drove deeper and deeper away from civilization. At one point, I saw a wooden plank tied to a tree, advertising simply that they had “Goats 4 Sale.” And down there in the Ozarks, you really are far, far away from anyone or anything that could ever bother you. “You know?,” I thought, “I really need to re-watch Deliverance (1972).” It took me 6 1/2 months, but it finally happened.
The First Viewing
Deliverance was sort of a kickoff to my late 20s movie nerd rebirth. I first saw it in 2005, when I was valiantly trying to watch the AFI Top 100. It was one of the first films that I saw in that effort. Of course, even before that, I knew a little bit about it. It was a popular film with my parents, almost universally because of the scenery. I’m sure that my outdoorsman father saw a lot of himself in Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds). And the movie was filmed in an area that my parents were very familiar with, having traveled and camped in and around Georgia and North Carolina quite a bit when they lived in South Carolina.
What I remember from the first viewing is surely what everyone remembers from the first viewing. I remember the terrifying clip of Ned Beatty squealing like a pig, and I remember dueling banjos with a young’un that represented pure Darwinian horror. There was also the city vs. country motif, but I hadn’t dug too deep into that. As far as I was concerned in 2005, Deliverance was a gripping thriller that took place amongst a bunch of inbreeds. And I thoroughly enjoyed it on that level. Upon the re-watch, I discovered a great deal more waiting beneath the surface of the Cahulawassee River.
More than anything, the re-watch helped me discover that Deliverance is crawling with themes. The obvious, which I correctly assessed the first time but not in-depth, is city vs. country. It’s a duel for survival pitting Atlanta’s weekend warriors against the hill folk of Georgia. What I didn’t note the first time is that neither group is presented favorably. The first time, I knew that the inbreeds in the film were wretched people. But I had failed to notice how much of a choad Ned Beatty’s character was upon arriving in the area. I hadn’t noticed Lewis (Reynolds) and his weekend warrior hard-on, more or less trying to find nature and rub his macho nuts on its face. And even Ed (Jon Voight) loses his soul along the way, learning to kill, toss corpses over cliffs, and lie in the interest of preserving his own hyde. Mind you, Ed’s behavior was justifiable, but he was clearly not the same character at the end as he was at the beginning. If you’re looking for either group (city or country) to fall neatly into a noble savage archetype, you won’t find it. There is no nobility in Deliverance.
The impetus behind the whole film- man reconnecting with nature- is a theme in and of itself. The very idea was to see a beautiful river before it became a government-created lake, with the expedition led by the gonzo Lewis. Instead, what they find is a journey riddled with danger. The hill people menace them every step of the way. The river is full of jagged rocks, dangerous rapids, and snakes. It’s far more horrific than it is beautiful. And yes, they indeed reconnect with nature, but in the worst way possible. They revert to primitive, lawless savages. It’s a brilliantly cynical twist on the whole movie.
Lost in everything is that Deliverance is a horror film. In the very least, it has horror sensibilities. From the outset, there’s a sense of foreboding and dread. The moment the banjo kid shows up, the audience sees that the world in this film has gone askew. Tension rises with each marker they pass on the river. They aren’t even on the river very long before they encounter their first treacherous turn, barely making it through and proving that this is no nature documentary. Then, the quartet encounters the two rapists and their entire reality flies off the rails. There aren’t many scenes in movie history as chilling as Beatty’s pig impersonation, particularly because it comes in a film that’s not explicitly advertised as a horror. You’re not expecting it, and that makes it all the more horrifying. To cap it off, that scene ends with the slow burial of one of the rapists into the deep, black soil. His face, body, and life disappear into the muck. Another hour later, there are two more corpses (one with its elbow jarringly shoved behind its head) and a bone sticking out of Lewis’ leg.
All of it was made much more effective thanks to the stunning camerawork of Vilmos Zsigmond. The Hungarian cinematographer went to great pains to get the camera into the foreboding world that the four travelers were inhabiting. It made the danger of their world palpable. And there were scenes that surely put Zsigmond in danger when shooting them, particularly the scenes above the cliffs and in the frothy rapids. It’s impossible to discuss Deliverance without mentioning his efforts.
It’s hardly a revelation for me to say that Deliverance is a great movie. And yet, I’d be a moron to not recognize it as such. It’s a shame that it’s known, now, only for hillbilly butt sex and inbred banjo players. Because it’s filmmaking at its apex, a perfectly worthy entry into the canon of groundbreaking, critically acclaimed 70s films. Stack it up against any of its peers from the era (MASH, The French Connection, both Godfather films, Chinatown) and it more than holds its own.