August 20, 1972 'Deliverance', How it Delivers By STEPHEN FARBER iterary-oriented critics - Andrew Sarris once called them "bookish film critics" - will have no trouble ticking off what is wrong with John Boorman's movie of the James Dickey novel "Deliverance." The plot - four Atlanta suburbanites on a back-to-nature canoe trip that turns into a terrifying test of survival - seems overly schematic; the underlying ideas on aggression and the territorial imperative are already slightly threadbare; dialogue tends to be ponderous. In the last analysis, none of that matters. "Deliverance" also happens to be the most stunning piece of moviemaking released this year. Boorman's understanding of the sheer kinesthetic power of film gives "Deliverance" a sensuous immediacy. As an adventure movie, it is absolutely uncompromising; you know the camera is in there with the actors when they shoot the rapids. Besides, the visual subtlety and brilliance of "Deliverance" enrich potentially banal ideas to make the experience of watching the film far more arresting, mere plot synopsis could suggest. John Boorman has always been underrated by critics, though he is one of the most gifted directors working anywhere in the world. He has never really been interested in psychological realism. All of his movies ("Having a Wild Weekend," "Point Blank," "Hell in the Pacific," "Leo the Last") are abstract, dreamlike, surrealistic; they examine archetypes, not individuals. Boorman takes us out of the everyday world. In "Deliverance," filmed in Georgia, the voyage down the Cahulawassee River echoes the journey of Conrad's demonic Mr. Kurtz to the Congo's heart of darkness. Boorman and his talented cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond totally avoid calendar art prettiness. The wilderness they see is strange, inviolable, unearthly, never romantic or reassuring. Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the rugged outdoorsman who guides the canoe trip, constantly lectures the others about the purity of nature and the corruption of civilization. Some critics have taken these speeches straight as the author's message' but the film undercuts everything Lewis says. Nature turns out to be threatening and destructive rather than regenerative. The placidity of the water is misleading; murder and violation, rather than mystical conversion, are at the end of the journey. Along with deflating myths about nature and primitive life, the film is a devastating critique of machismo. Like San Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs.' "Deliverance" focuses on a ritualized battle for survival, a primal masculine adventure. The heroes of both movies are decent, rather fastidious men forced to confront the violence in nature and in themselves. Peckinpah and Boorman come to opposite conclusions. In "Straw Dogs" Peckinpah is troubled by doubts, but he finally clings to the code of the Old Western, implying that in a savage world a baptism of blood is the first step to becoming a man; violence has a purgative effect on the intellectual hero. "Deliverance" is a more thoughtful and mature film, though it begins with a deceptively idyllic portrait of male camaraderie. Lewis tempts the other men by playing on their adolescent fantasies, and his bravado excites them. When they first succeed in making it over the rapids, they whoop with childish delight, and that night they drink beer and discuss sex around their tents, gratifies to retreat to the safe world of locker room and Boy Scout Camp. Boorman keeps us on edge throughout these early scenes. Carrying a steel bow and arrow and flexing his biceps, Lewis looks almost like a cartoon hero, an imitation Neanderthal superman. Some details- the methodical determination Lewis brings to spearing fish- are more menacing. The sadism and madness surface later. Relishing the opportunity to practice his archery on a human target. Lewis sees murder as the final challenge to his Hemingwayesque code. Under pressure, Lewis eventually turns out to be a hypocrite. When a leg wound incapacitates him, his hard masculine shell cracks, and he becomes a whimpering infant. Burt Reynolds has obvious limitations as an actor, but he is perfectly cast in the role of a walking centerfold; Boorman uses the self-satisfaction that Reynolds projects to make a sardonic comment against the sportsman mystique. The film has a ruthless logic that will upset audiences looking for another fable of man against the wilderness. This boyish adventure turns sour when one of the four explorers is sexually assaulted by a couple of hillbillies. The homosexual rape is a black joke on the men's dreams of camaraderie - the natural conclusion to their woodsie campfire reveries. In "Deliverance," for once, man is rape victim as well as rapist; this assault brings into the open sexual fantasies ands fears that the characters cannot tolerate. They will go to any lengths to average the sodomy, and audiences equally anxious to exorcise the I age of male humiliation want to accept their vengeance as a necessary tribal ritual. During the crisis, Ed (Jon Voight is the ineffectual urban man who rises to the challenge of nature, murders the second mountain man, and eventually leads his companions safely out of the wilderness. The film would be more comforting if we could be sure that Ed's violence was necessary self-defense. But Boorman will not let us off easily; he refuses to dispel the questions and ambiguities. It is never definitely established how the fourth man in the party died - was he shot by the surviving hillbilly or was his death an accident or possibly suicide? - and this doubt robs the outcome of any sense of triumph. Boorman will not absolve the character of responsibility. The point is that Ed chooses to become a killer; he seizes on a chance to prove his virility to himself and to his companions. Ed wins at the survival game, and in the process loses his awkwardness and squeamishness, discovering a new self-confidence in matching wits against a primitive antagonist. But the only discernable result of this character transformation is Ed's skill at lying to extricate himself and his friends from any police investigation. The final irony is very black; Ed's assumption of "manhood" means that he has perfected the ability to deceive and manipulate people. James Dickey's novel has a different ending: the experience on the river becomes a sacred memory to Ed, and he seems to undergo a spiritual awakening as a result of this communion with darkness. Boorman's conclusion is much harsher. In the film the journey has no purpose; nothing is achieved, nothing gained. The last images express a sense of total desolation. There is no sentimentality in the film; it is a serious and meaningful challenge to the belief in rites of manhood. The film is a confirmation of several important talents. Jon Voight's performance is extraordinary. He may never be a major star because he changes so much from film to film, taking chances and absorbing himself in difficult and unsympathetic roles; he seems to have no interest in selling an image to his fans. In "Deliverance" Voight illuminates the gradual evolution of opening a character's inner life, the discrepancy between words and feeling. All of the acting in the film is excellent, but the only star is the director. The clearest sign of Boorman's talent is that you remember his images - for example, the face of a mute retarded mountain boy on a bridge over the river, aloof slightly mocking, guarding a secret about nature that the city men will shortly discover for themselves. Or consider a brief scene at the end of the film when Ed, on his way home, stops to watch coffins in a small cemetery dug up to make way for a reservoir. In just an instant, Boorman visualizes Ed's fear and guilt about the bodies he has buried, summarizes the disorientation of the entire journey, and comments on modern technology's violation of the natural rhythms of life. That is not still an adequate description of the scene; like so many images in "Deliverance," it haunts the imagination because it means more than we can say. Boorman works with poet's economy and precision. "Deliverance" is imperfect, constricted by the relentlessness of the allegory, but it is a major work, important for the vision it brings to the urgent question of understanding and redefining masculinity. Return to the Books Home Page

Deliverance Revisited: Its relevance to modern American culture is enough to give alumnus James Dickey’s acclaimed novel another look

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Oct 29, 2020, 4:24 PM

By S. Tremaine Nelson, BA’04

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Deliverance —the debut novel by James Dickey, BA’49, MA’50—reached the polished age of 50 years old in the spring.

