Friday, September 10, 2010

Film Friday: Deliverance (1972)

At first blush, Deliverance is just the story of four guys who go on a river rafting trip that goes horribly wrong. . . kind of the 1970s version of the modern hillbilly-cannibal slasher flick. But if you dig deeper, you realize that it’s actually a social commentary movie that comments on the changing relationship between modern man and nature. It’s also the movie that solidified two ultra-negative stereotypes that have come to dominate how many Americans see each other today: hicks and elitists.

** spoiler alert **

Based on the 1970 novel Deliverance by James Dickey, the John Boorman directed film is the story of four Atlanta businessmen (Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty and Jon Voight), who go rafting on the fictional Cahulawassee River in rural Georgia. The river is being dammed and will soon disappear, taking several communities with it. As they start down the river, they encounter a group of people who live in backwoods conditions. Toothless, dirty, and with little understanding of the world beyond 1930, these people become the enemy for the four men as they fight for their own survival.

Hillbillies v. Elitists

There has always been a tension between city folk and country folk. But until Deliverance, that tension wasn’t really as nasty as it’s become. Consider the portrayal of country folk in films like The Grapes of Wrath, Sergeant York or any number of films about the American South. Country folk were seen as simple, yet decent people, with a few bad apples in their midsts. At the same time, city folk were typically seen as a little lost and yearning to return to the simpler life.

When told that his character "Toothless Bob" would need to rape another man, Herbert "Cowboy" Coward (with the shotgun) told the director: "I done worse."

Deliverance changed all of that when it create highly negative stereotypes for both groups. Instead of yearning to reconnect with the land, the four Atlanta businessmen are seen as condescending elitists who think they have the right to mistreat and ridicule the hillbillies. They see the hillbillies as a subspecies of humanity and they are happy to let them know it. Thus, Reynolds goes so far as to insult these people to their faces, showing that he believes he can act with impunity to these inferior creatures. Beatty acts similarly, particularly pointing out their inbreeding, though he is more cowardly and thus talks about them only when he thinks he is protected by the group. Cox does not insult them intentionally, but he shows his condescension in the way he treats all of the hillbillies like children and is shocked when they demonstrate competence. Only Voight treats them as human beings. From this comes the stereotype that urbanites are cowardly and condescending types who see themselves as superior to ruralites and who feel they have the right to mistreat these people and impose their will on them. This has become a widely held stereotype in rural circles.

On the other hand, Dickey/Boorman’s hillbillies are dirty, inbred, toothless people who favor banjos, stills, shotguns and sodomy. This stereotype has easily overtaken the more noble view presented in the past. Indeed, the line “I'm gonna make you squeal like a pig. Weeeeeeee!” has become so infamous with urbanites that all you need to say is “squeal like a pig boy” and people who have never heard of this movie know exactly what you mean.

Neither the hillbilly nor the urbanite stereotype is generally accurate, though there are people who fall into these categories (I’ve met both kinds). Nevertheless, these stereotypes have become so strongly ingrained in the American consciousness that people genuinely believe this is what they will find in the other, alien environment, i.e. small town or big city America. Indeed, the relationship between rural and urban America has probably never been worse than it is today, and these two stereotypes play prominently in explaining why that is. Deliverance is the movie that solidified these stereotypes.

Modern Man v. Nature

But there is more to Deliverance than sodomizing hillbillies. At its core, Deliverance is a movie about how these four distinct modern men handle their ordeal. And therein lies the social criticism and the real interest in the movie.

Three of the men represent distinct archetypes of the modern city-dwelling male. Burt Reynolds represents the throwback. He’s a man who worships sports, hunting and all things physical. He longs for the challenges presented by nature because they appeal to his primitive nature, and he disdains the modern world. He is aggressive, violent and acts without thinking. Ronny Cox is the polar opposite of Reynolds. He represents the modern intellectual. He can see all sides of every issue and is paralyzed by his inability to settle on a course of action. In the civilized world, he probably holds significant power, but his skills at handling theory count for nothing in the wild. Ned Beatty represents what happens when man loses touch with the physical world. He is fat and soft, weak and cowardly. His total surrender to modern convenience has made him helpless. Finally, Jon Voight, the fourth, represents the bridge between them. He is physically capable without being the beast that Reynolds is. He is smart, but in a real world sense rather than Cox’s theoretical sense. And he enjoys the creature comforts, though he has not become dependent on them as Beatty has.

