Deliverance remains the movies' most chilling portrayal of nature making man its bitch 

The Decline of Southern Civilization

The Decline of Southern Civilization

Maybe it was a bad idea to watch Deliverance when I was 12.

I heard a couple of mentions of it here and there on TV before I checked it out one Sunday night on HBO — which means I caught the notorious "squeal like a pig" sequence in all its anal-raping glory. When I later caught the edited-for-TV version years later, the sequence was sanitized considerably, with Bill McKinney's mountain man chasing poor pantsless Ned Beatty around the woods without getting him on all fours and — well, you know.

Let me tell you something right now: There is nothing more unsettling and traumatic for a 12-year-old boy than watching man-rape unfold right before your very eyes. (And unlike Quentin Tarantino, who also saw the movie as a kid and would go on to create his own sodomizing-hillbilly moment in Pulp Fiction, I wasn't inspired by it.) For me, Deliverance was more terrifying than any horror movie — and that includes the Friday the 13th series. While it's unlikely you'll find a machete-wielding, hockey mask-wearing serial killer chopping up horny teens in the woods, it's very likely that there are toothless yokels out there waiting to make visiting city folk their own personal bitches. (Hell, I lived in Texas for most of my life — I know they're out there.)

Deliverance's rape scene — an oft-referenced, oft-sampled, oft-parodied linchpin of popular culture — embodied a sort of PBS nightmare about the rabid underside of the old weird America. Not to mention that the movie's tourist-style gawking (play that banjo, you inbred-looking freak!) didn't exactly do wonders for the South's image. It was bad enough that Southerners were generally perceived as ignorant, racist rednecks. But after Deliverance, they were also seen as ignorant, racist redneck rapists.

So, um, why the hell is the Belcourt playing this movie as part of its "Visions of the South" series?

Despite all the nonconsensual man-on-man action and negative stereotyping, there is a deeper subtext. The movie was directed by John Boorman, who previously showed the violent, barbaric actions civilized men can do to each other in the artfully pulpy Point Blank and the allegorical Hell in the Pacific. In adapting the 1970 novel written by the late James Dickey (who wrote the screenplay and appears briefly as a sheriff), Boorman creates a jarring man-against-nature tale.

The suburban, middle-aged Atlanta businessmen (Beatty, Jon Voight, Ronny Cox and Burt Reynolds, in one of his finest, smirk-free performances) take a canoe trip through the Cahulawassee River before a dam destroys the valley. Early on, Reynolds' alpha male Lewis laments the impending devastation of such natural beauty: "We're gonna rape this whole goddamn landscape. We're gonna rape it!"

Needless to say, those lines serve as foreshadowing, as a couple of backwoods dwellers (McKinney and Herbert "Cowboy" Coward) decide to literally do to these boys what bulldozers and construction crews are doing to their land. Violation is a common thread in The Belcourt series, from the TVA forced-relocation drama Wild River to the hillbillies-from-hell gore movie Two Thousand Maniacs! It's a potent theme in the vanquished South, where in some quarters old times are still neither forgotten nor forgiven — but in Deliverance, it's more than metaphorical. The movie turns into a testosterone-filled rocky-river horror show with the foursome becoming the most dangerous game, ferociously paddling through lethal rapids and trying not to get a bullet (or anything else) in their asses.

Although it would be nominated for three Academy Awards and later selected for preservation by the U.S. National Film Registry, Deliverance stands as one of the classier hicksploitation films to come out of the '70s. (Big ups to the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond for his stunning cinematography, which makes Georgia whitewater country look as pitiless as Werner Herzog's jungle.) Unlike the more down-and-dirty flicks of this genre, this film remains proudly existential — a grim degradation fantasy about man's unstable place in the modern world, and the foolish illusion that he has tamed nature. It has four dignified gents turn into scared savages once their manhood gets attacked — in more uncomfortable, unusual and just plain fucked-up ways than one.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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