First published in 1970, the novel was a critically acclaimed bestseller and boosted the growing celebrity of its author. However, the 1972 film, which Stephen Farber of The New York Times called the “most stunning piece of moviemaking released this year,” quickly eclipsed the novel in the consciousness and imagination of the American movie-going public. Today if you search for “Deliverance,” you must scroll and click into the second page of Google results to find any lead articles about the novel—dominated so thoroughly on the internet by the film—making it easy to wonder if the novel will slip out of print, quietly, its semicentennial unheralded.

Before the publication of Deliverance , James Dickey already had established himself as a poet with his collection Buckdancer’s Choice , which won the 1966 National Book Award for Poetry. In his interview with The Paris Review in 1976, Dickey spoke knowledgeably about his place in the poetic tradition of Vanderbilt: He knew that he was, on one hand, heir to it, while also apart from it, admitting that there was “no sense in which it could be said that [he] was a latter-day Fugitive or Agrarian.”

deliverance movie review nytimes

His attitude toward women, especially his fellow writers, didn’t help his public image. In dialogue with The Paris Review , Dickey went on record as saying that the “women of the South have brought into American literature a unique mixture of domesticity and grotesquerie,” adding that “their scope is limited to the local and domestic with, in some cases, an admixture of the grotesque.” He did acknowledge the greatness of Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, but in the same breath offered the appalling verdict on the fate of Sylvia Plath and her art, saying “She’s not very good. She’s just someone who killed herself out of literary desperation.”

Today such a comment would end a male writer’s career in a single retweet; in the late 1970s, it took a bit longer, but in the end Dickey faded from the esteem he once had enjoyed in the eyes of the literary public. The question at hand is whether a new generation, unfamiliar with Dickey’s reputation, may be capable of reviving—and reinvigorating—a new wave of readers to reappraise Deliverance ’s worth as a novel.

In the book, four suburban Atlanta men undertake a rafting trip in rural North Georgia on the fictional Cahulawassee River. In the woods the protagonists encounter two local men—referred to as hillbillies or mountain men—who assault and rape a member of the rafting party at gunpoint. Michael Kreyling , Vanderbilt professor of English, emeritus, has suggested that the “pursuit and action writing is excellent … deserving of comparison with Hemingway’s Caporetto retreat sections in  A Farewell to Arms .”

As for posterity and a generation of new readers, however, Kreyling says that any “relevance  Deliverance  will have going forward is in its depiction of sexuality.” In its predatory and possessive power dynamic, the novel offers a nightmarish alternative to diverse sexualities and genders more commonly portrayed in fiction today than in Dickey’s time.

The question at hand is whether a new generation, unfamiliar with Dickey’s reputation, may be capable of reviving—and reinvigorating—a new wave of readers to reappraise Deliverance ’s worth as a novel.

Looking deeper, though, this is very much a novel about a continuum of masculinity. A richness of nuance and complexity exists in the relationship between the narrator, Ed Gentry, and his hypermasculine friend Lewis Medlock, a homoeroticism that William Thesing and Theda Wrede (co-editors of 2009’s The Way We Read James Dickey ) and other 21st-century critics have begun to explore via the lens of queer theory and feminist theory.

Deliverance may lend itself to a naturalist, environmentalist reading, as well; the narrator, for example, calls out the “pieces of metal, engine parts, and the blue and green blinks of broken bottles”—things that sully the natural landscape, which the narrator elsewhere describes in its raw unsoiled beauty. Kreyling describes this as a “proto environmentalism [that] might redeem the novel.”

The environmentalist reading of Deliverance has not yet gained the same traction the book has seen in gender-identity criticism, but the prose descriptions of the river and its environs—noting the hydroelectric takeover by the Tennessee Valley Authority—do lend themselves to complex analysis in their own right. The novel also captures the psychological divide between urban and rural America in the early 1970s, the red-vs.-blue mentality that has only deepened in the past 50 years.

Ed, the novel’s narrator, says it plainly: “There is always something wrong with people in the country.” Using the words “sleepy and hookwormy and ugly,” he judges the town in saying, “Nobody worth a damn could ever come from such a place.” Deliverance provides the psychological topography of our modern political landscape—in the extreme—even as it fails to provide a means of reconciling the enmity between parties.

Fifty years later, finally it may be time to give this novel another chance. Deliverance offers too much relevance to contemporary American culture to let it slip past us, out of print.

deliverance movie review nytimes

If readers no longer purchase the book in quantities that justify a rerelease—Dickey’s daughter, Bronwen Dickey, reported via Twitter that a “50th anniversary edition is in the works but far from a certainty”—then it may fall upon the academic community in universities to reconsider the book’s merit. Assigning the text in courses on Southern literature, environmental studies or LGBTQ studies may infuse the text with enough market traction to push its publisher to give it a new marketing strategy to reach a new generation. It’s possible the book’s next wave of young literary enthusiasts has never even heard of Burt Reynolds and his black leather vest—and never will.

It’s worth a shot.

S. Tremaine Nelson, BA’04, is a former fiction reader at The New Yorker.

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31 Things We Learned from John Boorman’s ‘Deliverance’ Commentary

Jon Voight in Deliverance

Welcome to  Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter travels to the backwoods of Georgia for John Boorman’s Deliverance commentary track .

Deliverance is one of those ’70s films that feels every bit of its decade despite being timeless in many ways. It’s a tale of men outside their comfort zone, men who represent change and “progress” that’s far from universal, and it’s a thrilling tale of survival to boot. British-born John Boorman may have seemed like an odd choice to adapt the novel, but the results speak for themselves. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for 1972’s Deliverance .

Deliverance (1972)

Commentator: John Boorman (director, producer)

1. Warner Bros. initially told Boorman he could only make the film if he found two name stars to headline. He did just that, at which point WB said the movie was now going to cost too much because of those stars. They then decided to produce the film on a tight budget with four unknowns, so Boorman scoured the country’s theater scene and found Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox.

2. Jon Voight initially resisted doing the film as he had just completed The All-American Boy (1973) “and it was a mess.” He was struggling to salvage that film and considering retiring from acting altogether, but Boorman persuaded him to star in Deliverance . “He says that I saved his life and then spent three months trying to kill him.”

3. WB kept insisting that Boorman cut more and more from the budget, and one of the things that went was a traditional composer and orchestral score. He instead used “Dueling Banjos” as the base for the entire score, spent two hours in a recording studio with a professional banjo player and a guitarist, and that was it for the score.