What they endure becomes a test of these archetypes, a test which all but Voight fail. Reynolds fails the test because his aggression brings on all of their problems. He alienates everyone they encounter, foreclosing any chance of getting help from the locals and fostering the suspicion that isolates the four. Moreover, his aggressive disdain for the weak Beatty makes teamwork impossible, leading to the two canoes splitting up, which makes them vulnerable to being attacked. Beatty collapses in a pool of his own helplessness and loses his manhood as the self-emasculated Beatty’s fate is to be sodomized by the hillbillies. Cox becomes paralyzed with indecision because he can’t pull his head out of the world of theory long enough to come to grips with the real world. His rather symbolic fate is to die when his head disappears beneath the water. Only Voight is capable of rising to the challenge.

And within this formula, Dickey lodges several criticisms. First, he argues that the throwbacks are the cause of our problems because of their mindless aggression. . . an argument made by elitists today. But he also argues that the intellectuals cannot help us because they can’t come to any conclusions on real world issues. . . an argument made by middle-Americans today. He also argues that modern humans are becoming so dependent on the comforts of the modern world that they would simply die if left in nature. . . an oft-repeated criticism that has become more and more valid as obesity rates rise and reliance on the internet takes off. And in the end, he tells us that the solution is to be as Jon Voight -- stay in touch with our physical natures but don’t let them dominate us, use our minds but don’t lose touch with the real world for some theoretical existence, and enjoy the comforts of the modern world but don’t become dependent on its conveniences.

These are themes that touch a nerve in modern America, where we are quickly losing touch with nature and what it takes to survive away from our modern conveniences. This is why the past forty years have seen concerns about the Alan Alda-ing of America, why ridiculous camps have appeared for males to “rediscover” their primitive side, and why such an animosity has arisen between city dwellers and country folks. We are living in a moment where our relationship to the natural world around us is changing significantly and it’s not clear yet how it’s all going to turn out.

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Ed said...

I really like this movie. I'm not sure why, but I do. Interesting review. I hadn't thought about it, but you're right that the stereotype of "country folk" changed after this movie. All the old movies I can think of showed them as humble and decent. This is the first one I can think of where they were written as monsters.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I enjoy it too. I think it's a really good movie with a very interesting story and a lot to think about. For example, you never do find out if Ronny Cox gets shot or just drowns, yet that's what sets them off hunting the hillbillies.

On the stereotype, when I wrote this, I racked my brains to think of anything similar that came out before this and I couldn't find anything. The closest was something like the racist small town in the South in films like "In The Heat Of The Night." But even they are shown as relatively sophisticated and the problems are caused by a handful of bad apples. This is the first time you see a really, truly negative portrayal.

And don't forget, this urbanites aren't shown positively either.

CrispyRice said...

Interesting review, Andrew! It happens that we watched this recently again, inspired by the fact the we did a lot of kayaking this summer, LOL.

I found myself thinking that I can't really blame any of them for their actions ultimately. I can't blame Burt Reynolds for shooting the hillbilly attacking his friends, and then I can't blame them for not taking the body to town. ("Here, sorry we killed your cousin! But it was self-defense." Yeah right.)

They definitely could've been kinder to the local people when they first met them, but some snide comments don't justify attacking someone.

But in light of your review, though, I can't help but wonder how much of my thinking is formed by exactly those stereotypes, though. My automatic assumption is that the city-folk couldn't possibly get a fair shake in a small, backwoods town. Hmmm.

Unknown said...

Ever since I moved to rural Caliente from urban San Francisco, I've been fighting with myself. LOL

If they ever remake the movie, they can kill two birds with one stone. Correct the lack of an African-American, and type-cast Barack Obama in the wannabe intellectual-to-the-point-of-self-destruction Cox part.

rlaWTX said...

I've never seen the movie. I have heard about it for years though (and LOVE Dueling Banjos).

This review has, for the first time ever, made me mildly interested in seeing it.

I have a cousin (female) who had netflixed it and when a first date came over just tossed in the movie on top - Deliverance. Oops. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, That's a good question. I don't know that you could get a fair trial there either, but odds are the trial would get moved.

I think the blame question actually goes a little deeper. Once you've started down this path, yes, they act the smart way. But from a non-legal but practical sense, I think they did cause their own problems.

Keep in mind that their own nastiness to the hillbillies created the adversarial relationship in their heads where they saw all of the hillbillies as the enemy. It's highly unlikely that everyone in town would have been part of the illegal still and even more unlikely that they would have supported the sodomizers. But by lumping ALL of them into the same group, the urbanites turn them all into enemies and they find themselves at war with the whole community -- whether the community knows it or not.

