Thursday, July 9, 2009


When I was around 11 years old, I watched Deliverance for the first time. My family was always making references to lines like "squeal like a pig" and "you sure do got a purty mouth" as well as twanging out a banjo lick whenever we took a trip up to North Georgia (incidentally the setting and shooting location of the film). I was curious, so I managed to slip in a copy in our Blockbuster haul one day unnoticed. God, what a mistake.

As I watched the doomed canoeing excursion of four Atlanta boys paddling down a river before the construction of a new dam destroyed it forever, I was enraptured, not in interest or analysis but horror. Granted, it was my fault that I watched this movie at too young an age, but my word it did a number on me. I've never used the "squeal like a pig" line since, though I admit I still hum "Dueling Banjos" when the time calls for it. The experience shook me so thoroughly that I've never watched the film again, even when I felt I was old enough to take it, until today when my film professor played it. While I still felt pangs of fear, I quickly learned that not only was I old enough to properly handle the film -- and it barely affected me this time around, of course -- but I could also see it for what it is: a Vietnam movie.

Upon the film's release in 1972, America was on the verge of a full troop removal in Vietnam and films about the war were still anathema and box office poison. Not until the end of the decade did major films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now get releases, and it took nearly an additional decade for the next wave (Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, Platoon) arrive. Ergo, director John Boorman and writer James Dickey (adapting his own novel) substituted the jungle with the forest, and Vietnamese peasants with hillfolk farmers.

Into this world come four city boys: Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the man's man who organizes the trip ostensibly to get in touch with nature; Ed (Jon Voight), who looks up to Lewis; Drew (Ronny Cox), the friendliest member of the group; and Bobby (Ned Beatty), an insurance salesman with the least ties to the others. In an opening voiceover, Lewis vehemently argues for the trip, as the dam will "rape this land." He expresses a hatred for the construction company for threatening to destroy the beauty of the land and of forcing the inhabitants in the valley that will become a lake when the river is diverted. Yet he and the others express a disdain for the locals from the start; Bobby in particular openly mocks a gas station attendant while Lewis condescends to the men he pays to drive their cars down to the mouth of the river. Only Drew is polite and affable with the natives, even playing that now-legendary tune with a talented inbred boy.

As their journey down the river unfolds, we see the Vietnam metaphor expand. This group of white men have brought their ideals and beliefs into a world so near yet so alien to them, and they mock, demean and attack these natives for their perceived inferiority. Slowly, they begin to fill soldier archetypes: Bobby is the slightly craven but vocally outspoken one, the type who walks around 'Nam, or France, or the islands of the Pacific espousing his low opinions of his surroundings. Eventually that abrasiveness costs him dearly, in that infamous scene.

Bobby's rape, diluted substantially through nearly four decades' worth of parody, nevertheless retains its visceral weight. A number of my classmates mentioned that their fathers (no moms were mentioned) thought the film was hilarious, though I was relieved that these students all expressed a disbelief in their parents' opinions once it was finished. Two filthy, toothless hillbillies approach Ed and Bobby from out of the woods when the pair stops on the river bank for a rest, demanding to know what they're doing there. Bobby, always so scathing, realizes that they're wandering into danger and tries to diffuse the situation, but he only makes it worse when he stammers out a reference to the men possibly wanting to protect a moonshine still. Suddenly, enraged, the men trap Ed and Bobby and violate the latter while we see (and mainly hear) the actions from Ed's point of view. When Lewis comes to the rescue and murders Bobby's rapist, the rest slip into their roles fully.

The men agree to bury the affair (literally), and only Drew objects. Playing the role of the idealistic young private reminiscent of the Michael J. Fox character in Casualties of War or the Charlie Sheen character in Platoon, Drew believes that they must report Bobby's assault and their murder, rightly citing it as justifiable homicide. But Lewis brings up going to a trail by jury in this town of close-knit farmers, while Bobby pleads with them, "I don't want this getting around." So, they bury the attacker and attempt to make it to the end of the rapids.

Soon after they depart, however, Drew suddenly tumbles out of the canoe, and Lewis immediately shouts that he's been shot. The survivors barely make it through a set of rapids and find themselves trapped by the supposed shooter. Lewis is incapacitated with a compound fracture, so Ed must climb the cliff to dispatch the attacker. Earlier in the film, Ed attempted to shoot a deer with his bow and arrow but he couldn't bring himself to do it, and he has a similar problem when he spots a shooter overlooking their tipped canoe. The macho posturing giving way to an inability to kill is a standard trope of war films, but it's the implication of Ed's murder that draws the biggest parallels to Vietnam.

He climbed the rock face to exact revenge for his dead friend and presumed that this man was the same who helped the rapist corner him and Bobby, yet the man he kills has teeth, unlike the second rapist. This is a clear microcosm of so many "reprisals" targeting innocent Vietnamese villages, most notoriously the My Lai Massacre. His doubt only exacerbates his feelings of guilt and revulsion at taking a life.

Eventually, the three surviving pals make it to shore, agree upon a story to sell the cops and head to the hospital. The local sheriff knows something is up and that the story doesn't check out, but he has nothing to charge them with, so he reluctantly lets them go. While Lewis remains behind to continue recuperating -- and even possibly lose his leg -- Ed and Bobby bid farewell. As a goodbye, Bobby merely tells Ed, "I don't think I'll be seeing you anytime soon," a final acknowledgment of their agreement never to speak of what happened.

The journey down the Georgia river, in retrospect, calls to mind Capt. Willard's trip upstream in Apocalypse Now: in that film, Willard knew he was heading into danger, while these men assumed they were just going to have some fun. Where Willard had the option of turning around, these four had to keep going until they emerged (hopefully) alive. Also, that shot of a hand rising from the river is an obvious nod to horror pictures, but it also made me think of Willard rising from the lake to confront Kurtz. Deliverance is not a perfect film; it tries to cram a lot into a modest length and occasionally some stuff just won't fit nicely. However, it's a fascinating allegory for the Vietnam conflict and indeed for the American mindset of all our subsequent conflicts.

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