What’s so scary about a movie like Deliverance isn’t that one scene we’re all familiar with but another in which the main character, Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), kills a person who may or may not be dangerous. Ed is one of four people from the metro Atlanta area up in north Georgia on a canoe trip. The movie is set along the fictional Cahulawassee River near the fictional town of Aintry. This is supposed to be in northwest Georgia but it was filmed in northeastern Georgia and parts of South Carolina as they are more remote.
Ed and his friend, Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds), are always taking nature trips together. This time, two of Ed’s friends, Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty) and Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox) are with him. The Cahulawassee is set to be dammed with much of the area turned into a lake. Lewis wants to go down it one last time. However, neither Ed nor Drew and Bobby share his outdoorsman survival attitude. They also find themselves at first dealing with some Appalachian mountain locals who they hire to drive their cars to Aintry. The mountain people seem a little hostile and should be a sign of trouble to come.
But as they’re gassing up, Drew who’s brought along an acoustic guitar plays “Dueling Banjos” with a simple-minded young man, Lonnie (Billy Redden). Despite looking a little weird, Drew likes him but Lonnie acts weird as well as when they see him again down the river. After a rough first day, Lewis tells Ed he wants him to pair up with Bobby. And Bobby doesn’t care for Lewis and how he calls him “Chubby.”
Unfortunately, this turns out to be wrong for Ed and Bobby to go out alone as when they stop to break downriver, they are approached by two men (Bill McKinney and Herbert “Cowboy” Coward) who have a shotgun with them and force Ed and Bobby up into the woods. Here, one of them rapes Bobby while Ed is tied around a tree with his belt around his neck. They then try to force Ed to perform fellatio on him, but Ed spots Lewis aiming a bow and arrow toward the men. Lewis manages to kill the one who raped Bobby but the other, who is toothless, runs off into the roads as Drew chases him with a paddle but loses him.
After some discussion with Lewis convinced they won’t get a fair trial since they were from out of town, they vote 3-1 to bury the body with Drew at first not wanting to, but helping out. Lewis tells them that soon the area will be under water and all evidence gone. But after they bury the body and try to paddle down river, something happens.
What? We don’t really know.
Drew isn’t wearing his life jacket and seems to fall out of the canoe as they head toward some rough rapids. Lewis thinks the toothless man is shooting at them from an elevated position and the canoe Ed and Drew were in breaks in half as they all go overboard tumbling down the river. Lewis breaks his leg in the rapids and Ed and Bobby pull him out and hide him down at the bottom of a gorge. They’re able to salvage the other canoe, as it is made of metal.
Fearing that the toothless man is still up above him, Ed climbs with the bow and arrow to confront him. He waits all night but then spots someone who looks like him in the morning and manages to kill him by shooting him with the bow and arrow. But does he shoot the right person? He doesn’t think so as all he saw was a man out with a shotgun. It does look like the toothless man. They go farther down river where they discover Drew’s body and sink it when they don’t find any bullet holes in his body.
Did Drew just lose it and decide to commit suicide not able to live with being an accessory to a murder and cover-up? Ed and Bobby do their best to try to get their stories straight because Ed tells them they don’t need the authorities looking up river. But despite what happens, the locals still don’t believe them. But as they see themselves, the town of Aintry is set to be no more as some locals are moving out as it’ll soon be underwater.
Deliverance was released in 1972, about 16 years after Lake Lanier was formed. If you know anything about the history of that lake and how many towns and communities (most of them predominantly black) were more or less buried under the water, it’s telling of the state’s checkered awful history. James Dickey, who wrote the book and screenplay as well as playing the local sheriff, could be making a statement about how what we think is progress actually leads to destruction. Earlier in the movie, Lewis tells Ed all the machinery and technology will backfire one day and we’ll have to go back to our survival instincts. You could call Lewis a doomsday prepper. He tells Ed that now he has to play the game when tracking down the toothless man. Ed, who seems like the most sophisticated one of the bunch as he is often shown smoking a pipe, now has to resort to his survival instincts.
Deliverance was released the same summer as Wes Craven’s chilling Last House on the Left in which a married couple who seem to be total squares becomed bloodthirsty killers when they discover some criminals have tortured, raped and killed their daughter and her friend. In the book by Dickey, Ed is working as a graphic artist. Bobby is an insurance salesman. Drew is a soft drink executive, possibly Coca-Cola. Lewis is a landlord and rents property, which I find interesting because he acts like he should be in a blue-collar job. He talks about being an outdoorsman, you’d think he’d have a hardware store or a some type of business. Is Lewis really just all talk?
