(director: John Boorman; screenwriter: James Dickey/from the book by James Dickey; cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond; editor: Tom Priestley; music: Eric Weissberg; cast: Jon Voight (Ed Gentry), Burt Reynolds (Lewis Medlock), Ned Beatty (Bobby Trippe), Ronny Cox (Drew Ballinger), Ed Ramey (Old Mountain Man), Billy Redden (Hillbilly deformed albino), Bill McKinney (Hillbilly rapist), Howard ‘Cowboy’ Coward (Hillbilly, Toothless Man), James Dickey (Sheriff of Aintry); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: R; producer: John Boorman; Warner Brothers; 1972)
“Boy’s adventure story with adult incidents that’s a near masterpiece.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Deliverance is British director John Boorman’s (“Zardoz “/”Point Blank”) boy’s adventure story with adult incidents that’s a near masterpiece. It’s based on the 1970 novel by James Dickey that calls attention to the ecological concerns of the author who fears modern man has lost contact with nature and is mistakenly relying completely on machines for his survival. It’s a splendidly stunning visual spectacle as photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond.

This grim return to nature tale has four Atlanta suburbanite businessmen go on a weekend canoe trip shooting the rapids of the Cahulawassee River (shot on location in rural northern Georgia’s Rabun County by the Chattooga River) that is high up in the Appalachians. In the closing credits we see the wiping out of the Cahulawassee River and the small town of Aintry. During the course of the tale, the pleasure trip will end with a few deaths and every man suffering some kind of physical and psychological injury. The last shots are all haunting images indicating the death of civilization: of coffins in Aintry being unearthed from the cemetery to be relocated, a drowned corpse sticking out of the water with one arm monstrously wrapped around its neck and a nighmarish vision that survivor Jon Voight has of a finger sticking out of the water pointing nowhere–which is the film’s last unforgettable striking image.

Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds), a boisterous, bullying, macho sports enthusiast, survivalist and outdoorsman who has real estate interests, is obsessed that the flooding of an unspoilt wilderness area in preparation for a dam construction project will change the area forever and wants to take his first canoe trip in that pristine setting before it’s too late. He convinces his three other acquaintances to give up a weekend of golf to go with him. Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox) is a stable family man who’s a sales supervisor for a soft drink company and plays the guitar, and is the most decent of the four; Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty) is an obnoxious chubby bachelor insurance salesman; and Ed Gentry (Jon Voight) is pensive, sensitive, married with a son, and runs an art service.

The film’s title alludes to a biblical reference that the water will act to cleanse the sins of the world.

The men are out of their element as they gas up at the outskirts of the mountain and arrogantly arrange to have two cars delivered to Aintry, the town below the mountain, by the mountain men while they go to the mountain top to begin their canoeing trip. The hostility of the mountain men and the city-dwellers amidst this impoverished setting is frightening to behold. It’s only eased somewhat when a deformed albino youngster plays with Drew a banjo duel of bluegrass music called in the film “Dueling Banjos” (the actual title “Feudin’ Banjos” was arranged and played by Eric Weissberg with guitarist Steve Mandell). The whole scene has a chilling effect, as the unadorned beauty of the music is countered by the hostility coming from the two disparate groups, who view each other as aliens.

What follows is the men’s nightmarish adventure as they try to tackle nature. Ed and Bobby, paired off in one canoe, lose their way and in the woods encounter two hillbillies who tie Ed to a tree and one of the men buggers Bobby and makes him oink like a pig. Lewis comes along and uses his compound bow to kill the rapist (Bill McKinney) and scare off his toothless friend before he forces Ed to give him head. The boys then make plans to retreat home to safety but first must scale cliffs, navigate the rapid white water and fight their way out of the mountain with the surviving degenerate hillbilly shooting at them with his rifle before reaching the end of their river’s journey and what Dickey believes is “deliverance.”

Boorman suggests that it’s too late for mankind to be concerned after all the years of indifference to nature; man has forgotten how to survive without tools in the “virgin wilderness” and will some day pay the ultimate price for this loss. To try and do it for sport just doesn’t do the trick; the dark message hints that the machines we rely on will one day fail and we’ll be doomed in a man-made world where everything around us is dead.

Whether you take Boorman’s outcry as gospel or not, this is still a gripping narrative that is well-acted and told in a beautifully visual style. This brutal and poignant tale, with an almost apocalyptic vision of man’s cruelty to each other, is more than an adventure story but a disturbing look at the challenges that face modern mankind to survive from one’s own follies and those of others.