Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Deliverance

The publication of Deliverance in 1970 and release of the film of the same name in 1972 inspired among young Georgians an interest in the Chattooga River and its rapids and the surrounding mountains. Located on the border of South Carolina and Georgia, a few miles from the small mountain town of Clayton, the river was the basis for the Cahoolawasie River of Dickey’s novel, and the location where much of the film was made. During the spring and summers, campers, canoers, and kayakers flocked to the river, with their money and gleaming new equipment and big city ways. They traded stories about their experiences on the river, using names like Bull Sluice, the Narrows, Woodall Shoals, and their encounters with local residents. To an extent the local economy benefitted from this sudden popularity, but many of the campers and river enthusiasts viewed the local folk in much the same way that Dickey’s novel and John Boorman’s film did: as backwoods exotics.

I was among these enthusiasts and visited the river a number of times, wending my way down section three, never daring section four, where the most challenging rapids are found. Once I floated down section three in a raft with my brother and a beagle, and when we went over Bull Sluice, a narrow and furious two-step drop of nearly sixteen feet, I was flung from the raft and plunged by the force of the water deep beneath the river’s surface. I remember telling myself, whirling around down there deep beneath the river, that eventually I would rise to the surface and breathe, and fending off the fear that I would not. After what was probably an interlude of only a few seconds, to me very long seconds, I rose to the surface, thereby making it possible, some forty years later, to offer these comments.

Deliverance was a city boy’s view of wilderness in the modern South. Zell Miller, lieutenant governor of Georgia when the film appeared, was incensed by its portrayal of North Georgians. In his recent book about the people and culture of north Georgia, Purt Nigh Gone, the Old Mountain Ways, he wrote about how “the false portrayal of mountain people as depraved and amoral cretins by writers like James Dickey in his popular novel ‘Deliverance,’ have done lasting harm in how the mountaineer is portrayed.”[1] When he was governor of Georgia in the 1990s, still smarting, he placed the novel on his list of “most hated” books.[2] As far as stereotypes go, the governor had a point. Both novel and film do stereotype mountain people, especially those who live in the remote regions alongside the upper reaches of the river. The people of Aintree are portrayed in a more chairtable way, though it’s clear we’re meant to see them as quaintly unsophisticated.

But Deliverance isn’t a documentary or a historical study. It’s a film based on a novel whose literary reputation seems to have endured and grown over the last four decades. Deliverance is a very fine film, one of the best films “about the South” ever made. Its virtues are manifold: it retains the core elements of the novel’s narrative, it translates the poetry of Dickey’s prose through remarkable cinematography, it uses the local setting of North Georgia’s Chattooga River to good effect, it foregoes a dramatic musical soundtrack and instead uses the sounds of the river and forest, it focuses the action largely on the interactions of the four main characters, and more specifically on the relationship of Lewis and his protégé Ed, the narrative consciousness of both novel and film. The rape of Bobby by one of the mountain men is graphic, brutal, and deeply disturbing—it was meant to be nothing less. And the entire film is shrouded, veiled, with ambiguity—from such minor details as why Lewis speaks to one of the mountain men in a rude and aggressive way, to the meaning of a random sound in the woods, to the configuration of the dead rapist’s body as the four men carry him upstream to bury him, to such major issues as why Drew dies (was he shot, did he fall from the boat, did he throw himself out) to the identity of the young mountain man Ed shoots (was he the wrong man), to the fundamental ambiguity of the rising hydroelectric impoundment waters that will rise and cover, obscure, obliterate the buried bodies and the truths of what happened (if truths they can ever be) on that fatal weekend. The film’s very title is an ambiguity: Deliverance. From what, or whom?

The reputation of Deliverance (both novel and film) as an icon of masculine swagger obscures the central interests of the story. Beyond and behind the macho bluster of Lewis and the middle-age lurching of his friends is an investigation of cultural imperialism, of the impact of the modern urban world not only on the rural outlands of the mountain South but on the very consciousness of Southerners, of Americans, of the modern individual. Two of the most difficult scenes in the film focus on encounters between the weekend canoers from Atlanta and the inhabitants of the mountains near the Cahoolawassie. One is when Lewis and crew stop at a mountain house to find men to drive their vehicles down to Aintree. The other is the infamous rape scene. One is implied violence and the other is explicit violence.