4. He tried to persuade the head of Warner’s record label to release the score commercially, but the suit told him that if radio stations won’t play it the album wouldn’t be successful — so there was no chance they’d be releasing it. Boorman pressed the man and convinced him to release it regionally where it found success, spread across the country, and became a best-seller.

5. The “hillbillies” at the gas station scene are actual locals from this mountain community in Georgia where they filmed. Boorman discovered that their inbreeding was due in part to being descended from white settlers who mated with Native Americans and were subsequently ostracized for it. “They had to turn in on themselves.”

6. Billy Redden plays Lonnie, the boy who shares the banjo duel with Drew (Cox), but while bright and talented he couldn’t actually play the banjo well enough. His left arm in the scene actually belongs to a second boy who’s crouched behind him. “I hope you’re not disillusioned.”

7. He calls author James Dickey a “wonderful poet and an intimidating man.”

8. Dickey visited the set and in addition to drinking a lot, “He really spooked the actors because he insisted on calling them by the characters'” names. The cast eventually asked Boorman to send Dickey on his way, and while the author complied he insisted on saying goodbye first by telling the actors “It appears that my presence will be most efficacious by its absence.” Reynolds replied saying, “Does that mean he’s going or he’s staying?”

9. Dickey took Boorman aside, made him promise not to repeat this, and said, “I’m going to tell you something I never told a living soul, everything in that book happened to me.” The director later learned that he did the same with other members of the cast and crew. “When I got into a canoe with James Dickey and he capsized it, I realized that nothing in this book had happened to him.”

10. His goal in finding a river to shoot on was to find one that looked dangerous and rough, but through the camera’s lens, they always looked pretty. He finally found one filled with jagged rocks and a dangerous reputation, but as it still looked beautiful he desaturated the footage to drain some of the life from it. “I wanted to dispense with that prettiness.”

11. They destroyed five canoes over the course of the production.

12. The river scenes are shot low from within a rubber boat, and it was only ever Boorman, a grip, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond shooting from the craft.

13. The film’s popularity drove an uptick in tourists canoeing the river despite its dangerous degree of difficulty, and several people apparently drown. Boorman was asked if he felt responsible, and he replied that he made the river look incredibly dangerous so anyone who went forward knew what to expect.

14. Reynolds and Beatty did well canoeing for the most part, but Voight and Cox “made a lot more mistakes.” That said, their worst experience was when Beatty went under and was stuck for nearly a minute. Boorman asked how he felt when he was trapped, and Beatty replied that his first concern was if Voight would be able to finish the film without him.

15. “I had no doubles, no stuntmen,” says Boorman. “I don’t like the idea of stuntmen because if a shot is dangerous enough that you need a stunt man then you shouldn’t be doing it.” He acknowledges that there are exceptions including one instance where Voight was doubled (while Reynolds insisted on doing his part himself), but in general he prefers doing the scenes with the actual actors.

16. Lee Marvin ( Point Blank , 1967) was meticulous about his costuming and props, as “good film actors are.”

17. Boorman doesn’t typically use second-unit directors. It’s partly due to his desire to be involved with it all, but he also thinks that “every image should have the same kind of integrity, the same style as everything else.”

18. His psychological intent with the aggressive hillbillies — the rapists, in particular — was that “they were the sort of malevolent spirits of the forest, of nature, and that this was a kind of nature’s revenge on these men.”

19. The studio had them shoot alternative takes for later television broadcast, and that included softer language. The infamous “Squeal like a piggy” line was originally crafted as one of those alternatives to a much harsher line, but Boorman decided it was actually more powerful than the more vulgar option.

20. This was Beatty’s first feature, and he spent the rest of his career hearing fans and passersby yell the line to him. His response varied, but he did pen an opinion piece in the New York Times on the subject.

21. The toothless attempted rapist is played by Herbert “Cowboy” Coward who Reynolds first met while working at a dude ranch.

22. The “censors” — either at WB or at the MPAA — wanted to trim both the rape scene and Bill McKinney’s death scene, but Boorman held fast in his refusal.

23. The scene where they all get tossed from the canoes was filmed at a different part of the river and controlled with a dam — they turned off the water, added rails to the river bed and a net further down, and then released the water again. This is where Voight used a stunt double.

24. That’s a lamb bone sticking out of Reynolds’ pant leg, and he’s also glad to see you.

25. The child in Ed’s wallet photo is actually Boorman’s own son.

26. While Reynolds preferred to move quickly through every scene, Voight challenged almost every decision in need of explanation and reason which dragged things out. Voight would also require three minutes before shooting scenes where he’s meant to seem exhausted because he would run around the area to tire himself out. Reynolds, by contrast, would spritz his face to simulate sweat and then breath hard. Boorman found the two to be good influences on each other.

27. Some people apparently think the arrow Ed fires is the one that goes through his side. Some people are silly.

28. Boorman shoots very little beyond what’s necessary as he rehearses and plans out his shots with precision. “When I made Point Blank at MGM, I had the lowest ratio of film of any director of the last twenty years.”

29. Some at WB felt the film should have ended as the surviving trio row up to civilization, but Boorman believes the scenes that follow are not only necessary but also the best in the film.

30. The ambulance attendant in the window at 1:34:06 was shot and killed shortly after production wrapped.

31. He acknowledges that he’s used a variation of the same shot — a hand rising from the water — in several of his films, most notably here and in Excalibur (1981). The water typically represents the unconscious, and the thing rising out is something buried forcing its way back into the light. Brian De Palma told him the hand rising from the grave in Carrie (1976) was “an homage” to Deliverance .

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“When anyone finds themselves in a dark wood or a savage river, they hum that tune.”

“That was also a lie.”

“This river is really only canoed by kayaks.”

“When we lose our connection with nature it breeds neurosis.”

“Every time I look at those shots of water coming down there I feel terrible guilt.”

“Well, we got to the end of it didn’t we.”

Final Thoughts

Deliverance remains a thrilling and engaging tale of survival, fragile masculinity, and capitalistic greed. Boorman’s take on the material shows a firm grasp despite its backwoods American setting, and his reflection on it all is both informational and entertaining. It’s a recommended listen for fans of the film and filmmaker.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

Related Topics: Commentary Commentary , Deliverance , John Boorman

deliverance movie review nytimes

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5 Things You Might Not Know About ‘Deliverance,’ Released 40 Years Ago Today

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For a film just entering its fifth decade, “ Deliverance ” still maintains a real power to horrify. Based on James Dickey ‘s poetic novel, and adapted by the writer himself, it follows four friends ( Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox ) who go for a canoeing trip together in the Georgia wilderness, only to come into terrifying conflict with some inbred locals. And that plotline taps into very primal fears — man vs. nature, town vs. country — and perhaps most memorably, it preys on masculinity, thanks to film’s unforgetabble rape sequence.

