"Because they're building a dam across the Cahulawassee River. They're gonna flood a whole valley, Bobby, that's why. Dammit, they're drownin' the river... Just about the last wild, untamed, unpolluted, unfucked up river in the South. Don't you understand what I'm saying?... They're gonna stop the river up. There ain't gonna be no more river. There's just gonna be a big, dead lake... You just push a little more power into Atlanta, a little more air-conditioners for your smug little suburb, and you know what's gonna happen? We're gonna rape this whole god-damned landscape. We're gonna rape it." -- Lewis (Burt Reynolds)
John Boorman's Deliverance plays just as powerful and as terrifying and as beautiful today. Released in 1972, the movie is thoughtful, disturbing, haunting, controversial, shocking – its story layered with action, darkness and the character’s self-reflection, their soul-wrenching journeys. With a screenplay adapted from his own novel, James Dickey didn't spare us the depth and horror of the story – and nature, though beautiful – was something to look at lovingly, something to experience, and something to save from destruction, but also something to fear. And that is real. Nature is big and unpredictable and it doesn’t care about you.
Dickey and Boorman crafted an entertaining, tension-horror-packed adventure tale about four men on a river canoe trip in remote Northern Georgia, but within its wild rapids, brief joy of dueling banjos, gorgeous scenery, and ominous mountain terrors, it explores nature, civilization and the dark, vulnerable, muddled hearts of men – their violence, their masculinity (and questioning it – what does that even mean), their inner struggles, their sadness, their guilt, their values and their humanity.
In Los Angeles, promoting the picture's 40th anniversary, the four stars, Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, sat down with me to discuss the classic picture, its themes and what went into making such a challenging film. Sometimes when you talk to actors about movies they made decades ago, they speak in more general terms – even of their classics. Not this group. They remember specific stories. Some very funny stories. Some scary. And they certainly remember each other. Very well.
Burt Reynolds was charismatic and still full of his own kind of swagger (it’s not boastful, it’s playful, like he knows his masculinity is amusing), and he was quick-witted, insightful and charming. Ned Beatty was jokingly ornery while genuinely curious about how his wife's golf game was going. Jon Voight was warm and pensive but quick to laugh. Ronny Cox was thoughtful and down to earth. They were all surprisingly easy to talk to, in fact, and all incredibly intelligent, not surprisingly. Watching them interact I, at times, felt like I had sat down at a card game among good buddies – playfully ribbing and riffing off of each other, these men were so comfortable with one another, they clearly bonded during that tough shoot so many years ago. And that bond remains. It was impressive and touching and wonderful to experience all these years later.
It was a rare opportunity. But since time was crunched, (they were readying to get on stage and present the picture), I only had ten minutes. Maybe fifteen. Fifteen minutes! Not enough time and so many questions. Each man required an hour at the very least. All of these actors have been a part of such phenomenal, legendary movies – to name just a handful – Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home, Bound for Glory, RoboCop, Network, Nashville, The Longest Yard, Smokey and the Bandit, Semi-Tough, Boogie Nights – and have worked with notable directors such as Hal Ashby, Sidney Lumet, Elaine May, Alan J. Pakula, Michael Ritchie, Robert Aldrich, Robert Altman, Paul Verhoeven, Paul Thomas Anderson and the list goes on and on and on. Dear lord, I could have rambled on for hours with Burt Reynolds, on White Lightning and Gator alone (the great Reynolds is, I think, underappreciated for his impressive range – see the excellent Starting Over – but that's another piece). So please excuse the brevity here. What follows is my short, sweet, funny, insightful and, for me, personally historic discussion.
KIM MORGAN: What an honor to sit with all of you and discuss such a legendary movie. Just to say a few things: Deliverance never feels dated. It still plays so revolutionary and daring today. There really has never been another movie like it. And one that truly, truly explores its themes: civilized man having to face their uncivilized, more savage natures, and not making any easy moralizations about it. And you just feel these characters – what they're going through – I have to think much of that was based on the way it was shot. You shot it chronologically. And then... all the beauty, power, attraction and fear of nature. It’s so potent, making it one of the many reasons why it sticks with viewers for such a long time.
