Saturday, September 13, 2008


In the fall of 1984, I took a course called Film Interpretation (ENGL 210) at Western Michigan University. It was a four-credit course, and part of my English minor course of study. Before you begin to think that it was a blowoff course, you need to understand something. It changed my life, and remains to this day the course I use most in my daily life. In this class, I not only had to watch the movies but had to write about them extensively. I learned technical terms like rack focus and non-musical sound bridge. I learned what each member of the credited crew list does. And I had to identify and write about themes and techniques presented throughout some of the greatest movies of all time. Included in the film list were Citizen Kane, Meet John Doe, Cheyenne Autumn, The Quiet Man, It's a Wonderful Life, The Seventh Seal, The Third Man, The 39 Steps, and Deliverance.

If that last choice seems odd, it did to me the time. Deliverance was one of only three color films we saw (Cheyenne Autumn and The Quiet Man being the others) and I wondered before the projector started rolling why it was among the classics. My mother and stepfather had gone to see it back when it was released in theaters in 1972, and I still remember them talking about the foul language and how it wasn't necessary, but that didn't stop them from buying the soundtrack, complete with the song, "Duelling Banjos," riffs from which are still used to this day when certain subjects are brought up.

As I watched the film, I was transfixed. Deliverance begins as a buddy film, with four Atlanta business men taking a canoe trip on the Cahulawassee River. The Cahulawassee is about to be dammed by a power company, which will back up the waters to form a lake. Entire towns will be moved en masse and the valley will cease to exist. Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds, in his breakout role) is the leader of the pack, literally defining macho for a generation. Jon Voight plays his second banana, Ed, an art director who is bored with his life and family. Drew (Ronny Cox) and Bobby (Ned Beatty) are their hangers-on who come along for kicks.




The canoe trip begins well enough, with the foursome encountering a cross-section of Appalachia. As they fuel up their cars at a filling station, Drew initiates a jam session with a local albino boy, playing his guitar matched with the boy's home-strung banjo. the duet increases in complexity and speed until Drew finds himself outmatched by the boy. The city and country cultures mix seemlessly until Drew concedes the match and offers the boy his hand in congratulations. The boy turns his head away, ignoring the gesture, to which Bobby cruelly and dismissively responds, "Give him a few bucks."

As they make their way down the river, the neophyte canoers meet and master some minor white water, bolstering their confidence in the task ahead. They make camp, bonding over whiskey and a fish that Lewis spears with his bow. This marks the end of the buddy movie, as the next day Ed and Bobby pull up on shore to rest. They encounter two mountain men, who take them captive and rape Bobby. This is the salacious part of the movie that popular culture always refers to as the "Squeal like a pig" scene. It's too bad our culture wasn't a bit more mature, because the true horror of the violence justifies Lewis' actions as he fires an arrow into the back of the rapist as he is about to turn his gun on Ed, who has a similar fate awaiting him with the other man. As the rapist dies slowly and the other man gets chased off into the woods, the foursome has to decide what to do. This is the heart of the film, not the "Squeal" scene. The men argue about the results of their actions, and whether or not they should even report the killing. As they finally decide to bury the man upstream where no one will ever find him, their fates are sealed. After the burial scene, in which Drew, the sole vote for turning themselves in, digs like a frenzied animal (in direct proportion to the humanity of his argument) the four men make haste to get off the river as quickly as possible and to put the trip behind them.

As they approach some fast water, Drew is shot in the head and falls into the water. The canoes are both dumped in the rapids and Lewis is severely injured with a compound fracture of his right femur. Bobby and Ed get themselves and Lewis to shore and hunker down in a gorge with sheer cliff walls. When night falls, Ed scales the cliff face to go after the shooter. He just makes it to the top where he falls asleep. Waking at first light, Ed sees a mountain man with a rifle trudging through the forest. He takes aim with his bow and looses an arrow into the throat of the man, but the tree he is resting on gives way and he falls on one of his own arrows, which impales him through the side. He pulls the arrow through and packs the wound with his own clothing. He then lowers the body down to the river below, and the three surviving men sink another body and make their way home.

Lewis has almost died in the night and needs medical attention immediately. They begin their hurried trip downriver, when they encounter Drew's body, his arm savagely twisted behind his own neck in a most unnatural angle. They decide to sink Drew's body into the river too, and quickly get their stories straight as they approach their destination. They get to the town where their cars were left, and get to the hospital. Their story almost doesn't hold up with the local sheriff, but the men escape, hearty, but not necessarily whole. The last thing we see is Ed's nightmare of bodies rising to the surface of the new lake.

Deliverance is one of those rare movies that is written by the same man who wrote the novel upon which it is based, James Dickey. Dickey was known to me as a poet when I saw the movie, but not as a novelist. After seeing Deliverance, I kept my eye out for the book at garage sales. Sure enough, I found a copy for a dime and I've read it dog-eared over the last 20 years or so. The prose is pretty nice:

"Movies and pictures of Indians on calendars gave me a general idea of what
to do, and I waved the paddle slowly through the water, down and along the left
side of the canoe. The nose with Drew in it--I saw now that I was moving
him to one side or the other, to turn the canoe, was going to be a big part of
the problem--swung heavily out toward midstream, where the current began to pick us up and move it a little faster. The sensation of pure riding could not have
been greater though we were doing not much more than drifting, bogged with the
weight of the gear, and with uncertainty."

That's some good stuff, right there. The book, as you might imagine, fills in all of the gaps left behind by a two-hour screenplay. The first chapter takes you behind the motivations for taking the trip in the first place, which admittedly, the dialogue of the film takes care of less-than-adequately. The reader finds out Ed's last name (Gentry), for example, which is never mentioned in the movie at all.

But, this is one time when seeing the movie will not spoil the book. In fact, I recommend seeing the movie first and then reading the book. There are hardly any inconsistencies between the two ("Squeal like a pig" is not in the book), and the cinematography of the canoe trip adds to the mind's eye when reading about it. Since James Dickey wrote both the movie and the book, you can consider the movie sort of a condensed finished draft with a little added material.

1 comment:

KC Ryan said...

B-dang, dang, dang...

The first three notes of Dueling Banjos.

This is one twisted film - and I mean that in the best way possible. Truly a classic of cinema.

Though one which, I think, one has to have lived a little to appreciate.