Deliverance is the ultimate “dam” movie. Okay, so there aren’t really that many films about dams, but they do include a couple of corkers, namely Larissa Shepitko’s difficult-to-find Farewell (completed by her husband Elem Klimov after Shepitko died in a car crash, so very much a farewell to his wife as well as a farewell to the Siberian village threatened by a hydro-electric scheme) and the Argentinian/Welsh co-production Patagonia, neither of which we’re concerned with here, as I’m saving Argentinian/Welsh co-productions for another, necessarily short post at some point in the future. And I’m not counting The Dam Busters, which is really an “anti-dam” movie, since the purpose is to destroy the dam, as it is in the recent eco-thriller Night Moves (not to be confused with the Gene Hackman film noir Night Moves, which is an infinitely better film but nothing at all to do with dams.)
If you’re one of the few people who hasn’t seen Deliverance, and to whom the phrase “squeal like a pig!” means nothing, I can’t say you’re in for a treat, unless your idea of a treat is a four-man canoe trip down a soon-to-be-flooded river, with a side order of sodomy and murder, but I can say this is one of the most exciting and disturbing mainstream movies of the 1970s. BBC Bristol’s John Boorman directed (from James Dickey’s novel) and he rightly regards it as his finest hour. When I first saw it, on TV, I had the misfortune (though some might say the luck) to see a heavily edited version, in which a couple of toothless mountain men appear to do nothing worse than pull down Ned Beatty’s pants. However, should you choose to see the full, “uncut” version, you are left in absolutely no doubt what they do to Ned. This seems to have tapped a nerve among that section of the male heterosexual populace who live in mortal fear of being sodomised, just as it exerts a powerful fascination over heterosexual men who secretly quite like the idea.
The cast are perfect, and seem born to play these parts. Rarely, outside of a Tarkovsky movie, has a face conveyed such existential torment as Jon Voight (aka Angelina Jolie’s dad) playing the reluctant hero Ed, while Burt Reynolds is superficially typecast as action man Lewis, who saves Voight and Beatty from further harm at the hands (and other organs) of the hillbillies, but then, in a stroke of narrative genius, breaks his leg in the rapids and becomes utterly dependent on the resourcefulness of his less macho buddies to get him out alive.
Voight and Reynolds weren’t first choices for the leads. Just as Dickey had wanted Sam Peckinpah to direct (a delicious prospect) he had suggested Gene Hackman for Ed. Boorman wanted Lee Marvin. Jack Nicholson was then given the part, but wanted too much money, while Charlton Heston and Donald Sutherland both turned down the role of Lewis because they felt, in their diametrically opposed political opinions, that the film was “too violent”. Nobody, presumably, was ahead of Ned Beatty in the queue to be sodomised. This was, incredibly, his first film (after some 15 years on the stage) but he went on to star in Nashville, Wise Blood, Mikey & Nicky AND The Big Easy, so he definitely meets my entrance requirements for Cult Movie Heaven along with Matt Clark (see post) Brad Dourif and Peter Boyle.
Despite the gut-churning whitewater sequences (no stunt men for Boorman and his actors – this was pre-Health & Safety) and that ground-breaking male-on-male rape scene, Deliverance is, like Farewell, an elegiac movie, one which shows real feeling for the doomed culture of the Appalachian white trash, soon to be destroyed by the dam, even if they do have slightly peculiar ways of welcoming strangers. That’s Dickey, by the way, at the end, playing the local sheriff. Apparently he drove the cast mad with his drinking and ended up knocking four of Boorman’s teeth out, but he had his sensitive side. Reynolds called him “one of America’s greatest poets,” to which Dickey responded, “I don’t know how many of America’s great poets Mr. Reynolds has read.” Another anecdote has Dickey telling the actors, in his best Tennessee Williams drawl, that “my presence would be most efficacious by its absence,” whereupon Reynolds asked, “Does that mean he’s going or staying?”