My dad used to tell me the story of Deliverance on camping or canoeing trips when I was a kid. It was a stock favorite, along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the latter heavily influenced by the 1978 version). He’d always change the characters’ names to things like “Al Waysright” and “Nera Corner.”
Apart from his unassailable wit, you’re probably wondering what kind of dad fills his kids’ bedtimes stories with fodder such as this? Well, truth be told, he cut some stuff out. In his story, there were these guys in the woods with green teeth and backwards baseball caps who were somehow vaguely threatening. Even when I finally saw the movie, with his supervision, they fast-forwarded some of it. I think you know what I’m talking about.
So having been inspired by hearing “Dueling Banjos” to rent this film again, I have finally seen all of it. And my feelings are decidedly mixed. And didn’t anyone else realize that there was a guitar in that banjo thing? Not, as the name implies, two banjos?
Actually, this is the best scene in the film, for me. I don’t know where they found these people, but they’re awesome, and the dichotomy between them and the urbanites is well laid out, though not yet sinister. So I can deal with it.
But as the film progresses, its social message becomes extremely murky. What is the lesson? That we should save wild places like these because they’re beautiful? But untamable and therefore don’t try? Or is it that these rural landscapes hold as many terrors as the city? Or is it that city-folk don’t belong here, unless they’re willing to be picked off in a demonstration of manly survival skills? The macho guy gets hurt. The pudgy one gets sodomized. The musician can’t cope at all. And the Midnight Cowboy dude finds hidden machoness within himself.
The movie sets up these venturesome personalities fairly well without much exposition. We can fill in the details, and we probably know each of these guys. But what are we to make of the rural inhabitants? Even the ones who don’t randomly scour the countryside for ugly dudes to molest look inbred and retarded, not to mention really dirty. Even if they can play the banjo. I have a feeling the dinner scene towards the end is meant to redeem the rural folk somewhat, but honestly I couldn’t tell who these people were supposed to represent—though I thought the scene contained some of the best acting in the movie. But the fact remains that I can’t figure out whether to be offended. I don’t know what Dickey or Boorman’s intentions are, and Dickey himself in interviews gives conflicting viewpoints that to me reflect a lack of intent.
This doesn’t take away from the film’s effectiveness; it really is a grueling ordeal to sit through, without too much Hollywoodization of tension of feat of skill from the players. The fact that the actors did their own stunts, paddled their canoes, shot their own bows and all that is respectable and adds immeasurably to the film’s quality and value. But from the opening shots of wilderness being overtaken by civilization, I feel like I’m supposed to be watching something more layered than a survival thriller, and I don’t think I am.
But if you can overlook rampant generalization of an entire region’s people and culture, it’s a harrowing ride.