“We’re gonna rape this whole goddamn landscape. We’re gonna rape it!”
Those are among the first words we hear in Deliverance, spoken by Burt Reynolds’ Lewis, an outdoorsman bemoaning the degradation that suburban sprawl has wrought upon the wilderness where he likes to spend his weekends. He’s particularly upset about the construction of a hydroelectric dam, which will flood the pristine river valley that he and three other Atlanta men are off to explore by canoe for the weekend. As the movie proceeds, what’s being raped—and who’s doing the raping—will be in flux, metaphorically and literally.
And so the film’s most notorious moment—the sexual assault of insurance salesman Bobby (Ned Beatty) by a “mountain man”—is not just an instance of shock cinema. It’s a graphic distillation of the wider violence that’s swirling about (as well as ground zero for the film’s deconstruction of masculinity.) Bobby is forced to squeal like a pig in that scene, but earlier—in his dismissive condescension to the locals they encounter at a gas station—he makes it clear he considers them to be the equivalent of barn animals. To Bobby’s mind, they exist simply to assist him in his consumer appropriation of the natural world (for example, transport the vacationers’ cars to a convenient, down-river pickup point). Indeed, all four men—even Lewis, who sports a sleek, waterproof vest and a compass watch—have a commercial relationship with the wild. They’re there to take, not give anything back. The residents of the valley may not exactly be environmentalists, but at least they have a grudging respect for the wilderness around them, warning these visitors that the river isn’t to be taken lightly.
When Bobby, Lewis, Ed (Jon Voight), and Drew (Ronny Cox) set off on that river, it seems as if the class conflict may be left behind. Better to forget about the awkwardness and instead remember the pleasant, “Dueling Banjos” duet Drew shared with a boy on the porch of the gas station (perhaps the film’s second-most-famous sequence). But then, while floating down the river, they see that boy again on a rickety bridge and he returns Drew’s smile and wave with a blank stare. Out on the river, it’s even clearer they don’t belong here.
Directed by John Boorman and adapted by James Dickey from his own novel, Deliverance indulges in an idyllic section of natural beauty, with the men in awe at the wonders around them and exhilarated by their successful navigation of a series of rapids. That night they camp—Bobby, notably, is the one to make sexual jokes around the fire—and wake up to a pristine forest morning. Ed tiptoes out of camp early with his bow to do some hunting, but when he comes face to face with a deer, his hand trembles so badly that his errant arrow falls limply to the forest floor.
The film’s most notorious moment is a graphic distillation of the wider violence that’s swirling about (as well as ground zero for the deconstruction of masculinity.)
Voight will go on to become the conflicted conscience of the group, but it’s Reynolds, as the capable Lewis, who is doing the most interesting work here. While cocky and confident, there’s none of the smarminess that would come to define his Smokey and the Bandit years. Lewis isn’t putting on an act; he’s just supremely sure of his abilities in the wild. That’s why, at one point, he stands in a canoe like a conqueror (which brings to mind the fact that Aguirre, the Wrath of God, another tale of men undone by nature, came out in the same year as Deliverance). Lewis is the alpha male in the group, which Reynolds plays at just the right volume. And he offers shades. On that first morning, Ed goes to wake Lewis under his lean-to and finds him curled up, softly whimpering like a helpless baby (a premonition of how he’ll finish the journey).
I won’t give those details away, except to say that Deliverance goes on to encompass a number of dead bodies. Unlike most mainstream American films, death and dying is depicted in all its horror here: the process is slow and agonizing, the bodies are gruesome to look at, and they have a weight that must be dealt with. During one frantic scene, in which a shallow grave is being dug, Boorman frames the victim’s head in the foreground of the frame, forcing us to confront the corporeal reality of the action at hand.
All of this death complicates things, until the lines between victims and perpetrators begins to blur. As Deliverance proceeds, those of us in the audience who are comfortable consumers may begin to wonder if we’ve been watching the movie through our own blinkered, suburban stares. Rather than the aggressors, might these “hillbillies” instead be stand-ins for nature? And if so, who is really doing the raping? Deliverance is a harsh film asking harsh questions, less a thrilling adventure movie than an ecological, existential nightmare.