Boorman, guided by Dickey’s screenplay and his own inclinations, places a number of plot lines in uneasy relation to one another. One is the idea that civilization has deprived men of their essential animal humanity, separated them from what D. H. Lawrence would have called blood knowledge. Cut off from their natural origins, left soft and weak by civilized conveniences, they must relearn how to survive in the world. The character Lewis (Burt Reynolds) embodies these ideas, and he makes it his mission to expose his three companions to survival skills. He’s especially interested in mentoring his friend Drew (Jon Voight), who feels somewhat adrift in his life, dissatisfied. These ideas are expressed in one of Dickey’s best and most characteristic poems, “Springer Mountain,” where the deer hunter must lay down his weapons and shed his clothes in order to accomplish a true knowledge of his natural self. (There are echoes here of Faulkner’s “The Bear” and, more deeply, of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.) Director John Boorman visited this theme again in 1985 in The Emerald Forest, about a young American boy lost in the Amazonian forest who is adopted by a local tribe. When his father finds him, he has taken on all the traits and behaviors of his benefactors. The larger theme of this film focuses on the pristine Amazonian forest, threatened by the construction of a huge dam that will, like the dam in Deliverance, inundate the forest when it becomes operational. In this film, however, the boy and his father blow up the dam and save the rain forest, at least temporarily.

The ethical debate at the heart of Deliverance centers on the argument of the four men about what to do with the mountain man Lewis has killed. Drew, the intellectual in the group (his glasses and guitar signify this), believes in the conventions of civilized society: he wants to take the body downstream to Aintree, explain what happened to the authorities, and accept the consequences. Lewis takes the opposite view, arguing that if they take the body downstream there will be a murder charge and a trial by a jury of local residents, some of whom may be the dead man’s relatives. Lewis takes the survivalist view—he wants to do what is necessary to extricate the group from the situation. It is a view indifferent to the law and the family of the dead man. It is also an argument based on convenience—he doesn’t want to waste his time trying to explain why he killed a man, especially a man from the backwoods who forcibly sodomized one his companions. Ultimately Bobby and Ed side with Lewis, and the group takes the body a ways upstream to bury it. In a pointed statement, it is Drew who is killed (or who dies accidentally, or who kills himself) while they are navigating rapids downriver shortly after the burial. Drew is so upset with the decision the group has made that he seems overcome. He furiously digs the grave with his bare hands, wheezing and panting. When they return to the river, he refuses to wear his life jacket and does not respond to his friends. Then he pitches into the water. Significantly, the only one of the four to argue for civilized ways of doing things, he dies soon after he loses the argument.

Lewis does not win the argument either. His attitude is that with learned skills and brawn he can tough his way through any adversity, especially in the natural world. Yet he has not been careful in scouting out the rapids and waterfalls of the Cahoolawasie, and when the remaining men come to an unexpected waterfall, they tumble into the water. One canoe is broken in half. Lewis emerges with a broken thigh bone sticking out of his leg—he’s rendered powerless, unmanned. Even when his protégé Ed crawls up the cliff by the river, waits through the night, and then manages to kill with a bow and arrow the man he believes shot Drew, he does not win either. The dead man does not look exactly like the mountain man they encountered in the forest—is he the wrong man? Now the three men do not bother to debate the ethics of tying rocks to the corpse and sinking it in the river.

The point is that neither Drew nor Lewis nor Ed nor the raped Bobby win the argument. Drew dies, Lewis is maimed, Bobby is violated, and Ed is left with haunting uncertainty and guilt over all their actions in the woods. Three dead men are left behind as the result of this weekend lark on the river.

Despite the stereotypical portrayals of the mountain folk, the film’s clear viewpoint is that the men from the city have transgressed. They have first of all come to the river unprepared for the rapids and falls they face, for the mountain folk they encounter. Their assumptions from the start are ones of cultural superiority—mountain culture is inferior and primitive--and they act on the conviction that education, employment, and income empower them to act without concern about consequences of their actions. This form of transgression is passive and unintentional—the city men simply are who they are, city men, in all their blandly sheltered homogeneity, and when they enter the foreign terrain of North Georgia, their indifference and ignorance lead to disaster. A second form of transgression is more pervasive and sinister. The four men from Atlanta are mere aspects of this transgression, embodied in the hydroelectric dam whose reservoir will flood and submerge the Cahoolawassie River and everything around it. An entire culture and way of life, not to mention wild forest and its ecosystem, will disappear. This change is already taking place as the film ends—cemeteries are being moved, churches transported to higher ground, people leaving Aintree. The dam is the agent of the modern world, of the growth of Southern cities, of technology and a world economy of ravenous capitalism. The dam will provide power and drinking water to the city of Atlanta. It brings progress, but at the cost of the mountain wilderness and the culture and community found there.

It’s easy enough to view the experience of the four men in Deliverance as akin to the experience of Mr. Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: they wander into the dark forest and discover their capacity for savagery, for murder. What Boorman’s film emphasizes, however, is also the destructive impact of modern commerce and technology on marginal yet distinctive cultures around the world.


[1] As quoted in http://www.gainesvilletimes.com/archives/18744/. See Zell Miller, Purt Nigh Gone, the Old Mountain Ways (Stroud & Hall Publishers, 2009).

[2] Dwight Garner, “’Deliverance’: A Dark Heart Still Beating,” New York Times, August 24, 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/books/25dickey.html.

1 comment:

Luke C. Ruppersburg, Sr.? said...

Good review. I remember our ventures to the river like it was yesterday.