“Lewis, listen, why are you so anxious about this?”
“Because they’re building a dam across the Cahulawassee River. They’re gonna flood a whole valley, Bobby! That’s why. And you know what’s gonna happen? We’re gonna rape this whole god damned landscape. We’re gonna rape it!”
Exactly fifty years ago today, John Boorman’s harrowing thriller Deliverance premiered in theaters and became an instant smash-hit cultural phenomenon. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and likely only lost them because 1972 was a pretty stacked year for cultural phenomena. It was based on a novel by Southern Gothic poet James Dickey, who you can spot in a cameo as a sheriff in the film. Dickey’s work focused on the increasing conflict between modernity and nature. He believed that nature was the means by which man could escape in order to experience being “reborn” and reconnecting with what really matters. Dickey was gripped with fear over our rapid destruction of nature for the sake of modern convenience. He was born in 1923, and like most of his peers in the Greatest Generation, wasn’t sure what to make of all the dramatic technological changes and urban expansions of postwar America. About half of all Americans lived urbanized, industrial-based lives during his childhood. By the time the 60’s rolled around, that ratio had become two out of three Americans. Environmental disasters and hazards were common throughout that decade, and when he published Deliverance, the Environmental Protection Agency would be established only a few months later.
His thesis was simple, and it connected with a lot of people at the time: as we raze the wilderness, cut down the last remaining vestiges of nature, where will we escape to when we eventually destroy everything else? What will be left to seek refuge in when modernity becomes too much for us? Nowadays, we’ve taken it as a given the sharp partisan divide between urban and rural communities, but fifty years ago, the New Deal Coalition was only just beginning to fray, and Dickey was only one of a few very perceptive individuals who saw what was coming. His poetry and Deliverance explored the ways in which man tries to dominate all things on Earth, as well as how insulating oneself into nature changes you over time, and warning about the costs of such actions.
Lewis, Ed, Bobby, and Drew are all changed permanently by the end of their canoeing trip across the semi-fictional Cahulawassee River (based on the actual Coosawattee River, which was dammed just like in the film and flooded just like Lewis warned). Anyone who has seen the film but maybe hasn’t revisited it in a while likely remembers Lewis (played by Burt Reynolds in one of his best-remembered performances) as the “badass” one; the survivalist who rocks a bow and arrow. But they may have forgotten that we leave him in the hospital, his body broken and tacitly sworn to silence. All of the men on this trip suffer in different ways from the vengeful spirit of the nature they’ve encroached upon; Drew takes his own life out of guilt over what he was complicit in, and Bobby is forever traumatized from the most infamous scene of prolonged sexual assault. Ed returns home both physically and psychologically scarred from having to kill his assailants to survive.
Ironically, the shoot itself was an infamously dangerous one, as if nature was trying to impose a harsh art-imitates-life lesson on Boorman and the rest of the cast and crew. The canoe scenes were shot in-sequence at the Tallulah Gorge on the Chattooga River, which was known for being extremely difficult for most people to access. Principal photography was so dangerous, in fact, that Boorman was unable to secure insurance for it, and the actors performed their own stunts to cut down on costs. Reynolds broke his tailbone after one mishap and Ned Beatty nearly drowned during another. That scene where Ed has to climb up that steep cliff to kill the mountain man sniping at the group? That was all done by Jon Voight himself. Yeah, he used to be a pretty cool actor before he tragically lost his marbles and transformed into Your Racist Uncle At Thanksgiving.
I’ve been fascinated lately with movies that have become simultaneously outdated in some respects while being more relevant than ever in others. Like how in Fight Club, Tyler Durden would not have bothered starting a bunch of underground boxing rings when being a “Manosphere” YouTube grifter is so much more lucrative and influential these days. Do not even get me started on how my criticism of Tyler Durden actually being a pale, emaciated, sweaty, emotionally-crumbling Edward Norton in the real world instead of the tan, confident Brad Pitt in his head being a “plot hole” was waaaaaay off in hindsight, considering the current blubbering figureheads of collective male resentment. Revisiting Deliverance is a revealing experience in discovering how much of its overarching anxieties don’t really apply anymore, because what they feared back then is just our day-to-day reality now: natural disasters are accelerating, scientists are making ever more dire predictions about the fate of all of us, and our leaders are asleep at the wheel as climate change continues to ravage the world irreparably. We no longer ask, “Will nature strike back at us?” or “Will the wilderness turn us into beasts?” as much as “Will God ever forgive us?” Even more ironically, it’s now the city slickers who are (mostly) making some token effort to preserve and respect nature while the rural residents of the American heartland have chosen to blind themselves from the consequences of our rapacious actions on the Earth.
The harshness of Deliverance is no longer one that produces anxiety, but despair. Nature is no longer “about to” inflict wrath upon us complacent humans; the wrath is here and will only become more merciless. The mountain men who seemed so savage and frightening to people five decades ago now occupy the halls of Congress and shape our laws to their own twisted ends. Nature will heal and rebuild. It will move on with or without us. Our survival is not as assured. Some of us will willingly choose oblivion as Drew did. Some of us will survive with scars on our bodies and minds like Ed and Bobby. Others will be battered but undeterred like Lewis. But no matter what, we will feel the pain of nature’s retaliation just as Dickey and Boorman warned us we would fifty years ago. And we will not be able to find solace there when we do.
“No matter what happens, there is no finding us up here.”