The Four Stars of 'Deliverance' Explain Why the Film Still Resonates 40 Years Later

The Four Stars of 'Deliverance' Explain Why the Film Still Resonates 40 Years Later

Jun 25, 2012

It has been four decades since Ed (Jon Voight), Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox) sailed down a remote Georgia river on canoes and experienced a horrifying fight for survival that has become cinematic legend in Deliverance. Director John Boorman's 1972 Oscar-nominated movie based on James Dickey's novel is more than just another man-vs.-nature thriller—it is about confronting who you really are and what you are capable of doing when you are stripped down to your basic instincts. The movie has many memorable moments—the hillbillies, the banjo boy, the disturbing "squeal" scene—and its fish-out-of-water formula of pitting city folks against lawless rednecks has been copied countless times in lesser movies to this day.

Warner Bros. is celebrating the 40th anniversary of this landmark film with a new Blu-ray edition that comes packaged in a handsome Digibook with color photos and information about the production. Also new to this edition is a retrospective with the cast and crew, in addition to previous extras like a four-part behind-the-scenes retrospective, commentary by Boorman and a vintage featurette called "The Dangerous World of Deliverance."

Not only does Deliverance continue to resonate with fans, it has left its imprint on its four lead actors, as I discovered when I interviewed Voight, Reynolds, Beatty and Cox together. "We had one scene to establish what kind of guys we were," says Voight. "All that stuff that we improvised in the car was the key to understanding these characters so that when we finally hit the river, we understood the responses of these guys.

"The very heart of the movie is the response to the rape. Burt's character becomes the Deliverer and shoots the attacker with his bow and arrow. When we did this sequence, it challenged all of us. We had to believe that the confusion and depth of this moment was real. I think that the choices of each actor were extraordinary and the performance of Reynolds using the background of this mountain was epic."

The wild Chattooga River and its dangerous rapids was a character itself. "The river was a challenge every day," says Reynolds. "We had minor scrapes and things, but it was also psychological. I'm not trying to be overdramatic, but each time one of us almost drowned, the rest of us jumped in to help that person. We were over our heads. For the first few days, we didn't really know what we were doing. Before we did that movie, not many people went down the Chattooga River in canoes—they would use rafts. After the movie—it was called the Deliverance syndrome—eight people drowned within one and a half years trying to do what we did in a canoe."

For Reynolds, the danger fed his character, Lewis. "I love Lewis so much because of the line, 'Insurance? I've never been insured in my life. There's no risk,'" says Reynolds. "I felt that way very strongly about my life."

"When Burt had to do something dangerous, he was so happy," says Voight. "We were driving and hit this crater, and we both started laughing, and that's the take that they used in the picture."

In one of the key scenes in the movie, Drew appears to have been shot and Ed climbs up a cliff to kill the shooter. But was Drew really shot? "John Boorman came to me before the scene and said, 'Ronny, you can decide if he was shot or not, but I only ask that you make it ambiguous,'" says Cox. "That is the moral dilemma: Was he shot and, if not, did Ed go up the mountain and shoot an innocent guy? We used the same actor, but what if it wasn't the same guy or it was his brother? It might have cost Drew his life for taking the time to go up there."

"Ed had to climb this mountain—which was metaphoric as well as real—to face this enemy that was trying to kill us," says Voight. "That moment before Ed moves the tooth around in the dead man's mouth, Ed thought he shot the wrong man even though he was aiming a gun. When this team of three survives, Ed can't cope with the fact that he killed, but Lewis doesn't have that feeling."

There have long been stories that Boorman and Dickey came to blows on the set, but the actors remember it differently. "The playwright, the actor and the director don't always arrive at the same conclusions, and sometimes the playwright loses and you get a better storytelling job," says Beatty.

"Jim had a bit of an alcohol problem, was diabetic and a brilliant poet," says Voight. "He had his opinions about each sequence and thought Bobby should have been played by Robert Wagner."

Cox recounts what really went down. "Dickey was asked to leave the set, but he and Boorman never came to blows," says Cox. "Jim was used to being the straw that stirred everybody's drink, and he wanted everything to be his way. Since he wrote the novel, he wanted to tell Boorman how to direct, Burt how to act, and certainly me how to act. It became obvious to Boorman that this was becoming a problem and he asked Dickey to leave. It became rancorous on the set, but the only reason Dickey agreed to leave was if all the actors agreed that he needed to be out of there. He accepted it then."

At the end of the movie, Ed is terrified by nightmares of the ordeal much in the same way a soldier deals with posttraumatic stress disorder. We asked Voight if he thinks Ed, after the end credits, ever tells anyone about his life-altering ordeal. "I think he shared it with his wife," says Voight. "I think he felt very conflicted, and that was what the movie was about: people who had become so protected by their civilized accoutrements, manners and expectations that they found it very difficult to be in a situation where they had to survive and protect each other's lives. Deliverance is about this rite of passage into manhood, confronting evil and seeing who steps up. Lewis might have been a comic figure at first, but he becomes heroic in his confrontation with evil, and then we all had to step up."

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