It’s remains shocking stuff today, so we can only image how it must’ve marked moviegoers when it theaters forty years ago on July 30, 1972. But despite the grim nature of the drama, the film was a huge hit, winning three Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Directing), making Burt Reynolds a star, rescuing Voight’s career, introducing theater actors Beatty and Cox, and cementing director John Boorman ‘s position among the A-list. With the film celebrating its ruby anniversary today, it seemed like a good time to highlight five things you may not be aware of about the film. Read on below.  

1. Sam Peckinpah wanted to direct the film, and actors like Donald Sutherland, Henry Fonda and Jack Nicholson were all linked to the project. The critically acclaimed “ Point Blank ” and “ Hell In The Pacific ” made John Boorman quite a hot prospect in Hollywood, and while 1970’s “ Leo The Last” was a flop, it had won Boorman the Best Director award at Cannes, so he was still very much on top. Even so, he wasn’t the first choice of James Dickey , the author and screenwriter of “Deliverance,” who was adamant that Sam Peckinpah was the man for the job. And given how much the story’s theme matched Peckinpah’s interests, it would have been a great choice, but the director had gone wildly over schedule and budget on 1970’s “ The Ballad Of Cable Hogue ,” and as such, was not in the good books at  Warner Bros , who held the rights to “Deliverance.” Fortunately, Boorman pulled the gig off. As for casting, a who’s who of leading men were approached before the director landed his central foursome. Dickey suggested Gene Hackman to play Ed, while Boorman wanted his “Point Blank” star Lee Marvin for that part, with Marlon Brando for Lewis. But Marvin, on reading, told Boorman he thought they should go for younger actors. Jack Nicholson was actually announced as starring in the film by the LA Times (as Ed), but ultimately proved too expensive,  Robert Redford was also considered, while Charlton Heston and Donald Sutherland both turned down Lewis (Sutherland considered it too violent at the time ), and Henry Fonda, George C. Scott and Warren Beatty were also possibilities at some point. Eventually, Boorman got Burt Reynolds (in the film that made him a star), Jon Voight , and relative newcomers to film Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty, the latter of whom had been a stage actor for 25 years, but here made his first film appearance .

2. James Dickey and John Boorman allegedly got into a fistfight on set, in which the writer broke the director’s nose and knocked out his teeth. Dickey was a contradictory figure, a man of letters who served in the air force in both World War Two and the Korean War, an ad man who was also a college professor as well as a poet laureate. “Deliverance,” which the writer hinted was based on real events (although few believe him; Boorman says “nothing in that book actually happened to him”) was his first and only experience in the film industry (although after his death, the Coen Brothers tried to make a silent version of his final book, “ To The White Sea ,” with Brad Pitt ). Dickey, who was also an alcoholic, clashed heavily with Boorman throughout the shoot, particularly after the director cut the first 19 pages of the shooting script. According to Jon Voight ‘s body double on the film, Claude Terry , Dickey would sit in a bar saying to all and sundry “God, they’re ruining my fucking movie, ain’t they? They’re not doing my book,” while Boorman says that Dickey was drunk on set, and became “very overbearing with the actors.” According to legend, things reached a peak when director and writer got into a fistfight which left Boorman with a broken nose and four teeth knocked out. Dickey was ejected from the set, but was allowed to return to film a cameo as the Sheriff in the film’s conclusion (although contrary to popular opinion, it’s not Ed O’Neill as one of the other cops).

3. Although it became a worldwide hit, the composer of “Duelling Banjo” sued Warner Bros for using the track without permission. One of the film’s least likely and longest lasting gifts to popular culture (beyond the line “squeal like a pig,” which Ned Beatty claims he came up with while improvising the scene with his tormentor, Bill McKinney, while Dickey’s son Christopher says it was a suggestion from a crew member) was the scene where Ronny Cox duets with an inbred hillbilly boy, played by local Billy Redden . The young man actually didn’t know the banjo — a local musician played with his arms through the young boy’s sleeves while crouched behind him  (Redden would, however, later play the instrument, in a cameo in Tim Burton ‘s “ Big Fish ,” in 2003 — see the clip below). A year after the film’s release, a version of the track, entitled “Duelling Banjos,” by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell — the one used in the film — became a huge international hit, spending four weeks at #2 in the Billboard Hot 100 (behind only Roberta Flack’ s “Killing Me Softly With His Song”). But there was only one problem — Weissberg had pinched the track from South Carolina musician Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith , and failed to credit him. Smith sued, and won, and was awarded ashare of the profits, and the credits of the film were amended to include him.

4. Boorman’s “Duelling Banjos” gold record was stolen by Irish thief Martin Cahill, who the director would later make a film about. Boorman was awarded a gold record for the success of “Duelling Banjos,” but it was later stolen in a break-in at the director’s home in Ireland. It would later emerge that the culprit had been Martin Cahill . Cahill was a Dublin criminal, known locally as The General, who became infamous after a series of burglaries, peaking with a $2 million dollar jewellery heist in 1983, and a major art heist. In the aftermath of a failed kidnapping of the head of the National Irish Bank, Cahill was assassinated, seemingly at the behest of one of his lieutenants, John Gilligan, working together with the IRA. Journalist Paul Williams wrote a book about Cahill, and Boorman, intrigued by his own connection to him (the director told Salon “He robbed my house in 1981. At that time, he was really just a cat burglar — he wasn’t doing any of these big things, but he was very audacious then, and provocative. The police recognized his modus vivendi, but also he always wanted to be known when he pulled off these things”) optioned it, turning it into the 1998 film “The General, ” starring Brendan Gleeson as Cahill, with Jon Voight reuniting with his “Deliverance” director to play his police nemesis Ned Kenny. Boorman included a scene where Cahill steals a gold record, only to discover that it’s really made of plastic, as “revenge.” The black and white picture proved to be Boorman’s most acclaimed film in years, and won the director his second Best Director award at Cannes.

5. An alternate ending to the film was shot Despite Dickey’s objections, the film does stick relatively closely to the book, although the novel (which is narrated by Ed) goes into more detail about the home lives of its protagonists: Ed is a graphic designer, Lewis is a landlord, Drew works for a soft drinks company, and Bobby sells insurance. It also features more of an epilogue, with Ed and Lewis buying neighboring cabins next to a lake, and losing touch with Bobby, who, in Ed’s words “would always look like dead weight and like screaming, and that was no good to me.” None of this made it to the shooting script, but there was a slightly different ending. Instead of the hand rising out of the water in Ed’s nightmare, he imagined himself, Lewis and Bobby meeting Dickey’s sheriff, who’s discovered a body, and shows it to them. The scene was shot so that the audience didn’t know which of the three characters killed in the film — Drew, rapist Mountain Man or the Toothless Man — it was, with Ed waking before the face was revealed. For the shoot, the body was played by Christopher Dickey , James Dickey ‘s 20-year-old son, who would go on to be a journalist for Newsweek and The Washington Post, and wrote a memoir, “ Summer Of Deliverance ,” about his time on the film’s set, and his relationship with his father.

