A genuine protagonist or a freak of nature?
Part II – The Story Behind The Story
Until the publication of "Deliverance" and the subsequent film, James Dickey primarily had been recognized as an advertising executive "gone bad." This is to say, Dickey left a high income, respectable career, went back to school for a master's degree (the draft of "Deliverance" had been his thesis), and became a successful teacher and poet. His poetic masterpiece (to me), is the god-awful and poetic-wonderful poem, "Falling," which presents the thoughts of an airline stewardess as she plunges earth-bound after falling from an airplane. Others from among his poems, such as "Buckdancer's Choice," are considered to be better work by the critics, but little do I care. "Falling" is the one that forever resides in my mind.
As one who appreciates those all too seldom lasting movies, my admiration goes toward the acting in this film, particularly the work of Burt Reynolds (Lewis Medlock). His performance demonstrates one of my axioms of life: Put an average actor in with a good script, other good actors and a good director, and he will excel beyond his natural ability. Now, apply this theory to the living of life: Put an average man in with a good script (good and decent parents), other talented actors (good teachers and benefactors at a job) and a fine director (a giving and truly loving mate), and he will excel beyond his natural ability.
Here are a few footnotes regarding the book and the movie:
-- Dickey went to some lengths to ensure accuracy about details in the book. He consulted an expert mountain climber, for example, to make certain the times and the distances he used when Jon Voight (Ed Gentry) scaled the sheer cliff in his story matched with actuality.
-- There are many nuances in this movie that probably only a person who has spent a great deal of time in a canoe would recognize. The same is true regarding hunting, particularly those who hunt with bow and arrow. Dickey was a man who had done both extensively.
-- "Deliverance" was Ned Beatty's (Bobby Trippe) first movie, and it apparently haunts him still. According to what Reynolds said in an interview, the sodomy scene was shot with five cameras in one take, and it was doubtful if Beatty would have done a second take. Much of the dialogue in that scene was ad-libbed.
-- The actors worked without insurance because no company would insure them due to the kinds of risks they were taking.
-- Voight actually did climb the cliff, in sections, not all at once, and it measured 175 feet.
-- Ronny Cox (Drew Ballinger) actually could pull his shoulder out of joint at will, and did so for the gruesome appearance when the body of Drew is found wedged between the rocks in the river.
-- This is one of those rare cases when the movie closely follows the book. Perhaps a decent director, John Boorman, and having the story's author, Dickey, on the set made the difference here. But, wait:
-- Sam Peckinpah, director of "The Wild Bunch" and other violent, action movies, was originally selected to be the director, however, arguments between Peckinpah and executives from Warner Brothers, producers of the movie, ended that plan. Can you imagine what "Deliverance" might have been like with Peckinpah at the helm?
-- Dickey was drunk when his scenes as sheriff were shot. Looks it, too, I think.
-- Dickey had considerable arguments with Boorman and Voight during the making of the film, and was kicked off the set for a while. Their disputes were over changes the director and the actor wanted to make in the script. Dickley was the official script writer, as well as the author of the story. However, Dickey was very pleased with the final version.
-- Doing so individually and swearing each to secrecy, Dickey told all the major actors in the film, as well as Boorman, that the story was based on actual events involving himself. There is nothing to indicate this was the truth.
Returning to Dickey and his story line, I would challenge anyone to produce a novel better suited to demonstrate that an average man can rise above himself. Lewis could have led the modernists to survival because he lived in both the past and the present, and was prepared for such an event, but his horrendous injury from the canoe spill put him out of game. That left unprepared, city-boy Ed to lead the group in the struggle for survival. He did it, by climbing a sheer, rock, 175-foot cliff and, with bow and arrow, killing the antagonist who may or may not have been trying to kill them.
Ed found the inner strength to go beyond any physical or mental feat previous in his life. Still, Ed might not have been able to achieve the task had it not been for Lewis, who with breaths whispered through excoriating pain, told Ed he must enter into the world of the primitive and become a ruthless hunter. It was the only chance to achieve the survival of the present.
Through this, there is the lingering, albeit remote, possibility the man Ed kills is someone other than the second mountain man and, even if it were he, doubt that he actually had shot Drew.
While the ending to the book is very satisfying to the reader as it stands, the original ending might not have been. It would have changed the entire tone of the novel. Dickey's first version included an epilogue in which the "hero," Ed, is revealed to be a sadomasochist who whipped his wife. His publishers said no.
Said Dickey: "I wanted to implant in the reader's mind a couple of things. First, that the narrator without his knowing it, has been a monster all his life, a born killer as well as an 'ordinary suburbanite,' and this one chance episode which gave him a chance to energize this hidden part of his personality has, in a sense, freed him of it. His monstrousness may now take other forms; ones that are imaginary and harmless. That's why I've added the final sexual scene with his wife."
In the end, Dickey conceded to his publishers that the scene was unnecessary and it was omitted. Frankly, I think its inclusion would have ruined the book. It would have changed the character of Ed from being a genuine protagonist into being just another freak of nature. No mythology, no lesson, no good vs. evil. Moving sideways, both some of Dickey's poetry and "Deliverance" were subjects of censorship efforts along the way, and such an epilogue added to the novel would have lessened the quality of the story and only served to fuel the flames of censorship.
This has become so lengthy that I am certain it will scare potential readers away just in that sense. Which means, as you might suspect, I am going to break this post into still another section, which means three rather than two. The third part, centering on the author, James Dickey, will arrive here sometime on Wednesday -- I hope.
At the close of the motion picture, Ed (Jon Voight) awakes from a nightmare about a body rising from the lake which has been born from the dammed river (maybe damned river, as well). This ending is very different from the close of the novel, in which the surviving characters have gained a certain wisdom and knowledge from their struggle for survival on the river, and have grown to live with the deaths which occurred there.