One of the most brutal and uncompromising films of the '70s, 'Deliverance' almost single-handed terrified a generation into never going camping again, and remains one of the most perceptive and disturbing explorations of man's propensity for violence. That it continues to wield such influence -- even thirty-five years after its original release -- is testament to the film's ability to simultaneously deliver mainstream action-movie thrills while exploring complex human truths with subtlety and intelligence.
Based on James Dickey's 1970 bestseller, at first glance the story is deceptively simple. Four "weekend warriors" set out on a white water rafting expedition in a wild area of the deep south -- one soon set for demolition as part of a major corporate urban expansion project. The four men are each representative of a different American male archtype: there's Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the hunter-gather all filled with blustery confidence; Bobby (Ned Beatty), the flabby number-cruncher and weakling of the group; Drew (Ronny Cox), the pacifist; and Ed (Jon Voight), the de facto protagonist who, though he too has lost the human imperative for survival (being a "civilized" man), will ultimately rise to the occasion.
The river that these four men will attempt to tame -- the one that is soon to be lost to the capitalist urges of the culture -- serves as the backdrop for the majority of the action in 'Deliverance,' and is the metaphor at the heart of its themes. Like any "jungle" outside of the urban one, these waters (and the perversions of nature they spawn) don't have patience for arrogance or the social structure of the world outside their own Darwinian universe. The four men will have no choice but to swallow this hard truth, and some will die because of it.
The centerpiece of 'Deliverance' is undoubtedly its most infamous scene -- the one that had grown men rushing for the exit signs during the film's original theatrical release. The words "Squeal like a pig!" have since become a cultural shorthand for the ultimate violation, and what the back of the HD DVD box coyly describes as "the abduction scene" is actually one of the most disturbing and unflinching depictions of rape ever committed to celluloid. When the group stumbles upon two local, in-bred mountain men with more on their mind than just banjo playin', the balance of power will do more than just irrevocably shift. Mirroring the group's physical struggles on the rapids, all of the learned behaviors of these "civilized" men will crumble in the face of the savagery that emerges from within, when the only decision left to make is how to stay alive. If nothing else, 'Deliverance' should prove to all that rape is a crime of power, not sex -- and regardless of sex.
The scene is also so powerful and illuminating because it is just as much about humiliation, as it is about cutting us "know-it-all" civilized city folk down to size. 'Deliverance' is expert at deconstructing man's often callous and ignorant attitudes towards its own kind (watch how the four men condescend to and mock the "locals" at the film's beginning), as well as our ecosystem. Many have called 'Deliverance' a film about the "revenge of Mother Nature," and while that may be bit simplistic, it certainly is a movie that methodically and precisely exploits our worst fears about journeying into areas where we know we are not supposed to trespass. The amorous "mountain men" represent our worst fears about our own uncivilized shadow selves. It is impossible to watch 'Deliverance' and not hear the faint strains of "Dueling Banjos" the next time you make a wrong turn onto that isolated dirt road...
A true zeitgeist film, 'Deliverance' was an unexpected box office smash and one of the biggest blockbusters of the early '70s. Though some critics were initially put off by the rape scene as well as the film's unblinking focus on man's darkest, most violent impulses, the film went on to nab three Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and has since earned classic status. Justifiably so, for it remains as taut, thought-provoking and utterly vital thirty-five years on. In fact, 'Deliverance' may be even more prescient now than it has been in years. For those that may think 'Deliverance' is dated, remember that though the film was made at a time when the fires of Vietnam were just beginning to burn down, while here we are three decades later, witnessing yet another American intrusion into the more "primitive" culture of Iraq. Watching 'Deliverance' again, I couldn't help but think that we still haven't learned our lesson.
Warner originally released 'Deliverance' on standard-def DVD back in the late '90s, and while it was a decent enough transfer, this new remaster -- freshly minted for the film's 35th anniversary -- is a noticeable improvement. The film does not totally belie its age, but I suspect there is little chance 'Deliverance' could look much better than this.
As director John Boorman and director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond explain in the included supplements, they intentionally shot 'Deliverance' in a desaturated, soft style, and this 1080p/VC-1 encode (identical on both the HD DVD and the Blu-ray) certainly looks it -- don't expect a presentation that's ultra sharp, colorful or high-contrast. Grain is pretty prevalent, too, though the print (while not pristine) is generally clean and free of dirt and speckles. Dark scenes fare the worst, with shadow delineation that's pretty weak at times and blacks that can look faded in certain shots.
