Monday, May 11, 2009

Deliverance = the personal cost for survival

The mountain man with a rifle and Ed (Jon Voight), with his bow and arrow, face off in the ultimate contest of who lives and who dies, as shown in this photograph from the film, "Deliverance." Purely by coincidence, I assure you, I have acquired a bow such as the one Ed is using and a rifle identical to the one the mountain man is using. James Dickey, author of the story, it is said, obsessively contemplated stars and cosmic origins. I wonder what he would have made of that?

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.


TheChicGeek said...

Hi Fram :)
I understand why you like this story so much. I think the story really does show, as you say, "an average man can rise above himself." The best and the worst are brought out of human beings in challenging times. It's awesome when we are able to rise to our challenges and come out better.
I'm glad they didn't change the ending too. The story is much better just as it is. Dickey really is a fascinating and scary character, isn't he. It makes me wonder about his life experiences that cause the things he writes about to lurk in his brain.
Have a Happy Day, Fram :D

Fram said...

The best and the worst, yes, Kelly. It is better to read about in a novel or to see in a film than to experience it first hand. I question how many people actually stop to think about such things, or just happily walk through life and are dumbfounded when lightning does strike.

Fascinating is an excellent word to use to describe James Dickey. He really is a more complicated man than most "macho-type" writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer.

Incidentally, going back to one of your posts a while ago, Robert Bly and Dickey were in a running gunfight for decades, which might also explain some of my disdain for Bly's poetry.

Katy said...

Absolutely wonderful post, Fram, thank you. I was quite on the edge of my seat just reading your review, even having never seen the film or read the book.

Interesting to see that Dickey was using his storytellers' devices even on set by making the cast & co believe the truth of the tale. He maybe knew - even subconsciously - that would sharpen their focus and make them 'up' their game even higher.

I look forward to the next part with bated breath!

Fram said...

Please, no bated breath, Katy. I have laughed too much already today. Thank you, though.

James Dickey was a very strange man in many ways, some of which I hope to point out in my next post. He cannot be called eccentric. I am not certain what he can be called. Maybe, by Wednesday, some designation will have settled in my mind.

A Cuban In London said...

'Still neat lipsticked stockinged girdled by regulation her hat
Still on her arms and legs in no world'

I was not familiar with James Dickey's poetry. But anyone who can write those lines is a giant. I read the whole poem and the subtleties (ahhh, remember the subtleties?) between the horror of falling and her marvelling at the collision are fascinating.

Now onto the movie. Have never seen it but lived it through your words. Peckinpah for director? Hmmm... 'Straw Dogs' and 'Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia'. Two excellent films but I doubt he would have achieved the same level of balance you describe so well in your write-up. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Fram said...

Good, good, good, CiL. I am happy I was able to introduce you to Dickey the poet. I would like it even more if you should take the time to read Dickey the novelist.

Much of Dickey's poetry, no matter what the topic, contains sexual innuendo which, to me, makes "Falling" even more chilling than simply imagining the event itself. This poem, incidentally, unlike his claim about "Deliverance," was born from an actual event.

.... "her clothes rising off her ascending
Into cloud and fights away from her head the last sharp dangerous shoe
Like a dumb bird and now will drop in SOON now will drop
In like this the greatest thing that ever came to Kansas."

Absolutely chilling.

Something special ....