1973’s The Exorcist is often cited as the first horror film to ever be nominated for best picture and technically, I guess that’s correct. It was definitely the first best picture nominee to ever deal with a battle between humans and a malevolent supernatural force and no one can deny that The Exorcist has influenced a countless number of horror films.
That said, I think you could make the argument that Deliverance, which was nominated for best picture the year before The Exorcist, was in its own way, a horror film. Certainly, every crazed hick slasher film that has come out since 1972 owes a debt to Deliverance. Deliverance‘s ending has been imitated by so many other horror films that it’s become a bit of cliche. Though there might not be any supernatural creatures in Deliverance, the film still features its own set of horrifying monsters. The toothless redneck rapists (played by character actor Bill McKinney and rodeo performer Herbert “Cowboy” Coward) seem as if they’ve jumped straight out of a nightmare and into the movie. Of course, they aren’t the only monsters in this film. There’s also the (fictional) Cahulawassee River, which is due to be dammed up and seems to be determined to take out its anger on anyone foolish enough to try to navigate it.
Much as with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which came out just two years after Deliverance), the main theme here seem to be that you should be careful about going off the main road. Just as the unfortunate hippies and college students in Texas Chainsaw Massacre proved to be no match for a clan of backwoods cannibal, the four middle-aged men at the center of Deliverance discover that they’re no match for either nature or its inhabitants. At the start of the film, we watch as three of the men deal with the locals in a condescending and rather smirky manner. Only one of them actually tries to be nice to the locals, engaging in a banjo duel with a young boy who clearly loves his banjo but who still refuses to smile or shake hands. The boy knows what the men are getting themselves into them. The boy knows what awaits them.
If you grew up in the South, as I did, you’ll recognize all four of the men. It’s not just that they’re played by recognizable actors. It’s that each one of them is a common archetype of the type of men you find down here.
For instance, there’s Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the self-styled alpha male with his leather vest and his bow-and-arrow and his constant talk about how society is eventually going to collapse and only the strong are going to survive. You know that Lewis is full of it from the minute you see him but he’s so charismatic that you can also understand why the other three men have fallen under his control.
And then there’s Bobby (Ned Beatty). Bobby is quick to laugh and quick to talk and quick to make a bad joke. When he says that he’s a salesman, you’re not surprised. From the start of the film, Lewis complains that Bobby isn’t strong enough or serious enough and, when the mountain men attack, Bobby is the one they target. And yet, towards the end of the film, Bobby is the one who sells the hastily concocted story about what happened on the river.
Drew (Ronny Cox) is the nicest of the men. With his glasses and his guitar and his rather touching belief that everything will be okay if everyone just tells the truth, Drew’s the prototype of the Southern liberal. One can imagine him teaching in a community college and vainly trying to convince his relatives that segregation and nostalgia for the Confederacy is holding the South back.
And finally, there’s Ed (Jon Voight). Ed smokes a pipe and it’s obvious that he’s someone who has a very secure life. Ed is the one who is everyone’s friend. He’s the one who sticks up for Bobby. He’s the one who reminds Drew to wear his life jacket. He’s the only one who can get away with (gently) mocking Lewis. Ed seems like a nice guy but, at the start of the film, there’s a strange emptiness to Ed. You get the feeling that the reason Ed is friends with everyone is because he doesn’t have any firm beliefs. Instead, he just adapts to each situation and says whatever everyone wants to hear. You can’t help but wonder what Ed believes. By the end of the movie, of course, both Ed and the viewer have learned what Ed is capable of doing.
Cox, Voight, and especially poor Ned Beatty are all perfectly cast in their roles. Burt Reynolds reportedly felt that this film was his best performance and he was probably right. Director John Boorman captures both the beauty and the menace of nature, leaving you both in awe of the the river and fearful of what it can do those foolish enough to try to conquer it. Interestingly enough, while Boorman was directing Deliverance, he was offered The Exorcist. He turned it down, feeling that the script was too exploitive of the possessed child. Boorman would, however, direct The Exorcist II: The Heretic (co-starring Deliverance‘s Ned Beatty).
(At the same time, Jon Voight was offered the role of Father Karras in The Exorcist but, like Boorman, turned the film down so he could work on Deliverance.)
While the film is best known for its sequences on the river, one should not overlook the haunting scenes of the survivors once they make their way back to civilization. After having spent the previous 80 minutes or so presenting everyone in the backwoods as a threat, the final third of Deliverance actually emphasizes the decency of the townspeople. When one of the men breaks down and starts to cry in the middle of dinner, everyone is quietly respectful of his emotions. Towards the end of the film, as the survivors are driven out of town, they find themselves stuck behind the old country church, which is being moved upriver. “Just got to wait for the church to get out of the way,” their driver says while the church’s bell mournfully rings for both the death of the town and the death of innocence.
(Of course, even with all the kind townspeople around, there’s still a somewhat menacing sheriff. It’s just not a Southern film without a scary sheriff, is it? “Don’t you boys ever do nothing like this again,” he says at one point. The sheriff is played by James Dickey, the author of both the novel and the screenplay on which the film is based.)
Deliverance was nominated for three academy awards. In the directing and the editing categories, it lost to Cabaret. For best picture, it lost to The Godfather. Deliverance, The Godfather, and Cabaret, all competing against each other? 1972 was a very good year.