Deliverance (1972): A Journey through the Vanishing Wilderness

Both in content and form, duality is at the core of John Boorman’s Deliverance, with its fierce opposition between the “System” and the « Wilderness ». So let the current push you into this uncompromising and unforgettable masterpiece, this modern account of exploitation.

As the screen becomes black and the Warner Brothers logo appears, friendly laughters can be heard and a voice says, “You wanna talk about the vanishing wilderness?” So begins this absorbing American canoe trip that tells a story of survival in the Wilderness. While the main characters speak in voice-over, shots of Nature scroll onto the screen before giving way to a building site of a dam that will “drown” the Cahulawassee River (fictional river) into a lake. The voiceovers are those of Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Ed (John Voight), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox), four friends who are planning an exploration trip into this dying Nature. The last sentence of the opening scene echoes simultaneously with the strident scream of an alarm in the background. Lewis, the macho, is the one who tries to talk his friends into going onto the river before it is gone, or as he says, before men “rape this whole goddamn landscape”. As their voices fade, the camera stops on the building site, the alarm keeps on screaming, and a sudden explosion at the site marks the kick-off of this terrific struggle between modern men and the Wilderness.

The journey begins

The prowess of Boorman in his movie is to insert clues, all over the scenes, about what is going to happen later on, for instance, as in the opening sequence that sets the opposition between Man and Wilderness. Besides, Lewis’s last sentence about the land being raped is an ingenious innuendo of what is going to be one of the most traumatic rape scenes in the history of cinema.

However, Deliverance has been mostly referred to for its banjo dual scene between Drew and a little country boy that appears to have some sort of mental illness. While Drew starts playing a few notes on his guitar, the little “banjo boy”(Hoyt Pollard) starts to mimic Drew’s notes with his instrument.

Hoyt Pollard and Ronny Cox’s « Duelling Banjos » scene.

A parallel may be drawn between this scene showing a wild boy who mimics the city man, and another scene further in the movie when another city man is raped by a “mountain man”, as Nature mimics what the system has done to her. The connection is even stronger, considering that after the banjo scene the boy’s banjo riffs are used throughout the film, either with slow rhythm for calm shots of the landscape or at a furious pace to increase the suspense. But the rest is the sound of the earth, which gives the picture a documentary-like flavor. Realism is what tantalizes the viewers in this awful journey, so much so that some people cannot help but look away during the most graphic scenes. The movie becomes even more realistic when you learn that the cast did their own stunts in wild rapids, or when John Voight, “Ed”, decided to climb a three-hundred-foot-high cliff for real.

John Voight climbing the cliff.

However, in this quest for deliverance from the system, through resistance to Nature, Boorman paraphrases Christopher Colombus and explains via Lewis’s speech, that “We will have to lose ourselves before we find anything”. In other words, what the director tries to put forward is man’s lack of knowledge, with his machines and his laws, when he is once again in the middle of Nature. This ignorance is mentioned at the very beginning of the movie, as the first countryman they meet says to Bobby, “You don’t know nothin’ ”. Ignorance, indeed, is at the center of the plot. The characters are completely lost and tricked by Nature, and so are we. Only Lewis understands that in the Wilderness “survival, is the name of the game” – to be the hunter or the hunted. And as the characters lose themselves deeper in Nature, they start to become wild and are even able to kill.

The essence of Boorman’s masterpiece may be depicted as an ode to Nature and a criticism of the corrupt western world that has “succeeded” in conquering the wilderness through control and destruction. But in the end, Boorman’s message might be that even though Man thinks Nature is under his control, Nature will always dominate him. And as the screen becomes black again, the banjo keeps playing.

The very last shot.


Directed by John Boorman; written by James Dickey (screenplay & novel); produced by Warner Bros. in association with Elmer Enterprises.

Running Time: 1h 50min


Jon Voight…. Ed

Burt Reynolds… Lewis

Ronny Cox… Drew

Ned Beatty… Bobby

Bill McKinney… Mountain Man

Herbert “Cowboy” Coward… Toothless Man

Hoyt Pollard… Banjo Boy

Lewis Crone… First Deputy

Billy Redden… Lonnie

Ed Ramey… Old Man

Ken Keener… Second Deputy

Louise Coldren… Mrs. Biddiford

Johnny Popwell… Ambulance Driver

Seamon Glass… First Griner

John Fowler …Doctor

Randall Deal… Second Griner

Peter Ware… Taxi Driver

James Dickey… Sheriff Bullard

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