Remember that we never know if anyone actually shoots at Cox -- the urbanites just assume the hillbillies shot him. Also the only reason (as far as we know) that the one hillbilly shot at Voight was that he shot first. It's possible (likely) that the urbanites instigated all of this because of their paranoia -- which was fed by their attitude toward "the locals."

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Now that you've moved to Caliente, you can probably testify that the stereotype is hardly accurate for most people!

I think remaking this with Democrats in the boat would be a great idea!

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I actually really like Dueling Banjos too. It's a great piece of music -- and it's well used in the movie.

I recommend seeing this movie. It's a very good movie, it's very dramatic, it's well shot, and it's got a lot of interesting aspects too it.

They recently put it in the National Film Registry as a culturally significant film and I think it deserves it. I recommend it.

Tennessee Jed said...

Interestingly, I recently viewed this DVD. As the crow flies, it is not that far away from where I now live, although there is a very upscale vacation/golf resort there now called Brasstown.

I viewed the film much less favorably than during the original theatrical run for much the reasons you point out, e.g. stereo-typing to the max. I understand that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but have come to realize that Hollywood almost always stereotypes in the same cultural way, much as they did with blacks decades ago.

The one good thing to come out of it was some great visibility for bluegrass bango from Eric Weisburg and Marshall Brickman

CrispyRice said...

Ahh, but! The sodomizers are not the same hillbillies as the banjo-playing / car-driving group from the beginning. The 1st group in fact, deliver their cars with no trouble or ill-will.

The sodomizer hillbillies sort of randomly come across the two urbanites and decide to mess with them. No, the urbanites don't come off well, but those 2 clearly don't want any trouble either. As far as that episode goes, the hillbillies start the whole thing. I will, however, grant you that I don't think it's clear at all that the 2nd hillbilly shot Cox. I find it more likely that he was feeling overwhelmed and ill and just fell into the water.

BoilerRoomElf said...

All we want to say is --

Paddle faster! We hear banjo music!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I agree that Hollywood almost always relies on stereotyping. What I find so interesting here is the effect the stereotyping had. I really think this movie either caused (or reflected) a change in the stereotyped way that Americans view each other. I think that's significant.

I also think its interesting that both sides are stereotyped in this. Remember that the urbanites don't come across as very nice either, and the way they behave has become a stereotype as well for how city folk act when they end up in small towns.

If this movie had been made today, then I suspect the urbanites would have been viewed as noble, blameless liberals. Yet, in this film, I would argue that the urbanites are largely to blame for most of what happens (except for the attack by the two guys who own the still).

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, The sodomizers don't randomly come across them -- the urbanites stumble upon their illegal still. . . at least that's the implication.

But once they leave those two, they start fighting with a different group of hillbillies, and the reason they do is that Reynolds assumes that they are all related and they are being hunted by family of the two hillbillies, who are seeking revenge for what the urbanites did. But there's no reason to believe that.

Think of it this way. What they've done in city terms is fight a guy in a bar, run away, and then kill a biker five streets away because they assumed he must be a friend of the guy in the bar because they dress the same.

AndrewPrice said...

BRE, I believe I've seen that on a shirt somewhere! LOL!

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

Ah, great movie. Just like Ed said, I'm not sure why I like this movie, but I do. And your review sheds a lot of light on the "why". I notice the flaws in the characters every time I watch the movie, but I never thought much about what they represent.

Also, despite the negative stereotype of the "hillbillies", the final scenes of the movie (the rescue, the group meal) portray them in a much more caring light--basically humble and decent folk.

I'm curious now about the book. I picked up a copy once at a discount book store and never bothered to read it. It's actually on the Modern Library's list of "100 Best Novels."

Also, I didn't get the Alan Alda reference. I haven't paid a whole lot of attention to the man over the years! :-D

CrispyRice said...

Not to contradict the great one here, Andrew... ;) But, I don't think there is a still. They certainly don't see it. That's one of those conclusions that the urbanites jump to, which the hillbillies find insulting. But, it's not the reason the hillbillies attack, either.

In fact, I don't see much escalation in that scene at all. I think the hillbillies' plan of action is pretty well set from the time they see the urbanites on the shore.

This is a good summation - "What they've done in city terms is fight a guy in a bar, run away, and then kill a biker five streets away because they assumed he must be a friend of the guy in the bar because they dress the same."

