Deliverance: Camping Romp With Banjos & Rivers

Deliverance the 1972 film
Do you deliver?

Here’s a notorious thriller from 1972. Directed by John Boorman, it’s a tense and disturbing romp about banjos, hillbillies, and inbreeding. Lovely!

Deliverance

Four business blokes from Atlanta decide to take a weekend off to go canoeing in the Georgia wilderness.

A region set to be dammed soon (as in, a dam is being constructed—no religious stuff going on there).

The dudes include the macho Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds) and more chilled out Ed Gentry (Jon Voight). Then there’s canoeing novices Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty—who has such an amazing cameo in Network in 1976) and Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox).

What’s supposed to be a chilled out affair faces a few odd hurdles. They patronise a few locals, who look down on the “city boys”.

But Drew then engages one young boy in a rollicking romp of a dueling banjos. This is possibly the most famous scene in the movie (barring one other notorious one).

The young actor here is Billy Redden, who was only 15 at the time.

The others check around the petrol station and see signs of unusual looking ill people. The implication is there’s a lot of inbreeding going on.

A whole “inbred hillybilly” thing seemed to really kick off in the 1970s. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) has that going on. More recently, Resident Evil 7 plays on the trope.

Anyway, back to the plot! After the banjo duel, the lads get down to going on their camping trip.

They set off down river and all seems like good fun. Travelling in pairs, two in a canoe, they’re briefly separated.

Bobby and Ed then come across two mountain men (Herbert Coward and Bill McKinney) coming out of the woods, one of whom is missing his front teeth. And he’s packing a banjo.

The other is a total unhinged nutcase. What follows is one of the most legendarily notorious scenes, with McKinney’s character going on an insane rape rampage.

For obvious reasons, we’re not including that here. It’s brutal stuff that adds a real dimension of fear to the film—even horror. Like it’s an unreal nightmare.

Lewis arrives in time to shoot the rapist with an arrow, but the other man flees into the woods.

A debate follows about what to do with the dead body. The decide to bury it (good idea!) then hurtle off down the river hoping to quickly leave.

But during the panicked rush down, Drew suddenly collapses into the water. There’s no explanation as to why. Lewis also breaks his leg.

Believing Drew was shot by the other rapist, Lewis orders him to climb the gorge to find and kill the toothless man.

This Ed manages to do… but it’s unclear whether he’s killed the man or not. Although pulling out his dentures, it appears they got their man.

Once again, they bury the body and hustle out of the area. Concocting a cover story, they decide keep the story a secret for the rest of their lives.

The horror, eh? And the film really does play out like some sick and twisted horror film.

It’s not something you stick on for casual viewing and a bit of a laugh. You watch the film to freak out a bit—get the “Cripes!” vibes.

Which it manages with considerable panache. Deliverance is dark and disturbing.

It’s a film we feel Antonia Bird’s cult classic Ravenous (1999) makes subtle intertextual nods to. But it doesn’t stop there, as pop culture references are all over society for Deliverance.

Even if you haven’t watched the film, you know all about dueling banjos and the implications of those jangly strings.

Deliverance’s Production

Adapted from James Dickey’s eponymous 1970 work, it’s a real unusual film.

Off its $2 million budget, it raked back $46.1 million. Nice! An indication of how big a hit it was. Frankly because it seemed to scare the bejeezus out of everyone.

Something Jaws (1975) managed a few years later, to a much more lucrative extent.

But Deliverance’s budget was so low it’s got a reputation for refusing to insure the production. Director John Boorman also demanded the actors perform their stunts.

Burt Reynolds did a river scene in the canoe, which resulted in a broken tailbone.

It’s the type of full on stuff James Cameron went on to demand from his actors. Worth it, eh, to be in an all-time classic?

Because despite how remarkably disturbing Deliverance is, the film is now a big part of pop culture.

Later, movies spoofed many of the cliches Deliverance helped to set up. Most notably with Tucker & Dale VS Evil in 2010.

All very good… but what about the area the film was set in? What about the reputation of the locals? Not until Fargo (1996) did a region of America received such a battering.

The banjo kid, Billy Redden (now 64), was interviewed in a 2012 documentary The Deliverance of Rabun County.

Here’s Redden back in 2012 with an impressive banjo.

The documentary explored locals in the county and their feelings about the film, which cast a negative impression about them.

Redden said the film role was the best thing that ever happened to him.

But it didn’t open any doorways for him—in 2012, he said he was working for Walmart and struggling.

Just a reminder there that not everyone gets to advance on their lucky break.

3 comments

  1. A great review. I watched Deliverance twice. The second time against my better judgement , a nightmarish film that I never plan to watch again. Completely taken by surprise by the scene you refer to I nearly lost my lunch. The backwoods people portrayed are eerily realistic of that region.

    Liked by 1 person

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