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The Problematics: There’s A Lot More To ‘Deliverance’ Than Its Notorious Rape Scene

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  • Deliverance

You’ll probably think me quite a crotchety old man for saying this, but when I recently rewatched the film Deliverance — which, as of this publication date, is now available to stream on Netflix — the most shocking thing about it was that a film this thoughtful, understated and unconventionally assembled was actually the fifth-highest grossing film of 1972. (Weirdly enough, according to Wikipedia, the fourth highest grosser was Behind the Green Door , the Marilyn Chambers porno. The first was The Godfather , also a pretty thoughtful picture though not inordinately understated.)

When the film came out in that year, it was cited for its fealty to the best-selling-novel by James Dickey from which it was adapted. In that book, a group of four weekend buddies, characters who exemplified what would come to be known as “The New South” (a trope that has sunk deeper than the Titanic by now) decide to take a canoe trip on the Cahulawassee River (note: never a real river) before a damming project turns it and the territory around it into a giant lake.

Working from Dickey’s own screenplay, director John Boorman sketches his main characters on the soundtrack while the images below the opening credits show the damming project in progress. The Cahulawassee is “just about the last untamed, unpolluted unfucked-up river left” (according to the character we will come to know as Lewis). The project, he avers, is “gonna rape” the land around it. This trip — one from which Lewis promises his buddies he’ll get them back in time to watch “the pom pom girls” on Sunday Night Football — is their last chance to explore true wilderness.

Of course, as readers of the book knew —and truly, Deliverance was a very big deal in the “how are they going to make a movie out of THIS” conversations of its time— there is a very real and harrowing rape at the heart of the book, and the movie. The film’s quartet consists of four very different types: Lewis, played in a career-highlight performance by Burt Reynolds, is a self-visualized man’s man who can’t wait for “the system” to fail so his Hobbesian view of existence can play itself out. (These days we call such guys “libertarians.”) Ed, his best friend, is a more “complacent” suburban type who can’t bring himself to kill a deer. He’s played by Jon Voight, who shows himself an absolute master of underplaying here. Drew, played by Ronny Cox in his film debut, is a gentle, conscientious guitar picker. He’s the one who initiates the “dueling banjoes” section of the film, in which he trades furious string licks with a very withdrawn, possibly mentally disabled, hillbilly boy. Ned Beatty also makes his film debut as Bobby, a glib ad man who’s always saying something close to the wrong thing and makes a quick foe out of Drew. He’s a sufficiently grating character that some viewers may wish to see him get a comeuppance. But what happens to him is not something to imagine befalling anyone.

The movie builds so slowly and inexorably that the viewer becomes used to the idea of it being an ongoing water-bound argument between the four men. Then Ed and Bobby make a wrong turn at a bend in the river, come upon two fellows, one with a gun, and say a series of ill-advised things. Their reaction is way out of proportion.

The rape of Bobby is a sickeningly ugly event. Boorman shoots and edits it in an unshowy fashion that nevertheless fills the viewer with dread, because all you want the camera to do as the men force Bobby to strip, mock him, chase him, and then order him to “squeal like a pig” is to look away, and it never does, at least not until the act culminates in its final violation and humiliation.

The toothless grin of the second assailant as he observes of Ed, who has seen all this horror while tied to a tree, that he’s “got a purty mouth,” is cosmically appalling. But Lewis comes to the rescue before anything else is done. Spoiler alert: one of the two criminals dies. And this is where Boorman’s brilliance really hits home. The fellow, played by great character actor Bill McKinney, takes some time to expire. The audience has to wonder: what’s he thinking? Is he now somehow sorry for what he did? Is he trying to reverse time, re-engineer his actions to make the scene turn out differently? He points his hand shortly before he draws his last. What is he pointing to? In the meantime the toothless man has escaped, and he provides the momentum for the film’s remainder of plot.

But first: “There ain’t but one thing to do. Tell ’em what happened.” In most films made today, the characters would immediately unite to bury the body of the dead man, because most films made today have precisely zero concern about the ethics of homicide. ( Dragged Across Concrete is a notable exception.) In Deliverance , the quartet argue, and passionately, about what they’re to do next. It’s not a game, Drew says. It certainly is, Lewis counters. For all his macho, he’s actually afraid about bringing in the law. Everyone’s in a fog. Eventually they dig the grave, with their hands.

Dickey’s plot is so well worked out it feels completely organic, and it gives Boorman plenty of room to experiment with atmosphere, and with shrinking and expanding time. We know, because of the scene where Ed can’t shoot a deer with a bow and arrow, that he’s somehow going to be called upon to shoot a man with one. And as he climbs a rock face to meet his mission, Boorman doesn’t shoot or cut the ordeal thriller style; instead, he tells the tale in a series of dissolves.

Glenn Kenny

Waiting for ridley scott’s 'napoleon' these 5 movies may tide you over, 'killers of the flower moon' is the crown jewel of dicaprio-scorsese collaborations, 'staying alive' probably deserves its 0% rotten tomatoes rating — but it's also an endlessly fascinating glimpse into sly stallone's worldview, the problematics: 'national lampoon's vacation' turns 40, the same middle age of its protagonist clark griswold, the problematics: 'debbie does dallas' and the birth of a porn legend.

Ultimately the movie goes beyond harrowing into absolute heartbreak. Once the men who make it out are given shelter by some nice mountain people, Bobby finally can say the right thing, for once: “This corn is special isn’t it?”

While Dickey, who appears in the film near the end in a small but crucial role, would certainly say that his work made a substantial statement about MASCULINITY in the modern world, and while Boorman himself is the last guy to say he shies away from big statements, what makes Deliverance work as a film is its intimacy and specificity. Hence, the idea that the movie is some kind of indictment of “hillbillies” is patently ridiculous.

The presentation of Bobby’s rape, as awful to watch as it is, is endemic to Boorman’s approach. There’s not much music in the movie, aside from the famous guitar-banjo duet and some repetition of its themes; the movie doesn’t need it. The movie casts a spell through images both ugly and beautiful, and other sounds, none of them really reflecting the idea of “nature in harmony.” All here is dissonance, and the best one can do is find a thread of consolation within.

Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reviews‎ new releases at , the New York Times, and, as befits someone of his advanced age, the AARP magazine. He blogs, very occasionally, at Some Came Running and tweets, mostly in jest, at @glenn__kenny .

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1972, Adventure/Drama, 1h 49m

What to know

Critics Consensus

Given primal verve by John Boorman's unflinching direction and Burt Reynolds' star-making performance, Deliverance is a terrifying adventure. Read critic reviews

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Deliverance   photos.

Four city-dwelling friends (Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox) decide to get away from their jobs, wives and kids for a week of canoeing in rural Georgia. When the men arrive, they are not welcomed by the backwoods locals, who stalk the vacationers and savagely attack them in the woods. Reeling from the ambush, the friends attempt to return home but are surrounded by dangerous rapids and pursued by a madman. Soon, their canoe trip turns into a fight for survival.

Genre: Adventure, Drama

Original Language: English

Director: John Boorman

Producer: John Boorman

Writer: James Dickey

Release Date (Theaters): Jul 30, 1972  wide

Release Date (Streaming): Sep 1, 2011

Runtime: 1h 49m

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Production Co: Warner Brothers/Seven Arts

Cast & Crew

Burt Reynolds

Lewis Medlock

Bobby Trippe

Drew Ballinger

Bill McKinney

Mountain Man

Herbert "Cowboy" Coward

Toothless Man

James Dickey

Aintry Sheriff Bullard

Seamon Glass

First Griner

John Boorman

Vilmos Zsigmond


Tom Priestley

Film Editing

Lynn Stalmaster

Fred Harpman

Art Director

News & Interviews for Deliverance

New on Netflix in July 2022

David Gordon Green’s Five Favorite Films

New on Netflix October 2019

Critic Reviews for Deliverance

Audience reviews for deliverance.

Really really memorable and menacingly powerful, Deliverance succeeds in doing the hard job of creating a film that is both terrifying and not really a horror film. I wouldn't give it five stars as the film is so harrowing that its really not one of the most enjoyable films that one could decide to watch. John Boorman does well in composing an envious addition to his frame of work in motion directing, gracefully tracking the canoe as it parades down Georgian rivers. Its mildly exploitave plot can be forgiven by its tasteful production.

deliverance movie review nytimes

I don't think it ages well.

Four friends explore the whitewater rapids of country backwoods, but their fishing trip turns tragic when one of their members is sexually assaulted. In what could be a cliche horror/slasher film, <i>Deliverance</i> explores themes of civilization and ethical dilemmas. The scenes between the backwoods, redneck natives and the cultured, civilized explorers take on a unique significance because we're meant to question the characterizations with which we approach these people. Are the civilized really that civilized? Does one have to respond to violence with violence in a violent context? Strong performances by Jon Voight, whose character acts as a kind of moral center to the film (the film is - in some ways - a battle for Ed's soul), and Burt Reynolds, the adaptable tough guy, carry the film. Overall, this is a classic for good reason, a film that takes serious issues with the gravity they deserve.

Deliverance is harsh. it is of course the canoe trip that you don't want to find yourself trapped through the dark side of America. Scenes stick in your memory that perhaps you would rather they do not. It nonetheless does not detract from the stunning visuals.

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Deliverance, common sense media reviewers.

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Classic '70s adventure has brutal, disturbing violence.

Deliverance Poster Image

A Lot or a Little?

What you will—and won't—find in this movie.

The movie raises concerns about the environment, a

The four main characters are different embodiments

A man on a weekend canoe trip through the backwood

Brief nudity -- male buttocks. A joke, a play on w

Variations on "f--k." "S--t." "Son of a bitch." "A

Whiskey drinking. Beer drinking. Cigar smoking. Pi

Parents need to know that Deliverance is a classic 1972 movie based on the James Dickey novel about four Atlanta men who get more than they bargained for on a weekend canoe trip into rural Georgia. There's profanity (including "f--k" and its variations) and drinking and smoking. There's brief nudity (male…

Positive Messages

The movie raises concerns about the environment, and man's relation to nature and survival against the backdrop of a river and surrounding forests and towns that are about to be flooded when a hydroelectric dam is finished being built.

Positive Role Models

The four main characters are different embodiments of manhood, relate to the wilderness in differing ways, and are all broken down by their experiences. There are no real positive role models as they struggle to survive.

Violence & Scariness

A man on a weekend canoe trip through the backwoods of Georgia is raped at riflepoint and forced to "squeal like a pig" by a "mountain man" while his friend is tied to a tree. Characters killed with bows and arrows, shotguns. Dead bodies. Intense peril. A man breaks his leg; his thigh bone sticks out of the skin. A man accidentally pierces his side with an arrow. Blood.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Violence & Scariness in your kid's entertainment guide.

Sex, Romance & Nudity

Brief nudity -- male buttocks. A joke, a play on words around the phrase "get your rocks off."

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Sex, Romance & Nudity in your kid's entertainment guide.

Variations on "f--k." "S--t." "Son of a bitch." "Ass." "Hell." "For Christ's sake."

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Language in your kid's entertainment guide.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Whiskey drinking. Beer drinking. Cigar smoking. Pipe smoking.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Drinking, Drugs & Smoking in your kid's entertainment guide.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Deliverance is a classic 1972 movie based on the James Dickey novel about four Atlanta men who get more than they bargained for on a weekend canoe trip into rural Georgia. There's profanity (including "f--k" and its variations) and drinking and smoking. There's brief nudity (male buttocks). In its most infamous scene, a man is raped by another man and forced to "squeal like a pig" while his friend is tied to a tree. From that moment on, the action is intense and violent, with killings, dead bodies, and gruesome injuries, such as a broken leg in which the bone is sticking through the thigh, and an accidental piercing from an arrow into a man's side. While the intense violence is intended to raise broader points about civilization, survival, man's relation to nature, and the degradation of the environment, as well as what happens when people are reduced to a state of survival, the brutality contained in this movie makes it best for older teens and adults. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails .

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Community Reviews

  • Parents say (1)
  • Kids say (2)

Based on 1 parent review

What's the Story?

In DELIVERANCE, Lewis ( Burt Reynolds ) is an alpha male lover of the great outdoors who wants to take his three friends -- Ed ( Jon Voight ), Bobby ( Ned Beatty ), and Drew -- on a weekend canoe trip down a river. This river, in the most backwoods region of Northern Georgia, is about to be flooded, along with the woods and the towns around it, by a hydroelectric dam, and Lewis wants to experience it before it's gone for good. But he and the other three men get much more than they bargained for when a confrontation with two of the local mountain men turns brutal. Now, the four men are in a struggle for survival as they face danger and death at nearly every turn in the river -- not just from the rapids, but from those who want to kill them. In shock and survival mode, they must find a way back to civilization.

Is It Any Good?

