These days, of course, it’s a byword for male anxiety about sodomy. (“It’s like Deliverance up here!” squeals Ricky Gervais as Ian McKellen tries to force him into a homoerotic embrace in Extras.) Back in the early ’70s, however, John Boorman had a loftier concept in mind for his adap of James Dickey’s thriller about four weekend canoeists coming a cropper in the Appalachians. “I knew how to do it,” recalls the Point Blank helmer. “Its themes coincided with my own: man’s relationship to nature, the attempt to recover a lost harmony, the Earth’s anger at a despoiling human race. At its centre was the rape of the city men by the mountain men. It was a metaphor for the rape of America.” Remember that as you watch Ned Beatty’s sexual violation while Jon Voight, strapped to a tree by his own belt, looks helplessly on.
Then again, you could simply surrender to the chilling efficiency of the movie’s most seminal sequence – the moment when the survivalist fun and games that have drawn its Atlanta suburbanites into the wilderness suddenly becomes a real fight for survival, an elemental struggle in which the only thing more dangerous than the leering locals are the raging rapids that represent their only hope of escape. Pay attention, though, and you’ll see Boorman has been building up to it from the get-go. “We’re going to rape this whole goddamn landscape!” tuts Burt Reynolds’ arrow-slinging Neitzschean, referring to the lake that will shortly subsume the Cahulawassee River. (“I decided to start the movie with the construction of the dam that will tame and kill this beautiful river, interposed with the men arriving in the mountains with their canoes,” explains the director.)
WATER ON THE BRAIN
Beatty’s patronising appraisal of the natives’ “genetic deficiencies”, meanwhile, ensures he’ll be the first to sample their Southern hospitality. Redneck inbreds they may be, but they can still teach these interlopers a thing or two – from the Griner brothers who watch contemptuously as Reynolds cockily takes a wrong turn on his way to “the biggest fuckin’ river in the State”, to the freaky-looking kid whose brilliant banjo-picking so outclasses Ronny Cox’s guitar. (In real life the lad couldn’t play a note; all the fretting we see is literally the work of another hand.) “You don’t know nuthin’!” sneers a gas station owner, a criticism that becomes more telling the further these “city boys” venture into this hillbilly heart of darkness. Even at the end, when it seems Voight and friends are finally safe and on their way back to their wives and children, they must first suffer the indignity of having their carefully crafted porkies ruthlessly picked apart by the shrewd Sheriff Bullard (Dickey himself in a burly, imposing cameo).
In the original novel, Voight’s Ed departs a better, stronger man for having embraced the dog-eat-dog, kill-or-be-killed philosophy of Reynolds’ fascistic Lewis. Boorman, though, refuses to let him off so lightly, fading out on a traumatised, tormented Ed whose nightmare is far from over. “Far from finding his identity, I wanted him to be haunted, coarsened and diminished by the experience,” he explains. “The river, which no longer exists, still flows through Ed’s troubled mind.” OK, so the endlessly imitated faux ending – a body’s hand rising to the surface of a placid lake – can’t help looking a little familiar. But if that image feels hackneyed, Boorman has plenty more to top it: coffins being exhumed in readiness for the Biblical flood to come; Cox’s battered corpse, arm grotesquely wrapped around his head like a human question mark; and the eerie sight of a church being towed out of a soon to be submerged hamlet. (Religious symbolism abounds throughout, typified by Ed’s toothless would-be abuser telling him to “pray real good” as he unzips his fly.) And then there’s the whitewater action itself, thrillingly shot by Vilmos Zsigmond with a devastating immediacy that makes us party to every surge, swirl and treacherous current.