BURT REYNOLDS: I think you’re right on the money. You said it very well. I’d also like to mention… as Ronny has said too... that women get this movie much quicker than men. Women also understand. You know, for so many years men threw the word rape around and never thought about what they were saying. And I think the picture makes men think about something that’s very important, that we understand the pain and embarrassment and the change of people’s lives.
RONNY COX: I think also, the thing that you mentioned. That we did it together, and that we did it in sequence. Because typically movies especially this day of CGI and things like that, there’s a part of your brain that knows that is CGI and you sort of willingly believe that characters are going through these things, but then, you don’t REALLY. Whereas, if you look at this film, and there’s, for instance, a long shot of guys in canoes... and they say, “Stay on that shot! Stay on that shot!" – it pays off viscerally in ways that other films can’t. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s such a visceral experience today. Because it’s forty years old now, and it still stands up.
KM: Your characters go through so many changes in the film, obviously, Mr. Reynolds, you start out as, what in any other Hollywood movie, would serve as the hero but then you get that compound fracture..
REYNOLDS: You know where that bone that came out of my leg came from? Well I went to a butcher in Clayton and I said, “I really want that really huge bone that you have there.” And then I broke it backwards and I said, “I need some blood.” And he said, “I’ve got a lot of blood.” And he gave me a huge pail of blood, real blood, so it didn’t look like that stupid ketchup that they have in movies, and when I went out and stuck it through my legs and I poured the blood over it. I must say, a lot of guys got kind of ill over it.
COX: Me! (Laughs)
REYNOLDS: But it had a wonderful effect. It had the effect that I wanted it to have, which that it was frightening. And it worked internally for me. It was an external thing that worked internally.
COX: There were so many shocking things, I mean, of course the rape. But my shoulder being out of place. Their stomachs were turned by that.
JON VOIGHT: A lot of reasons to get sick in this movie.
REYNOLDS: (Pointing to Cox) His shoulder is amazing. Have you seen him do that?
KM: In person? No.
REYNOLDS: He can do it. Ronny?
VOIGHT: You can’t do it any longer, can you?
COX: I’m too old. (Laughs) But the film, when they find Drew, with his arm around – that’s actually my shoulder. I actually did that. I’ve had a whole lot of people say, that’s the most unbelievable shot. That movie was believable except that! And it was real!
KM: (To Voight) One of my favorite scenes is when you have to scale that mountain, and you have to take over the “hero” role, but it’s not as simple as that. And I know you really did get on that mountain, so the feelings there are so authentic and it’s so sad and terrifying. One of the most powerful moments is when you lose your family photos, when they drop out of your hands… it’s just so heartbreaking.
VOIGHT: Yes, yes. When he's losing his touch with his family. What that reminds me of is all the guys that we send to war. You understand what they go through. They go through all of those feelings and then they have to put themselves on the line… they don’t know if they’re coming back. All of those guys – that’s true bravery. Anyway, that piece of the film in the book is brilliantly written, of course when you’re doing a film, as opposed to the novel you can’t get all this stuff in. But with these two brilliant imagists, Dickey on the one hand and Boorman on the other – one gives you the visual poetry and the other gives you the verbal poetry. But in the book it goes on for five pages… It was exciting to participate in that [scene]. It was the one thing that drew me to the film, that scene, that moment that you’re talking about. When he has this catharsis in the middle and a crisis and he almost breaks apart halfway up the climb, and he loses his touches with his family and civilization, and then he has to get himself together and then continue on the way. It was exciting to be the person to embody that one chapter in the book.
KM: Mr. Beatty, this was your very first feature film.
NED BEATTY: Me? No! My very first film role was for the FBI.
KM: For the FBI?
BEATTY: Yeah, I played a bank robber in a film for J. Edgar Hoover. I thought I was making this to train FBI officers…
KM: It wasn’t a feature film it was a… [Note: Deliverance was Beatty's first feature film]
BEATTY: (Joking) Let me finish! (He then stands up and with ornery playfulness, makes more jokes.) I’m just kidding. I like being the bad guy. You wanna know why? (He leans in). You make more money and it’s more fun.
