Saturday, May 9, 2009

Deliverance = intrigue & the endless river

The first day canoeing the "Cahaulawassee River" creates thrills for Lewis (Burt Reynolds) and Bobby (Ned Beatty) as they shoot minor rapids in this photograph from the film version of "Deliverance," which is based on a novel by James Dickey. In the background, Ed (Jon Voight) and Drew (Ronny Cox) await their turn.

Harmless adventure becomes senseless tragedy

Part I – The Story Itself

I am not certain how many books exist that really intrigue me. (Probably many, but I get caught up in them one at a time.) Since mentioning James Dickey's novel, "Deliverance," a couple of days ago, it has been on my mind. It is an intrigue. It seems I re-read this book, published in 1970, every four or five years. Some time ago, I mentioned that it is not unusual for me to watch the 1972 motion picture adaptation of the novel two or three times just about every spring. Until mentioning it a few days ago, I had no interest in seeing it this year, probably because I had no thoughts of canoeing this season.

The novel intrigues me because it transports man-the-modern and largely unprepared into primitive survival conditions, in a struggle against both nature and other men. It is brutality in the midst of beauty -- the natural, unblemished world of woodland and river. It is harmless adventure turned to senseless tragedy. It is triumph over evil. I am not certain there has been another novel like it, before or after.

From my point of view, I think "Deliverance" easily is a masterpiece, a modern-day epic adventure with timeless literary merit. It is a story of four "big-city" guys who set out to canoe a stretch of Georgia river, the Cahulawassee, before a dam erases it forever and turns the area into a huge man-made reservoir. While their city of residence is not mentioned by name in the book, it obviously is Atlanta.

In the movie version, Burt Reynolds plays Lewis Medlock, an outdoorsman and man of action who is the instigator of the trip and the leader on the river. He lives off the proceeds of inherited rental property. This is a partial description of Lewis as given by Ed, the narrator of the story:

"Lewis wanted to be immortal. He had everything that life could give, and he couldn't make it work. And he couldn't bear to give it up or see age take it away from him, either, because in the meantime he might be able to find what it was he wanted, the thing that must be there ...."

Jon Voight plays Ed Gentry, who with a partner operates an advertising agency. The story is told as seen through his eyes. Along with Lewis, Ed decides to bring along archery gear, and hopes for a chance to hunt deer during their adventure.

Bobby Trippe is a typical city-bred insurance salesman, played by Ned Beatty. He wants to bring liquor on the trip. The quiet, introspective member of the group is Drew Ballinger, played by Ronny Cox. He is a sales supervisor for a soft drink company, and asks if he can bring a guitar on their voyage. "Deliverance" is one of the best action films ever made, I think, in large part because of excellently cast contrasting characters.

The canoe trip starts out peacefully enough. At the end of the first day, the group sets up camp, and Lewis provides supper through his outdoor prowess by shooting trout with bow and arrow. The drama heightens the second day as Ed and Bobby, who launch their canoe down the river several minutes ahead of Lewis and Drew, encounter two mountain men with sodomy on their minds. Held at gun point, Bobby is raped by one mountain man. Ed is about to be forced to perform oral sex on the other mountain man when Lewis and Drew silently arrive on the river.

Lewis dispatches one of the mountain men with an arrow, while the second mountain man runs off into the forest. The four of them decide, with Drew protesting their decision, to cover up the obvious case of self defense by burying the mountain man near the river. Their logic is simple. Bobby does not want anyone to find out what happened to him, and Lewis worries he might be convicted of murder by a local jury made up of friends and neighbors to the mountain man. Since the entire valley eventually will be covered by a large lake through the construction of a dam, they assume that no one ever will find the body.

Running rapids on the flight down river, Drew is killed. His death is a mystery because his behavior had been strange and awkward moments before he capsizes his canoe in the rapids. Lewis is certain Drew was shot before the canoe capsized and they went into the water. There seems to be little doubt they are being stalked, and the natural assumption is that the stalker is the surviving mountain man who is seeking revenge.

Lewis has sustained a broken leg from being flung into the rocky rapids after his canoe capsized. A departure from the book is found in that an ordinary fracture is changed to a compound fracture in the film, I suppose to make it more horrifying to movie viewers.

The three survivors are more or less trapped on a ledge at the base of an 175-foot sheer cliff. If they should try to canoe away, a rifleman atop the cliff could easily finish them. Lewis, the obvious man in the group who could remedy the situation, is helpless with a broken leg. Bobby suggests canoeing out after dark, but they cannot pass through the rapids in the dark. Ed concludes that the only way they can survive is for him to climb the cliff and to kill their attacker.

In the movie, Ed asks Lewis: "Lewis, what are we going to do?"

To which Lewis replies: "Now you can play the game."

In the novel, the discussion is a bit more drawn out, and ends with this:

"Don't let him see you," he (Lewis) said. "And don’t have any mercy. Not any."

"I won’t if I can help it."

"Help it."

I held my breath.

"Kill him," Lewis said with the river.

"I'll kill him if I can find him," I said.

"Well," he said, lying back, "here we are, at the heart of the Lewis Medlock country."

"Pure survival," I said.

"This is what it comes to," he said. "I told you."

"Yes. You told me."

Ed then climbs the sheer cliff and, in an encounter between archer and rifleman, kills their stalker. Upon examination of the dead man's face, Ed cannot determine if he actually is the second mountain man, but believes him to be. Ed and Bobby submerge the body, with stones tied around it, in the river.

Drew's body is located down river, hung up between rocks. There is speculation whether he drowned or whether a mark on his head was made by a bullet graze. Lewis is the deciding factor: "Grazed," he says.

With Lewis incapacitated with the broken leg and Ed having eliminated the second mountain man, Ed has emerged as the defacto leader. He makes the decision to sink Drew's body in the river as well, to avoid questions about his death.