Even though they were on a canoe trip, they only have with them a bow and arrow for bowfishing and a hunting knife. Surely, Lewis would’ve been wise enough to bring a pistol, rifle or shotgun. Or maybe it’s because he believes there’s not much of a threat. Ed can’t bring himself to shoot a deer but they would also deal with the possibilities of bears or wild boars.
In the 1970s, the south was trying to change for the better following the Civil Rights movement. In five years after this movie would be released, Jimmy Carter went from the Georgia governor’s house to the White House. Coca-Cola would own Columbia Pictures and be a major Hollywood movie studio and TV distribution entity. And Ted Turner would change the course of cable TV with TBS, broadcasting Atlanta Braves baseball across the nation, and later CNN and the 24-hour news cycle.
You can look at Deliverance as the end of the old south. Something about the name of the town Aintry as it includes “ain’t,” which despite what your old English teacher told you, is actually a word. It used to be used at all times before it got stigmatized with the lower class or less educated people. I like that when Ed, Bobby and Lewis finally arrive in Aintry, Ed goes up to a young boy and asks him if there is a telephone he can use. The boy at first looks confused before saying yes. Is he surprised by the questioning or insulted that this older man would think they don’t have a telephone?
Following the release of Deliverance, Carter started the Georgia Film Commission which has turned the state into one of the biggest filming locations for movies and TV shows. They even got the MCU to film many big movies there. And since the 1996 Olympics, the northeastern section of Georgia has become a popular tourism hotspot. And in the movie, anytime there is a man-made lake, it’s brings in recreational use and tourism. The Old South that people like Lewis and the sheriff like is dying.
While Deliverance has mostly become known for the “Dueling Banjos” or the rape scene as it was parodied in a Saturn SUV commercial in 2002, the movie is really more about the horrors of going into an environment you’re unfamiliar with. If Lewis and Bobby got along better and they all took off at the same time, it’s highly likely the two mountain men wouldn’t have bothered with four people. Bobby is shown at the beginning being very critical of all the mountain people while Lewis is the one who can talk to them better.
Ed, like Bobby, seems to not want to be around the people. When he glances in a house, he sees what is a young girl who looks handicapped and deformed. Bobby jokes within earshot of a mountain person about their genetic defects. Lonnie looks weird but he is able to play the banjo very well. The mystery at the end of whether Ed did really kill the toothless man or accidentally shoot another man who looked like him is never resolved. There’s mention of one of the deputy’s brother-in-law that has gone missing. But is the toothless man the same as the brother-in-law? The credits don’t list anyone else.
I think this adds to the horrors that Ed has to live with the question of whether he killed the other mountain man and got more justice for Bobby as well as himself or did he kill an innocent men. The ambiguity is what makes the movie scary. The sheriff suspects Ed and Bobby are lying but lets them go because there’s no evidence and the dying town doesn’t need any more problems.
The final scene of a hand coming out of the water also inspired Brian DePalma when he made Carrie. The production on Deliverance was a hectic one. The studio wouldn’t allow John Boorman, who directed and produced, much money so he could only hire Voight and Reynolds. Beatty and Cox were unknown theater actors. Dickey, himself, reportedly showed up to the set drunk and got into a fight with Boorman. With no money to insure production, Boorman required the actors to more or less perform their own stunts, even when Voight had to climb up the gorge. Reynolds, who had done some stunt work, performed a scene where he had to fall out of a canoe and get injured in real-life.
Despite its grim nature and story, Deliverance was a big hit at the box office and earned some critical reviews, even though Roger Ebert dismissed it with just two stars. It was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director at the 1973 Oscars. Even though it’s considered one of Reynolds’ best roles, he wasn’t nominated later saying his nude fireplace photo in Cosmopolitan hurt his chances. And even though he’s turned into a crazy Trump supporter, Voight gave one of his best performance as Ed. And despite playing a rape victim on screen might have hurt your film roles, Beatty spent the next 50 years taking every role on TV and in movies he could earning an Oscar nomination himself for his reported one-day work on the satire Network.
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One thought on “‘Deliverance’ Still Plays The Game 50 Years Later”
I’m pretty sure that both toothless men were played by the same actor, to give us some confidence that Ed got the right guy, even if the ambiguity still serves the point of the film. Thank you for this article. Happy 50th to Deliverance. R.I.P., Burt and Ned.
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