Deliverance (1972): John Boorman’s Superlative Adventure of Men Vs. Nature, Starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds

John Boorman’s superlative action-adventure, Deliverance, is based on the 1970 novel by James Dickey, who adapted his book to the screen; Dickey also plays the role of the sheriff.

In this nightmarish tale, four businessmen from Atlanta (played by Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox) go on a weekend canoe trip that ends in disaster when they encounter some vicious mountain people

Though shockingly violent (by standards of the 1970s) and bizarrely and awesomely beautiful, “Deliverance” doesn’t deny its audience the engagement in some more serious metaphysical issues, such as Man Vs. Nature and Civilization Vs. Wilderness.

Four guys go back to Nature by trekking to the Appalachian wilderness to canoe, fish and hunt; they want to be in a pure, “unspoiled” environment by urban and professional pressures. Soon, however, what was meant to be and begins as a fun vacation turns into a nightmare of survival, with the men’s civilized values and human skills put to the test. Indeed, each of the personal and moral values (and preconceptions and prejudices, too) is challenged and contested in a brutal, violent way that includes fight as well as rape.

Taking the premise of “fish out of water” to an extreme, Boorman has made a rough, uncompromisingly powerful account of what it means to be a man, friendand a human being.

Boorman and his writer were criticized at the time for showing only (or mostly) the tough, deplorable squalor of the mountain people, and some claimed that the film was exploitative rather than exploratory in terms of its violence and de-emphasized issues of ecology. Author Dickey, who adapted to the screen his first novel, defended the film version.

Early on, Boorman excels in depicting the rapid scenes in a mesmerized way due to cinematography by the brilliant foreign-born lenser Vilmos Zsigmond, who should have been nominated (but was not) for an Oscar.

The film contains astonishing images of the encounters between the two cultures. One of the highlights is the scene with the deformed Albino mountain child. Drew (well played by Ronny Cox) immediately spots the child’s banjo, and then picks up his own and begins to play a few notes. The boy responds with his notes, and soon, the two disparate individuals engage in a contest of sorts that builds momentum until both go at a frenzied pace while bringing out an indigenous mountain song. It’s impossible not to recognize Boorman’s masterful touch in directing this eerie, scary but also graceful and beautiful scene.

“Deliverance” is credited as the film that made the then TV actor Burt Reynolds a major movie star, a position he would hold for another decade or so. The film also features impressive debuts from Ned Beatty and Ronnie Cox.

Directed by John Boorman, then known for his noir masterpiece, “Point Blank,” and later directed “Excalibur” and “Hope and Glory, “Deliverance” was nominated for three Oscars Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Boorman’s taut direction builds the tension and fear to a raging climax, as the men travel way beyond their comfort zone and are forced to face more than they could have ever imagined.

Eric Weissberg’s classic musical theme, “Dueling Banjos,” provides a perfect counterpoint to the action.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 3

Picture, produced by John Boorman.

Director: John Boorman.

Editing: Tom Priestley.

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

In 1972, “The Godfather” won Best Picture, Bob Fosse Best Director, for Cabaret,” which also won editing for David Bretherton.

Cast

Ed (Jon Voight)

Lewis (Burt Reynolds)

Bobby (Ned Beatty)

Drew (Ronny Cox)

Mountain Man (Bill McKinney)

Toothless Man (Herbert “Cowboy” Coward)

Sheriff Bullard (James Dickey)

Old Man (Ed Ramey)

Lonny (Billy Redden)

First Griner (Seamon Glass)

Credits

Running Time: 109 Minutes.

MPAA Rating: R.

Produced and directed by John Boorman.

Screenplay: James Dickey, based on his novel.

Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmund.

Editor: Tom Priestley.

Music: Eric Weissberg.

Art Direction: Fred Harpman.

Special Effects: Marcel Vercoutere.

Costumes: Bucky Rous.