In a decade filled with movies about dystopia, entropy, and man's capacity for survival when civilization is nowhere to be found, this is one of the best films of the 1970s. While its most infamous scene and the line "squeal like a pig, boy!" have become a part of the pop culture landscape, Deliverance is so much more than this scene which, taken out of context, has become little more than a stale cliche at the expense of "rednecks." This movie, just like the James Dickey novel, strips the characters of the civilization that defines them and makes them human, to the point where even the "Hemingway hero" Lewis (played with a range by Burt Reynolds not seen in his later movies) is reduced to shock, panic, and weeping. The end result is as provoking and engaging as it is unforgettable.

While very much a product of a decade of malaise and the sense that the world was in a state of decay and institutions were powerless to stop it, Deliverance , like Taxi Driver , transcends the era in which it was made. Four decades later, it is recognized as a classic film, and rightfully so.

Talk to Your Kids About ...

Families can talk about the violence in Deliverance . How was violence used to illustrate the broader points of the movie?

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Movie Details

  • In theaters : July 30, 1972
  • On DVD or streaming : September 18, 2007
  • Cast : Burt Reynolds , Jon Voight , Ned Beatty
  • Director : John Boorman
  • Studio : Warner Home Video
  • Genre : Drama
  • Topics : Book Characters
  • Run time : 109 minutes
  • MPAA rating : R
  • Awards : Academy Award , Golden Globe
  • Last updated : January 3, 2023

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deliverance movie review nytimes

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There is a book called "The Worst Journey in the World," by Apsley Cherry-Gerrard. He was a member of Scott's doomed last expedition to the Antarctic, and he was the survivor who found the frozen bodies of Scott and his two companions a few miles from the depot that would have saved their lives.

But the "worst journey" described in the title is not Scott's; it is a winter journey undertaken during the Antarctic night by Cherry-Gerrard and two others. Their objective was to bring back the rare eggs of the emperor penguin.

Now why would I mention all this in a review of a movie named "Deliverance"? Maybe because there is a lesson to be learned here somewhere.

Cherry-Gerrard and his friends suffered unspeakable physical and mental punishment during their journey. Their ordeal had a scientific rationale; the emperor penguin is one of the most backward of birds, and its eggs might hold clues to the evolution of our species. What Cherry-Gerrard discovered on his journey, however, is that it was quite possibly not worth it.

He did somehow survive and lived to a healthy age -- but as a melancholy, withdrawn, brooding old man whose spirit had been permanently altered by the test he put it to. If there is a worst journey in the world, Cherry-Gerrard was there and took it and knew what it was like.

James Dickey 's "Deliverance" also is the story of a "worst journey." Four city slickers from Atlanta decide to take a canoe trip down a river that will soon be flooded out to make a lake.

One of the four is big on the old machismo. The other three, to various degrees, are unsuited to make the journey. Before their trip is over, one of them is dead, one has been raped by a demented hillbilly and the other two have each killed a hillbilly with a bow and arrow.

Dickey, who wrote the original novel and the screenplay, lards this plot with a lot of significance -- universal, local, whatever happens to be on the market. He is clearly under the impression that he is telling us something about the nature of man, and particularly civilized man's ability to survive primitive challenges ("Survival," the macho Burt Reynolds character tells us, "is the name of the game")

But I don't think it works that way. The movie is admittedly effective on the level of simple adventure. Director John Boorman and his cameraman, Vilmos Zsigmond , get some tremendously good (and unfaked) footage of the foursome shooting some fairly hairy rapids.

The scenes of violence and rape also work, it must be admitted, although in a disgusting way. The appeal to latent sadism is so crudely made that the audience is embarrassed.

As sometimes happens, however, the performances have a validity that transcends the film; Jon Voight , Burt Reynolds and, indeed, all the members of the cast are finely tuned and very good.

What the movie totally fails at, however, is its attempt to make some kind of significant statement about its action. For all of his 6 feet 4 inches and prowess with a bow and arrow, what James Dickey has given us here is a fantasy about violence, not a realistic consideration of it.

The adventures that occur in the film belong in Freudian dreams, and many of the exploits (particularly Voight's scaling of a cliff) are so incredible that we are back in a James Bond universe.

It's possible to consider civilized men in a confrontation with the wilderness without throwing in rapes, cowboy-and-Indian stunts and pure exploitative sensationalism. That's why I was reminded of "The Worst Journey in the World," I suppose. It makes Dickey's odyssey seem absolutely adolescent.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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Deliverance movie poster

Deliverance (1972)

109 minutes

Jon Voight as Ed

Burt Reynolds as Lewis

Ned Beatty as Bobby

Ronny Cox as Drew

James Dickey as Sheriff Bullard

Photographed by

  • Vilmos Zsigmond
  • Tom Priestley

Screenplay by

  • James Dickey

Produced and directed by

  • John Boorman

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This Is Where Deliverance Was Really Filmed

Ed Gentry surprised

One day, four businessmen from Atlanta, Georgia, decided to get a taste of the great outdoors in the form of a canoeing trip. However, little did Ed Gentry (John Voight), Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds), Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox), and Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty) realize, their refreshing break from the everyday would devolve into a living nightmare. Dangerous locals, a harsh landscape, and next to no supplies leave the four men in an unexpected fight for survival. This is the story of "Deliverance" : a 1972 film by director John Boorman that went on to become a standout work in the survival thriller genre.

Despite its graphic imagery and unsettling atmosphere, "Deliverance" remains one of the most celebrated productions of its time. It went a long way in putting late Hollywood icon Burt Reynolds on the map , drew more eyes to the 1970 novel by James Dickey that it adapts,  left most critics and moviegoers thoroughly entertained , and secured numerous awards and nominations  to boot. The memorable performances and gripping plot did most of the legwork to make this happen, though "Deliverance" wouldn't have made nearly the impact it did without its wilderness setting.

 For those curious, here's where the filming of "Deliverance" took place in the early 1970s.

Filming for Deliverance took the cast and crew into the Georgia wilderness

It's no secret that when it comes to on-location filming, issues can arise in a variety of forms. Poor weather conditions, overcast skies, structural damage, and more are a frustrating reality. Thankfully, technological innovations such as the green screen and Lucasfilm's Volume have made it easier than ever to fabricate environments in controlled areas. Of course, that's not to say outdoor filming is dead — it's far from it. There's a level of realism that you can only get from a real place, as evidenced by "Deliverance" and its use of Georgia wilderness.

As broken down by Film Locations , production on "Deliverance" took place near the border that Georgia shares with the Carolinas. The famed Cahulawassee River from the film is actually known as the Chattooga River, of which filming only required around 10 miles or so. Screaming Left Turn, Raven Rock, and the now-aptly-named Deliverance Rock all make appearances throughout the final movie, in addition to Tallulah Gorge. Lake Jocassee takes the spotlight near the end, specifically when Duke Power Company flooded Jocassee Valley back in 1971.