On the plus side, daytime exteriors can look great. Colors brighten up, especially fleshtones. Depth improves noticeably, and the detail verges on the lush, with even longshots nicely textured. Only close-ups come near to delivering the kind of high-def we're generally accustomed to these days, but still, compared to all past video versions (especially the horrid pan & scan VHS copies that were available for years), 'Deliverance' has never looked better.
'Deliverance' also receives a new Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround upgrade (at a meager 640kbps) on HD DVD, again identical with the Blu-ray audio specs. Alas, even more than the video, the aged audio source elements just are too limited to offer much excitement. The film's sound design, too, is indicative of the early '70s, so despite being an action movie this is about as flat as you can get.
As you might expect, surround use is minimal. The original film was presented in mono only, and any "discrete" effects sound false, as if a narrow range of frequencies were extracted digitally and simply bleed to the rears. There is only the slightest hint of natural sounds (rushing water, sparse gunshots, etc.) to the back of the soundfield, and that's about it. Dynamic range is also weak, with flat low bass and a compressed tone to the rest of the spectrum. As a result, dialogue is muddled at times, so expect to have to bump up the volume on occasion. To be fair, 'Deliverance' is 35 years old, but I've still heard better remasters for titles of the same vintage. Merely serviceable.
Despite negative fan reaction to their original bare bones DVD release of 'Deliverance,' Warner sure took their sweet time producing the special edition that the film has always deserved. Finally, it has arrived in time for the film's 35th anniversary, and overall it's worth the wait.
Set to be released concurrently on standard-def DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray, the standard supplements are the same across all three editions, with the centerpiece being a newly-produced documentary running 55 minutes and divided into four parts: "The Beginning" (16 min.), "The Journey" (13 min.), "Betraying the River" (14 min.) and "Delivered" (11 min.) Though the format of the doc breaks absolutely no new ground -- it's just talking heads, film clips and a few production stills -- it really benefits by reuniting all of the main cast and crew, many of whom have never talked publicly about the controversies surrounding the movie. Among the participants are director John Boorman, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Christopher Dickey (the late author James Dickey's son), and cast members Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty and "mountain man" Bill McKinney.
After the usual set-up detailing Dickey's novel, the hiring of Boorman and casting, the meat of the doc is the arduous production. Lots of unique insights are shared, from a neat little trick during the "Dueling Banjos" scene to the answers to some of the film's much-discussed plot elements, including the true fate of the Drew character, as well as the thematic ambiguity of the film's ending. Of course, most will inevitably want to know about the film's most infamous scene, which is finally tackled here in straightforward, and unexploitative fashion. Thoughts on the film's long-lasting legacy wraps up nicely one very fine retrospective.
The doc alone was enough to satisfy me, but we also get a new screen-specific audio commentary with Boorman. Normally, I get bored with tracks that are largely technical, but here it serves as a nice compliment to the more comprehensive recollections of the documentary. Boorman goes into much more detail on the immense challenges in shooting on location, staging the rapids action, as well as some of the on-set improvs and accidents that have since become classic moments (including the "Squeal like a pig" line, which was originally intended only as a substitution for the eventual television broadcast!). The track even holds up all the way through to the end of the film's long 115-minute runtime, as Boorman discusses his sometimes contentious on-set relationship with author Dickey (who appears late in the film as a sheriff). A very fine commentary that's well worth listening to.
Rounding out the extras is an original 1972 featurette "The Dangerous World of Deliverance" (9 min.) which is wonderfully vintage, plus the film's original Theatrical Trailer. Unfortunately, none of the video-based extras are presented in full high-def, only windowboxed 4:3, 480i/MPEG-2 video. I continue to be disappointed that even on new reissues like this, the studios aren't regularly producing value-added content in HD. How much longer is it gonna take for it to become standard practice?
'Deliverance' is a tough, thoughtful and confrontational action-thriller that still delivers an impressive punch to the gut thirty-five years later. Happily, this HD DVD release at long last gives the film the special edition treatment it deserves. The remastered transfer is about as good as the source could allow, while the newly-produced documentary and commentary are both first-rate. If you are at all a fan of the film. this one's a no-brainer, and if you have never seen 'Deliverance,' now is a great time to take that journey down the rapids -- it's likely to be one you'll never forget.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.