It is the fait accompli: "A faint light came through Bobby's eyes, then either darkened or died. 'There’s no end to it,' he said. 'No end.'"

Upon reaching "civilization," the three report their "accident" in the rapids and their "missing" friend. They "survive" questioning from the local sheriff, played by author Dickey in the movie, and return to their "big-city" homes.

While the movie version closely follows the book, the film ends with Ed in bed with his wife, awakened from a nightmare about a body rising to the surface of the lake. I believe the ending to the book is preferable. In it, Bobby moves to Hawaii. Ed and Lewis both buy cottages on another lake created by another dammed river, where they remain friends and fellow archers.

Says narrator Ed: "Lewis limps over from his cabin now and then and we look at each other with intelligence, feeling the true weight and purpose of all water. He has changed, too, but not in obvious ways. He can die now; he knows that dying is better than immortality. He is a human being, and a good one."

Ed says of himself: "The river and everything I remembered about it became a possession to me, a personal, private possession, as nothing else in my life ever had. Now it ran nowhere but in my head, but there it ran as though immortally. I could feel it -- I can feel it -- on different places on my body. It pleases me in some curious way that the river does not exist, and that I have it. In me it still is, and will be until I die, green, rocky, deep, fast, slow, and beautiful beyond reality. I had a friend there who in a way had died for me, and my enemy was there. The river underlies, in one way or another, everything I do."

To be continued (probably on Monday) with thoughts, comments, some biographical information about the author, James Dickey, notes about the film and, maybe, an answer to the question if the story was based on an actual event ....

The second day canoeing the "Cahaulawassee River" brings tragedy when Drew (Ronny Cox) apparently is shot, pitches from the canoe and Ed (Jon Voight) tries desperately to main control of the craft in the rapids. The canoe manned by Lewis (Burt Reynolds) and Bobby (Ned Beatty) crashes into the other.


Katy said...

Gosh, Fram, that sounds like an absolutely amazing story. I loved your review of it too, thank you. Looking forward to the next instalment already :-)

Fram said...

Hi there, Katy. Thank you, for reading.

This "thing" got the best me before I even cleared the starting blocks, so I decided not to worry about redundancy or loose writing, and just let the words spill out. It is too broad with too much material for me to consider both the book and the film in a concise form, unless I wanted to spend far more time on it than I do.

Rachael Cassidy said...

Intrigue and adventure. The sense that you are seeing/experiencing something that modern man has rarely, maybe even never done. That opportunity exists less and less as time passes. There are not many places left where one can trek out and feel as if they have left all traces of civilization behind. I hope that we never forget about these types of experiences, and that some places are "saved" in order for us to be able to touch it now and again.

Fram said...

Greetings, Rachael. Nice to see you here.

I have experienced this sense of complete aloneness on Lake Superior and on more isolated rivers, but it is becoming more and more difficult to find, as you say. I feel lucky that my time in history is now, rather than later, but wish it had been earlier.

Being able to look around and to see nothing but water and woodland, not even a jet contrail in the sky, allows the imagination to slip the boundaries of time for a while. This is better than nothing.

TheChicGeek said...

This is an excellent review, Fram. The story really is about human nature, the will to survive, the ability to kill or be killed, and how profoundly that affects us, isn't it? I find the book ending much more satisfying too. I love the last quoted paragraph of this piece. In life we can experience things that are no longer with us but change us forever, and will always be a part of us. The knowing look between them of a shared experience, the bonds of really is an amazing story. I will have to read the book now and re-watch the movie. I saw the movie so young that I don't think I fully grasped the importance of the film. And of course, the pictures are so really does make me want to jump in a canoe an travel down a beautiful river.
Thanks for sharing :) It was great!

TheChicGeek said...

Oh, and Burt Reynolds really does look super hot rowing that canoe...LOL
Thank you for sharing...LOL :D

A Cuban In London said...

I knew that the poem about paddling your own canoe was leading somewhere. So, now that I have bought the cowboy boots that you advised me to purchase, what do I do with them if I am to join Burt and his sidekick on this trip down the river? Ahhh... decisions, decisions!

Many thanks for a fantastic post.

Greetings from London.

Fram said...

You made many observations, Kelly, and they all reflect the reality of life and the truths of this novel. Dickey was a poet before all else. Perhaps the reason his novel reaches into the souls of his characters is because, as a poet, he could see inside the minds of men, including the shadows within his own.

Well, while I am not exactly sure how hot Burt looks, I think this was the best performance of his acting career. I will be mentioning that in the second part to this post.

Right now, I am listening to Boston and dancing in my chair.

Fram said...

CiL from across the sea: We all must paddle our own canoes whether we want to or not, down to the sunless sea, and, hopefully, beyond.

Leave your boots at home when you take to the canoe. I learned that lesson the first time I went into the water wearing them, and had to swim ashore towing the canoe. With a bit of luck, some day we can wear our boots on an afternoon walk around your London town.

Right now, for you as well, I am listening to Boston and dancing in my chair.

Natalie said...

Hi Fram,
Stopped by to say “hi” and to let you know that the poem I started, “Singing Poetry”, was lost…
….While at the Metropolitan museum, I came across (and took a picture of) a papyri fragment of “Iliad”… Thought you could use it if your Greek is good enough, hha-ha!
P.S. I will “whistle” good-by on Thursday afternoon.

Fram said...

Thank you, for your visit, Natalie.

I hope you are able to recall enough of your poem to take another run at it. "Singing Poetry" sounds like it could be an interesting exercise of the imagination.

I have more interest in learning modern languages than dead languages, but it would be interesting to see the photograph should you decide to post it.

See you before you set off ....

Something special ....