“Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything.” –Burt Reynolds, “Deliverance”
Dueling banjos? Dueling heroes? Dueling villains? Dueling themes? Dueling scenery? One can enjoy John Boorman’s 1972 realization of James Dickey’s screenplay and novel on any number of levels, not the least of which is the pure action and adventure. It’s nice to see the movie again in its Fourtieth-Anniversay Edition Blu-ray Book, the movie’s often spectacular wilderness scenery being the major beneficiary of the high-definition processing.
The story about four city boys from Atlanta, Georgia, who decide to go canoeing in the deep woods made stars of its four leads. Television audiences might have already known Burt Reynolds–playing the expedition leader, the macho Lewis Medlock–but “Deliverance” put him in the big time. Jon Voight, playing the mild-mannered Ed Gentry, had already done “Midnight Cowboy,” but this one cemented his fame. Ronny Cox as Drew Ballinger, the guitar-playing conscience of the group, had just that year begun his career with several TV things. And for Ned Beatty as the insurance salesman Bobby Trippe, it was his very first acting job. Now, practically every filmgoer in America is familiar with the four names.
“Deliverance” is a movie of contrasts, the primary one emphasizing the differences between modern Man, with his impulse to change things, and primal Nature, with its pristine beauty. Man chews up the landscape, as symbolized by the bulldozers and earth movers we see at the beginning, and spits it out. The four city slickers, eager to commune with what they view as the underlying structure of the universe, are ironic emblems of the modern world’s need to destroy for its own good. Despite their being a part of the root problem, they’re out to prove their understanding of the wild by taming a river, a river the state is about to dam up and spoil forever. In the process, they figure to learn more about themselves and their ability to cope with the best (and the worst) the world has to offer. Little do they know just how much they are about to learn.
At its most fundamental level “Deliverance” is a story of survival, but it’s not just about surviving the hazards of the wilderness; it’s about surviving one’s own heart of darkness, about confronting one’s basest needs and accepting or rejecting them.
The movie establishes its essential premise early on with the shots of steam shovels gouging out the earth. Then the friends stop for gas on the way to the river, and Drew starts up a string-plucking contest with a boy (Billy Redden), a banjo savant, on the porch of a backwoods house. This friendly rivalry prepares us for the far-more-hostile confrontation the men have in short order with a pair of local hunters. Incidentally, this famous tune in the film called “Duelling Banjos” is not actually played on two banjos at all but on a banjo and a guitar, performed behind the scene by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel. Also, a trivia note about the boy, Billy Redden. The director says he chose him for his unusual appearance, but the boy had never been in a movie before and he couldn’t play the banjo. So they found another boy who could play the instrument and hid him behind Redden with just his arm and hand showing for the banjo fingering. So much for the not-so-magical magic of movies. Redden did not appear in another film for over thirty years until Tim Burton found him doing dishes in a Georgia restaurant and hired him to play a banjo man in “Big Fish” (2003). It must have revived his film career because I see Redden also played a banjo man in the film “Outrage: Born in Terror” (2009).
Anyway, once the four buddies have gassed up their cars, they head for the river, ready to face the elements with two canoes, a pup tent, and a couple of bows and arrows. (They pay another pair of fellows they meet at the gas station to follow them and drive their cars to their eventual destination downriver.)
Next, we experience a little excitement as the fellows try to negotiate the river rapids, and then the major conflict transpires. Stopping on shore for a moment, Ed and Bobby encounter a couple of genetically challenged mountain men (played by the excellent Bill McKinney and Herbert “Cowboy” Coward), an encounter that leads to the movie’s most dramatic and contentious scene. Here, the director tells us in his commentary he wanted the heroes to represent contemporary, enlightened humankind and the hillbillies to represent primordial nature, the malevolent forces of darkness. Figuratively speaking, then, if modern Man is going to rape Nature, well, it seems inevitable that….
