I suspect that James Dickey, who adapted his best-selling novel Deliverance for the screen, and John Boorman, who directed it, are trying to tell us something fairly important by subjecting four sober, settled, middle-class gentlemen in their thirties to a series of wilderness trials that test their courage and cunning in a manner we usually associate with the initiation of adolescents into primitive tribes.
The subject is obviously man’s need (or is it merely nostalgia?) to try himself by placing his life on the line. It is also about the way we have polluted, spiritually and physically, even those regions we like to think are still unspoiled. But it’s hard to say whether the information we are being offered is sufficiently profound to compensate for the tests this brutal but well-made movie imposes on a viewer’s sensibility. I bore up under its unremitting assaults awfully well, I thought, but then that’s what they pay me for. Whether the producers have a right to expect customers to pay them for such abuse is a nice question. After all, Mr. Dickey’s novel, in which the story is distanced by poetic diction and the imagery is verbal rather than garishly visual, is readily available.
That story, as you may know, is straightforward enough. Four prosperous businessmen decide to spend a weekend canoeing a wild river running through essentially untamed country before it all disappears, flooded over by a hydroelectric project already abuilding downstream. Three of them are looking forward to nothing more than a mildly exhilarating camping trip, while their leader. Lewis (Burt Reynolds), hopes for an experience more rigorous, more testing. Even he, however, cannot have expected two of his friends to be abducted and sexually assaulted by a pair of wandering mountain men. Or that he would have to kill to free them and that he would see a third member of his party murdered in revenge. Or that, desperately wounded himself, he would have to send forth his most apt and ambivalent pupil (beautifully played by Jon Voight) to kill the remaining assailant, assuring the deliverance of his friends if not quite the “deliverance” as a man that Lewis had implied might come out of their adventure.
None of this can be satisfactorily understood simply as realism. And the realistic nature of the movie medium—especially as it is employed by a bloodthirsty director like Boorman (Point Blank, Hell in the Pacific)—is bound to distort a tale that is essentially metaphoric. But he does not entirely obscure Dickey’s larger implications, or the writer’s basic ambiguity toward his material that time and again reclaims interest from disgust. Dickey is, for example, anything but blindly admiring of Lewis’s Hemingwayish compulsion to risk his life in order to prove himself. Dickey understands the call of the wild some men feel in their blood, but suggests—especially through the Voight character—that perhaps we are now far enough from the savage state so that we can resist it without loss of self-esteem. (Voight finally does what he must, but finds more guilt than joy in the process.) Dickey’s attitude toward the allegedly purifying effects of a life lived close to nature is similarly clouded It’s beautiful, all right, but obviously it has had anything but an uplifting effect on those who so terribly torment his protagonists. Indeed, everyone the four encounter back in the mountains is in some way malformed. There is, the poet-novelist seems to be saying, no social or psychological deliverance to be found in the currently fashionable belief in the retreat to primitivism. I wish he could have said it in a film more palatable than this one.
Life, August 18, 1972