Deliverance turns 40 

Will the South ever live down 'Squeal like a pig'?

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Jeff Marker, a film professor at Gainesville State College, says Deliverance provides a problematic image of the Piedmont region and its inhabitants. "The rape scene is intentionally exploitative," says Marker. "It can overshadow the rest of the movie and raise the ire of politicians who have a vested interest in the state's tourist appeal. On the other hand, the movie and book, as whole texts, present a more even-handed depiction of Southerners. Not all the characters are stereotyped as radically and awfully as the redneck rapists." In the film's last act, the surviving Atlantans finally receive some of the small-town Southern hospitality that's been notably absent.

The city slickers treat the rural folk with open condescension in the film's first scene. Beatty's character remarks, "Talk about genetic deficiencies," after glimpsing the banjo boy. But the visitors clearly don't deserve what they get from their two assailants. Played by McKinney and Herbert "Cowboy" Coward, the mountain men could be cousins to the truck-driving, shotgun-toting rustics of 1969's Easy Rider who kill Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper's long-haired hippies.

Why do the mountain men do it? One justification for Deliverance's sexual assault lies in plain sight as a metaphor. The film opens with Lewis and the other characters' voices talking over shots of the flooded river. Lewis remarks on the new dam's impact: "Dammit, they're drowning the river, man ... Just about the last wild, untamed, unpolluted, unfucked-up river in the South. We're gonna rape this whole landscape. We're gonna rape it."

Deliverance doesn't show the urban benefits of the dam, just its rural costs, including dynamited hillsides, half-submerged trees, and displaced communities forced to move churches and relocate corpses from cemeteries. In effect, the backwoods assailants do to the Atlantans what Atlanta's doing to their community. As Boorman says in the DVD commentary, "This was kind of nature's revenge on the people of Atlanta that were killing the river."

Deliverance offers a harsh depiction of Appalachia's residents, but provides a sharp, relevant perspective on the tension between Southern urbanism and country communities. The book uncannily anticipates Atlanta's "water wars" conflicts with rural areas in the recent drought years, even though the author focuses less on politics than psychology. "James Dickey's favorite theme was man versus nature, nature being a physical manifestation of the characters' own psychology," says Marker. "If Deliverance fails in any significant way, it's that the exploitative elements and the stereotypes distract from that theme. It's a great survival story more than anything else, and would be even without the sodomizers."

Deliverance became both a blessing and a curse for Beatty, who made his screen debut with the film and became an iconic character actor. In 1989 Beatty wrote the New York Times editorial "Suppose Men Feared Rape," and revealed that he never really left the shadow of Deliverance: "'Squeal like a pig.' How many times has that been shouted, said or whispered to me since then?" wrote Beatty, who doesn't appreciate such remarks and tends to reply with, "When was the last time you got kicked by an old man?"

Beatty wrote the editorial amid the outcry of 1989's high-profile Central Park jogger rape case, and offered his experience with the snide catcalls as a teachable moment. "Somewhere between their shouts and my threats lies a kernel of truth about how men feel about rape," he wrote. "My guess is, we want to be distanced from it. Our last choice would be to identify with the victim. If we felt we could truly be victims of rape, that fear would be a better deterrent than the death penalty."

Deliverance doesn't seem to have taken as an anti-rape lesson. To the extent that people think about Deliverance, they quote the squeal scene or hum "Dueling Banjos" to make light of male anxieties or countryside paranoia.

Deliverance terrorizes its male characters in essentially the same way that horror movies treat women. Deliverance establishes the kind of narrative slavishly obeyed by slasher films like Friday the 13th, with a group of city folk isolating themselves in hostile wilderness. The formula has become so ingrained that filmmakers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon ingeniously commented on its ritualistic nature earlier this year in The Cabin in the Woods. The nightmare scene near the end of Deliverance directly influenced the final shock of Brian De Palma's Carrie, and countless "Gotcha!" moments in movies thereafter.

The more fascinating thing about Deliverance, then and now, is how it explodes movie expectations. A typical Hollywood adventure would basically endorse Lewis' worldview: Outside of law and civilization, a man can determine his fate by force of will. It's easy to imagine Lewis and Ed (Voight) prevailing against their attackers and returning to the city with renewed statuses as real men. That's certainly the movie Lewis thinks he's in, up until he breaks his leg going over a waterfall.

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