By Rosalie Tirella
When I was an undergrad at Clark University, decades ago, my cool boyfriend and his guy pals were enthralled by Ken Kesey – author of SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION – and James Dickey – author of DELIVERANCE. Both men were terrific writers, both men embodied the counter culture zeitgeist. And they were alive and well, professors at American universities – Dickey in South Carolina. My Clarkie guys were Dickey-obsessed. They read his books, tried to live their young lives true to the James Dickey Code. They strove to be roustabouts, experience nature, write poetry and novellas, be free, tough, sensitive, literate, nomadic, romantic. Live deliberately. A far cry from these days during which the college kiddos are entitled and pointless, tethered to momma or daddy and obsessed not with writing but with posting pictures they took of cupcakes or fancy cocktails on their instagram accounts. They don’t have real friends – but that’s ok. They just have their ids, egos and super egos …
In the 1960s and ’70s we kids HAD EACH OTHER, quit school, hitch-hiked ‘cross country, enjoyed free love, dabbled in drugs. Many of us, like Dickey’s characters in his novels, camped and mountain climbed and moved to communes or farms and learned about the good earth – and some of us pitted ourselves against nature TO TEST OURSELVES, TO LEARN ABOUT OURSELVES. … Groovy.
But to me, back then, my guys’ James Dickey obsession seemed over the top. And Dickey seemed very much a Boys’ Writer: camping trips, white water canoeing, wild rivers, lumberjack coats. And those horribly big, clunky 1970s hiking boots with soles that looked like tire treads. There were hardly any girl characters in the Dickey books. The Dickey themes were: Man Against Nature. Survival in a deep, mysterious wilderness, ultimately unknowable. Society’s encroachment on wild America … Innocence lost … the despoliation of the natural world. Man’s greed.
I just wanted to be with my cute boyfriend and eat brunch with his friends at Daca Dining Hall on weekends! Who cared about Dickey’s novel, DELIVERANCE, or the film starring Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty?
Well, here it is 40 years later, and I care. I have seen the plundering of Mama Earth and extreme weather. Entrenched poverty and the ignorant, dangerous people it spawns. Systemic racism and classism. Now a global pandemic – a once in a century shi*-storm that has upended EVERYONE’S life. Black Lives Matter. Donald Trump and autocracy almost, almost here, in America, thanks to Orange Face. Scarier than Scar-Face.
Time to revisit the 70s film DELIVERANCE, today. Just watched it on my lil’ TV: It is still a BIG, terrific work of art. Still raw, real – and shocking. Still relevant. Still beautifully made and acted … Like FIVE EASY PIECES, EASY RIDER, SHAMPOO, MEAN STREETS, DELIVERANCE celebrates the individual …is about people, their behaviors and their emotions. The things that matter.
Dickey on the movie set, was a pain for director John Boorman to work with – a big, hulking poetry professor in the woods teaching Burt Reynolds how to use a bow and arrow. But Dickey’s still great as the round, good old boy sheriff! The film, however, belongs to the four actors, all young, at the cusp of their long careers, and brilliant. New American Cinema. As great as the French New Wave for me!
The film begins with Burt Reynolds – Lewis, a p.r. flak but a weekend warrior looking sculpted and sexy in his wet suit – and his married suburban buddies – Ed, Drew and Bobbie, taking a canoe down a mighty river in the heart of Appalachia. The wilderness is waning but still there. Thick woods, water, sunlight … They are light years away from their cushy, professional, middle-class lives, but that’s the point: in real life they’re salesmen, ad boys – on this canoe trip they abandon their mundane selves to be their free, feral, alive selves. They want to go back to the Garden: hunting, swimming, sleeping under the stars. They drive their cars, rent a ride to the water – and meet the Other America: ignorant, impoverished, malnourished … deprived. …
… Depraved, too. This world destroys the cocky foursome – interlopers – within days.
When Ronny Cox, as the good and decent Drew, draws in the banjo playing country kid to play with him, that is the last real moment of affection between the four men and the dirt poor “hillbillies.” Bobby – Ned Beatty – is like: Throw the kid a fiver. He jokes about all the “in-breeding” in this community …
In no time at all the four guys – two per canoe bantering back and forth – are tested: the river IS wild. Except for Lewis, they’re out of shape, Bobby downright fat. But they meet the challenges and LOVE it! They are feeling all manly – until one night before the campfire Ed – Jon Vought – shyly expresses his desire …for Lewis. He’s gay, he worships Lewis…they are deep in the woods, away from everybody. The single Lewis just ignores Ed, a married man with a few kids, and turns over in his sleeping bag. Rebuffed, the handsome sensitive Ed understands – and seems lonelier for the rest of the film.
The next day Ed tries to use his bow and arrow – and aims at a beautiful deer quietly munching away on some branches yards away. His strong arm shakes, he sweats – he can’t kill the beautiful deer. Lewis hints that he choked. Some guys just do that.
Within a few hours these outsiders, stalked by a few country sociopaths from the beginning, are pounced on. The two poor, scrawny guys are brutal: they tie Ed to a tree, while one of the guys sodomizes Bobby “Squeal like a pig!” he says. Bobby, terrified, white and naked in his shorts, is raped by the man, in the dirt, squealing like a pig. A horrific scene. Jon Voight watches, his neck chafing against the wide belt that’s wrapped around his neck. Done with Bobby, the men walk to Ed …in his canoe in the river, Lewis sees Ed’s eyes bulging and his head nodding: YES.KILL THEM and he slays one with his arrow. Dead. Now the four suburbanites are murderers desperate to come up with a story they can all stick to. They bury the body and head back down to the river … The other guy ran off – he will kill Drew later. The eulogy, given by Ed, is spare and heartfelt: He was a good family man. He loved his two boys. “He was the best of us.” Then Drew, a rock tied to his neck, is let go to float down the river, sink back into nature.
This trip …what a trip. Harrowing. The men are naked – their true selves: Drew is sweet and good. Lewis the arrogant. physical narcissist. Ed the closeted lost soul forced to lead … Bobby cocky and slick – now a victim of sexual assault. You see the trauma in his eyes. He, like his friends – no longer friends after the ordeal – has changed: not for the better.
Is this movie a kind of parable? Don’t mess with worlds you can never be a part of. Never underestimate the Other. Nature poses riddle after riddle that you can never solve. Who rules whom? What does American poverty, grinding Appalachia poverty, do to the soul, do to America?
A Great Movie – when we college kids, we hippies and flower children – aimed to make our lives art …