BUT, the biker 5 streets away attacks part of the group and the other part of the group kills him from afar without asking questions first.

AndrewPrice said...

Pitts, Thanks! I'm glad you liked the review.

I think this is one of those movies that has a lot to say, even if it doesn't seem that way at first blush -- and maybe that's a reason people are so fascinated by it. Plus, it is a very tense and interesting movie.

I agree with you about the ending. I think it does soften the image of "rural America." In fact, if you think about it, the Sheriff goes quite easy on them for what you would expect if this whole community was the way they envision when they start to get all panicky. So maybe, in the end, the bad guys really are the urbanites?

I'm interested in the book too, though I haven't read it. It's on my list of books I hope to get to eventually.

The Alan Alda reference is to something people were talking about in the late 1970s, early 1980s. Alan Alda represented (to many people) a weak, effeminate male who worried about his feelings above all else. This happened at a time when many were wondering if the modern American male wasn't getting soft, weak and unmacho. There was a much discussed headline at the time (I can't remember the magazine) that was "The Alan Alda-ing of The American Male." That's what this was a reference too.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, There is no evidence of a still, that is correct. It is an assumption by the urbanites, though I tend to think they stumbled upon something the hillbillies wanted to keep private. For all we know, they were about to have sex with each other and they didn't want this exposed. It's hard to say because the story never tells you exactly why they are so hostile.

But they are indeed hostile and perverted. There is doubting that. But I don't think there is any evidence that this extends to anyone beyond these two. Hence the biker analogy.

And as for that analogy: it's not clear that there was an attack as you describe. All we know is that Ronny Cox appears to slump over before he falls in the water, which could be any number of things given that they are in the middle of the rapids. No one sees or hears a shot and there is body to look at to decide if there is a bullet hole.

And then, when Voight encounters the guy on the hill top, he is pointing a bow and arrow at the hillbilly first. So as far as we know, the guy is just out hunting or being curious and he suddenly sees himself being attacked. I would say that's probably the real case of unjustified murder in the film -- the sodomizer being a case of self-defense.

StanH said...

Awesome movie! But! As a native Georgian, I can tell you that there are places in the hills of GA, civilized man should not venture. The poverty can be alarming, and meth, is a terrible problem. You have pockets of these poor people, that have been locked into their circumstance, the same as an urban black imprisoned in a Sec. 8 ghetto, brought to you by LBJ’s Great Society. Generations of pitiful people waiting for their government check. You see this up and down the Appalachian Mountains, or anywhere rural America. The majority are very decent, hard working, God fearing folk, that will give you the shirt off their backs, and the portrayal in “Deliverance,“ is indeed Hollywood sensationalism. As a city boy (Atlanta) after “Deliverance” it made camping in the mountains creepy, as did “Jaws,” and swimming in the ocean.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, Nice connection with "Jaws", I think you're right that both movies had a similar effect.

You're also right about the pockets of these people, and the connection to meth these days. I've been near some of these communities in part of Appalachia -- much more north than Georgia, and there are places where you simply better not be an outsider. In a very real sense, this stereotype was true there -- only with meth replacing stills.

But the vast, vast majority of rural America is nothing like this. Most of rural America (rich or poor) is populated by very good, friendly people.

As an aside, I've been in way south Georgia and I was surprised how beautiful it was and how "non-rural." Though I have to admit that the town I was in (for a case) reminded me a LOT of the town from Dukes of Hazzard!

StanH said...

I was born in Thomasville, GA. eleven miles north of the Florida line. Beautiful area, lots of plantations, live oaks, Spanish moss, vast farmlands, hunting, fishing, golf, good people. There are many little towns down there that look like “The Dukes of Hazzard.” The best show that depicts the South to me, was “The Andy Griffith Show.”

AndrewPrice said...

We flew into Atlanta (huge, huge, huge city) and drove down to Columbus, Georgia where we spent a couple days interviewing witnesses. It was truly beautiful and the people were super friendly.

StanH said...

Everybody fly’s into Atlanta, LOL! Columbus is a nice town, not very rural.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, By comparison to southern West Virginia, nothing seems very rural.

StanH said...

Point taken, no where is as rural as West Virginia.

Doc Whoa said...

Good movie. I liked the physical aspects of the film -- beautiful river, beautiful mountains, beautiful forrests, and a great adventure (not counting the hillbillies).

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, I suppose it would be a good adventure -- assuming no hillbillies. LOL!

Stan, Isn't that the truth!

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