BEATTY: So anyway, I went into this place…
(Everyone starts laughing)
BEATTY: (To everyone, joking) Shut up, I’m talking here, dammit! (Calls out to the publicists) Hey! Can I have someone in here to control these three guys? I don’t care who it is! Send three or four women, they can take care of them! They’re old guys! They can’t do nothing. Anyway, I made this movie for the FBI and when I walked in the door to the audition, I dressed up like an FBI guy because that’s what I thought I was going to play. When I walked in the door the guy said, “That’s our bank robber right there!” So I robbed a bank.
REYNOLDS: (Amusingly exasperated to Beatty) This is longer than the movie.
BEATTY: (Playfully) Shut up, Burt! Burt knows that I love and respect him… so anyway that was my first movie and they sent it out to all the police officers all around the small towns of America and when I was still working in the theater, I used to go to a small town and do a play or something and I got arrested right away.
COX: (Offers) It was my first film.
BEATTY: Are you doing a book on this?
KM: No, I’m not doing a book...
BEATTY: You snatch my story. This is a real story. (Says jokingly) The rest of this is a bunch of artistic poof!
KM: But again, this was a daring first major role to take on, and a lot of actors now would even shy away from it.
BEATTY: You know what, at that point in my acting career, I thought I could act anything. And I could. So, what would be the problem?
KM: To all of you. What was it like working with James Dickey? He was on the set for some of the time…
REYNOLDS: It was not easy. Not easy. No. He’s a big man and he’s a poet and he’s full of...
COX: And he actually wasn’t on the set except when he came back to play the sheriff maybe because he was asked by John Boorman to not be there.
REYNOLDS: He was asked by us! By us!
COX: The problem with Dickey, he’s a wonderful poet and novelist and he had written the screenplay, but he also had a mammoth ego and wanted to run everything. He really wanted to direct the picture. He really wanted to be in charge of everything. James Dickey’s talent goes a long, long, long way before it runs out of gas. But it does run out of gas and it runs out of gas just short of knowing how to make a film, and so it became problematic.
REYNOLDS: He also was an alcoholic. He was usually pretty smashed by two o clock.
COX: Yes, several times, we would come back from rehearsal or whatever, and he never called any of us by our real names.
REYNOLDS: No, he called us our character’s names.
COX: Yes… our character’s names. I figured out why that was. He owned those characters. He owned Lewis. He didn’t own Burt. He would come in with his cronies and say “Drew! Come over here and do that scene!” And want you to play that scene for his cronies.
KM: He was wonderful as the sheriff...
REYNOLDS: He was.
COX: He was good. And he’s a wonderful poet.
REYNOLDS: He was bigger than life.
VOIGHT: There’s a secret to that scene too.
KM: What’s the secret?
VOIGHT: When John [Boorman] shot that scene, Jim Dickey had written the part for himself and he had a whole section, he went on and on, so I was looking at it saying going, “Woah… this is going to be difficult.” And he was very convincing as the sheriff, he was really terrific and he had great presence, but he had all of these extra words so John said, “OK, Jim, say these words over here… and you get up in front of the hood and say the rest of these words, and then you come over and talk to Jon...” And what John [Boorman] was going to do in the beginning, was take those sections by the headlights and cut them out. So, he just had this first section, and you see him arrive and talk with me. So, he had designed for himself a major scene that wasn’t in it. But, listen, he was very brilliant, the writing was all good, but it was not needed. And if he’d known that it was going to be cut out, there would have been a big argument.
BEATTY: (Joking) I thought he sounded a little bit too southern.
REYNOLDS to BEATTY: Would you like another drink?
"Deliverance" has been released in a 40th anniversary Blu-Ray edition which features commentary by John Boorman, multiple featurettes with the cast and crew, a vintage behind the scenes documentary that includes James Dickey and more. The Blu-Ray is packaged in a nice hardback, 42 page book with all kinds of information and production stills.
And here's that famous scene. I love this moment, not just for the joyful, now iconic music, but that this joy is mixed with such a portent of doom. Joy does not last long. Burt Reynolds' Lewis smiles, but you get the feeling he knows before the song is over -- this is not going to be easy, in so many ways.