While "Deliverance" made great use of the Georgia landscape, the movie's existence hasn't gone without controversy. Now decades removed from its premiere, some people from Rabun County still feel the effects of the negative stereotypes the film generated of the locals. Meanwhile, others are just happy to be from somewhere associated with such an influential piece of cinema history (via Marketplace ). Nevertheless, "Deliverance" drove a ton of tourism in the region at the time and continues to do so in the modern-day.

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Deliverance Reviews

  • 80   Metascore
  • 1 hr 49 mins
  • Drama, Suspense, Action & Adventure
  • Watchlist Where to Watch

Four city dwellers take on the white water of a river in the backwoods of Georgia to enjoy the beauty of nature before a dam project ruins it. But the group gets separated, and the river and its surroundings are much worse than expected.

Morose, shockingly violent yet strangely beautiful, DELIVERANCE is a tale of what happens to civilized values when put to the test in a hostile wilderness environment. Four Atlanta businessmen decide to get back to nature by treking to the Appalachian wilds to canoe, hunt, and fish in an unspoiled environment before it is permanently flooded by a new dam. But what begins as an adventurous vacation becomes a nightmare of survival as they find themselves hunted by vengeful cretinous mountain men. Voight, Reynolds, Beatty, and Cox are the four city dwellers looking to prove their manhood in the wild. Each of their personal values is put to the test in the course of their deadly adventure. What does it mean to be a man? How far will one go to survive? This is a tough and powerful portrait of men out of their usual environment. Nor is the deplorable squalor of the mountain communities glossed over. This is not a film for the squeamish. Some have accused the film of exploiting rather than exploring the moments of violent drama culled from James Dickey's first novel while deemphasizing its ecological concerns. Others were troubled by the seemingly peverse beauty of the film. All agree, however, that the meeting between the uneasy quartet and a deformed albino mountain child is a highlight. Cox sees that the kid has a banjo, picks up his own, and strums a few notes. The boy answers him. Then the two challenge each other until both go at a frenzied pace banging out a mountain tune. This celebrated "Duelling Banjos" sequence is an eerie moment of grace before the violence begins. Boorman's direction is gripping if a bit heavy-handed. The rapids scenes in particular are electrifying. Cinematographer Zsigmond presents breathtaking scenes that sear the memory. Reynolds excelled in this rare serious role. Dickey adapted his own novel and appears as a sheriff.

We thought the Golden Globes couldn't get any worse. We were wrong.

deliverance movie review nytimes

The Golden Globe s were bad until they tried to get better.

It's not easy to find your floor and drop below it, but one should never underestimate the Golden Globes, the awkward uncle of Hollywood's awards season famous for drunk celebrities, angry Ricky Gervais barbs, and a diversity scandal that nearly ended the show altogether.

Sunday's ceremony, the first since the disbanding of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which handed out the Globes for the first eight decades of its existence, proves that bad things can always get worse if you just try hard enough.

The host of the cursed ceremony, comedian Jo Koy , couldn't take all the blame for its abject failure, although he didn't do much to help. A no-name booked just 10 days ago after many more famous and talented names gave hard passes, Koy bombed harder than "Oppenheimer" in a monologue that preceded a slog of a show that should embarrass every single person who took part in it – yes, the winners and nominees too. Thanks, I guess, to the Golden Globes Foundation.

If the "Golden Globes Foundation" sounds made up, that's because it was, very recently. It's the organization that rose from the ashes of the HFPA, the besmirched entity the winning actors once thanked on the stage. But a 2021 Los Angeles Times report highlighted the lack of diversity among the HFPA's 87 members (as in,  no Black members at all ). That led to actor and studio boycotts of the Globes and, ultimately, to NBC opting not to renew its contract to air the awards.

What happened next was like a Greek tragedy, although not one worthy of being made into a movie. The HFPA dissolved, and the Globes brand was bought by Dick Clark Productions (now owned by Penske Media, the parent of nearly every major Hollywood trade publication including The Hollywood Reporter and Variety magazine). CBS snapped up the rights to air the show at a fire-sale price. The awards are now voted on by "more than 300 member journalists from around the world,  of whom half are ethnically and racially diverse ," at least according to the Globes Foundation.

Did any of this lead to something better? No. The new voting body acted much like the old one if a little more in line with the choices pundits predict the Emmy and Oscar voters will make at their ceremonies on Jan. 15 and March 12, respectively. The speeches ranged from occasionally sweet to mostly fine and sometimes bad. The telecast was atrocious. And perhaps the best achievement the Globes ever had – to spotlight superb but unfamiliar film and TV – has been completely neutered by the damage to the show's reputation and the already-depressed ratings in an era of award show fatigue.

As the show opened with Koy outright yelling at the audience that somehow still included the biggest names in Hollywood, the celebrities in the Beverly Hilton ballroom appeared to cringe as one, with muted applause and mere whispers of laughter. It was as if they had all been held hostage.

Of course, everyone hates being there until they win a trophy. More than one actor said the Globe, which all of Hollywood once eschewed, "meant the world" to them. There were real tears and prepared speeches. Only the unflappable and bulletproof Robert Downey Jr. deigned to mention the changes to the makeup of the people who voted on the awards. Will Ferrell bellowed "The Golden Globes have not changed!" as if anyone at home has followed the decidedly inside-Hollywood saga enough to get the joke. "Oppenheimer" composer Ludwig Gorranson even accidentally thanked the HFPA.

Dissolving and rebranding of the organization has done little other than make it impossible to book a host and turn the Globes into an even more cheap, self-aggrandizing dress rehearsal for the Emmys and Oscars. Did we need really all those standing ovations? They used to be special.

I could nitpick at all the problems with Sunday's telecast, from the hugely terrible to the mildly annoying. The only presenters who seemed to remember they were performers meant to entertain people were Andra Day and Jon Batiste − both musicians not actors, mind you. Even the room was poorly set up. It took awkward seconds of silence, and the front section scooting like a Little League team in an overcrowded Denny's booth, for the winning cast and creator of Netflix's "Beef" to make it to the stage.

The Golden Globes used to be the worst awards show. Now it's all the worst things about them, wrapped up into one: Glittery fodder for the naysayers who would do away with long nights of the beautiful and the rich handing awards to each other. The sad truth is that awards shows can be great: They can celebrate art sincerely and can be as entertaining as the movies they nominate. How many people remember Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's Globes monologues? Many more than can remember past Globes winners, that's for sure.

Koy may not have been able to land a joke tonight, but the Globes have turned into one giant punchline. Do we really have to do this again next year?


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