CNN recently reported that the movie Deliverance has reached its 40th anniversary.
Like a lot of people, I suppose, I’ve always found Deliverance to be a particularly disturbing movie. Hearing Ronnie Cox’s observation that many may have missed the artistic essence of the movie, I decided to read the novel by James Dickey the film was based on. Time magazine selected it as one of the 100 best novels published since 1923 (the year Time began publication), but after reading a couple of negative reviews I was prepared to dislike the book. Instead I found the book an absorbing and compelling story. I then watched the movie again with Director John Boorman’s commentary on (the 35th anniversary DVD edition), and found it be just as powerful and disturbing as I had remembered. Still, I have a couple of reservations about this story. Warning: spoilers ahead.
Though time has not diminished the visceral power of this film, this story has served to reinforce negative stereotypes of life in the South. Boorman decided to film Deliverance in Rabun County, Georgia, as he thought it well represented Dickey’s fictionalized north Georgia location. I’m sympathetic to the view expressed by Stanley Butch Darnell, Chairman of the Rabun County Commission, who felt that Deliverance showed the people of Rabun County to be “ignorant, backward, scary, deviant redneck hillbillies and that stuck with us through all these years.” In the director’s commentary, Boorman discussed his efforts to film the locals as they lived. At one point the camera peers through a window to see an old woman and a young girl living in poverty, and Boorman makes a point of saying how he this was filmed without any kind of staging. An effective shot, to be sure, but how representative is it really? I looked up statistics for Rabun County, Georgia, from the 1970 census, which was taken just about the time Dickey’s novel was published. The 1970 census shows that Rabun County ranked low in terms of educational attainment. At a time when just over half of all adults in the United States had graduated from high school, less than 30 percent of people living in Rabun County had completed high school. Still, just over 20 percent of Rabun County residents were living below the poverty line, which put it at the about the 25th percentile of counties in terms of poverty. Put another way, while poverty was certainly a problem in Rabun County, the great majority of its residents were not living in poverty in 1970.
As an aside, the CNN piece is misleading in its own way, as well. Showing multi-million dollar homes and upscale art galleries gives the impression that Rabun County has been completely transformed into a haven for the wealthy since the days of Deliverance, but this isn’t supported by the numbers, either. According to the most recent American Community Survey data, 80.5% of Rabun County residents have at least a high school diploma (the national average is 85%) and 23.2 % of families with children live in poverty (as compared to 15.7% nationally). So while Rabun County has made great strides in terms of educational attainment, it still struggles with poverty, not to mention that only 2.1% of county residents make more than $100,000. I guess my point here is that selective use of imagery inevitably provides a distorted portrait of an area, be it an exaggeration of poverty as in Deliverance, or an exaggeration of affluence as in the CNN piece above.
If Deliverance had simply portrayed the rural folk as living in squalor and suspicious of outsiders, it would be easier to disregard the stereotypes. Dickey’s story, however, ventures into far darker, more menacing territory. As Boorman notes in the director’s commentary, Dickey pulled him aside and told him that everything in the story had actually happened to him. Boorman, who generally found Dickey to be difficult, didn’t believe his story. The two repeatedly clashed as filming got underway and Dickey apparently knocked out some of Boorman’s teeth. Despite their antagonism, Dickey appeared as the sheriff at the end of the film. Whether or not Dickey was raped by mountain men, he used this violent act as part of a broader symbolism of “the malevolent forces of Nature,” to use Boorman’s words.
In Dickey’s story, the suburbanites, with the exception of Lewis (played by Burt Reynolds in the movie) have lost their connection with Nature. Rather than being “Mother Nature,” in Dickey’s writing Nature is masculine, and Dickey equates Nature with raw sexual power–and the sexual imagery, particularly homoerotic imagery, is pretty thick in Dickey’s novel. The narrator, Ed (played by Jon Voigt in the movie) is much more passionate in his description of Lewis’s muscles than he is in describing sex with his wife. The four suburbanites who take canoes down the river have been emasculated by their safe, comfortable lives and do not understand the true power of the river. Interesting to note that the movie spends less time on their backstories than the trailer for Deliverance.
In Dickey’s eyes, the mountain men have not lost their connection with Nature, so in the logic of the story, the mountain men carry out the wrath of Nature through rape. To me, it’s at this point that the logic of the story gets particularly murky. I mean, the most demeaning aspect of the stereotypes of the mountain folk is that they’re all inbred. Perhaps someone with more developed skills in literary analysis can correct me here, but the way I read Dickey is:
Ed becomes more connected to Nature as the journey progresses. Once Lewis is injured, Ed finds his inner mountain man. He puts himself in the mind of the surviving mountain man (the one who had been about to force Ed to perform oral sex before being interrupted by Lewis’s arrow), figures out where he will attack next, and scales a sheer rock face to confront him. Ed does the mountain man in with an arrow, so where we once had dueling banjos we now have dueling symbols of phallic penetration.
One last note: this isn’t meant to be a review. My analysis doesn’t do justice to an excellent book and its powerful film adaptation. Instead, I’ve tried to articulate a couple of reservations I have about a story I’ve long found disturbing. But then again, that was probably the intention of James Dickey, as well as John Boorman. They certainly succeeded in creating works that stay with you long after you have experienced them.