From here on out, a simple boating adventure becomes a complex story of existence, with each of the buddies having to reach deep within himself to find a new meaning for resourcefulness and courage. “Deliverance” is at once a tale of external hardship and endurance and internal fortitude and integrity. Moreover, director Boorman has the audacity to pace the film not at the breakneck speed of today’s action flicks but a more relaxed tempo, at least at the start, allowing himself time to develop the characters and set up the clashes. In this way, Boorman actually heightens the tension and suspense by letting these elements evolve naturally and logically. It’s true that he throws in perhaps a bit too much anticlimactic falling action, but it, too, works to introduce properly the film’s memorable closing shots.
Further trivia notes, thanks to John Eastman in “Retakes” (Ballantine Books, New York, 1989): “Filmed summer 1971; Georgia, Tallulah Falls, Chattooga River. Burt Reynolds, who begged for the part of Lewis, said that the wild river in northern Georgia almost killed him and the other actors at least ten times. Author James Dickey (who also played the sheriff) gave Reynolds a copy of Eugen Herrigel’s “Zen in the Art of Archery” to read, and Reynolds marveled that as long as he stayed in character, his canoe seemingly couldn’t tip over and his arrows invariably went straight. He and Jon Voight both did many of their own stunts. …hazardous footing on the cliffs and slopes, where director John Boorman set up his cameras, challenged crew as well as cast, but no serious injuries occurred. All dialogue and sound effects were looped (i.e., dubbed later in the studio), while Boorman’s Moog Synthesizer created the roar of the river.”
The Warner engineers now use a dual-layer BD50 to preserve the movie in its theatrical ratio, 2.40:1, and the additional extras. The PQ looks OK, although the image quality remains fairly soft and a little dark. Remember, the film comprises primarily location shooting in the wild, much of it done in single takes under natural lighting condictions, so, overall, Vilmos Zsigmond’s excellent cinematography suffers a bit from being perhaps a little too “naturalistic.” The screen is clean of age marks, and there is only a light film grain in evidence. Colors are lifelike, to be sure, but expect a slight veiling given the lighting conditions. Moreover, the definition varies, and while it is relatively soft most of the time, it is also occasionally wonderfully sharp. Let’s just say the picture looks realistic enough without being as colorful or sharp as many people would like.
As John Eastman mentions, the filmmakers later dubbed the sound effects and dialogue in the studio, which may explain why some of the audio seems a tad nasal and hollow. However, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 clarifies the sound somewhat. The deepest bass makes itself heard early on, a dynamite blast at a construction site showing up impressively, but the 5.1 soundtrack has little to do beyond reproducing a touch of musical bloom and a few environmental noises in the surrounds.
The collection of extras on this Forthieth Annversary Blu-ray Book Edition contains all of the items from the prevous Blu-ray disc, plus one important addition. Things begin with director John Boorman’s commentary track, for which I have nothing but praise. It’s a pleasant and informative behind-the-scenes study of the film, the filmmakers, and the various messages involved in the storytelling. Then we get a new 2012 featurette “Deliverance: The Cast Looks Back,” in which the four stars–John Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox–sit around and reminesce about making the film. It’s in high-definition widescreen.
After that, we get a four-part retrospective, made in standard definition in 2007. “The Beginning,” sixteen minutes, takes a historical look at the novel and its adaptation to the screen, with comments from the author’s son, the director, and the stars. “The Journey,” thirteen minutes, looks at the early stages of filming, including the “Duelling Banjos” scene. “Betraying the River,” fourteen minutes, shows us the making of the film’s controversial, groundbreaking, emotion-packed rape scene. And “Delivered,” ten minutes, takes a look back on the completion of the film, on its impact in theaters, and on where the idea for the shocking ending came from. Finally, we get a ten-minute vintage featurette, “The Dangerous World of Deliverance,” which looks and sounds suspiciously like an extension of the original trailer.
Things wrap up with thirty scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired. And because this is a Blu-ray Book, the disc comes handsomely packaged in a hardbound edition with forty-eight pages of text and pictures.
You seldom find an action adventure with as many thoughtful subtexts as “Deliverance.” In high def, it obviously looks and sounds better than ever, although because of the source material it doesn’t reach the videophile level of many other films. At the risk of appearing glib, though, “Deliverance” delivers the goods, in the very best sense.