Sunday, October 16, 2016


SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

The theme of exploring the virtues and vices of the unspoiled frontier versus the industrialized urban landscape is a theme in American literature and films, as was noted in the discussion of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This topic appears again in this 1972 movie, but the take on the discussion here is that although modernity may spoil nature, being in an uncivilized surrounding does not mean living in paradise.

The story centers on four men in Georgia who go on occasional escapes from their suburban world into the wilderness. The beginning of the narrative presents an anti-mechanization argument. For the leader, Lewis (Burt Reynolds), this particular trip holds a special meaning. The land and the river they will be traveling through is about to be converted into a lake with the whole area flooded to produce hydroelectric power. This event represents an extinction process for Lewis, as he complains about how they will be flooding the valley and “drownin’” the river. He sees the conversion as a “rape,” an omen of what is to come later. Their excursion is meant to experience the uncorrupted Cahulawassee River in the remote Georgia wilderness before it is lost forever. Lewis is a man who relishes the idea of hunting with his bow and arrows and riding his canoe through the river’s rapids. He believes that society’s machines will fail and the established order of civilization will collapse, but that his survivalist skills will allow him to go on. We hear the destructive sounds of dynamite blasting away at the valley ironically followed by the natural noise of thunder which sustains the river, the contrast seeming to emphasize the difference between human endeavors and the ways of nature. On the way to the river, Lewis gets a thrill just hearing the flow of the water. He initially gets lost on the way to the shoreline and says that “Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything.” He is espousing the need to shed themselves of soft city living to find their true natures which are consistent with the wilderness. When one of the group, Bobby (Ned Beatty) concedes that they have lost some of nature in the city, Lewis counters by saying they hadn’t “lost” it; they “sold it” for profit and creature comforts.
Lewis’ friend, Ed (Jon Voight) says he has done okay under the current system. Lewis counters by saying that, yes, he has a good job, and a nice wife and child. But, Ed says Lewis’ scornful attitude makes it sound like Ed’s life is “shitty.” Ed seems a bit embarrassed by admitting he has some insurance after Lewis dismisses Bobby’s work as an insurance salesman. Lewis says, “I don’t believe in insurance. There’s no risk.” And, risk makes life worth living for Lewis because it tests one so as to discover what a person is made of. Director John Boorman gives us a significant shot when he shows Ed sheepishly looking at his pipe, a symbol of his comfortable life, which he hides under his clothing. But, he also handles his knife, which is also part of his personality, but with which he currently is not comfortable, and he puts the weapon in a pocket, too. At the beginning of their journey, he starts to sense danger, and tells Louis maybe they should leave and just go play golf. He is being sensible, but at this point he seems cowardly. In an interview, Voight said he wanted Ed to pick the wooden canoe, because it looked homey, and fit Ed’s desire for feeling safe. Yet, Lewis asks him if he is so careful, why does he keep going on these excursions with him. Ed smiles and says he was wondering about that himself. There is obviously a part of Lewis’ wild nature that Ed admires.

Their first encounter with the area’s inhabitants starts to move the film away from Lewis’ positive viewpoint of this world by showing the unsavory and scary existence in this valley. The buildings are dilapidated. The people are unkempt. They are nothing like what these men see in their safe suburban communities. Bobby is condescending toward the locals, saying they “may be at the end of the line” of civilization. He also says they are examples of “genetic deficiencies” caused by inbreeding. That he comes from a removed world where money is the only thing that matters is seen when he says that they just have to give a “couple of bucks” to make things go smoothly. The natives warn them that they are out of their depth here. One tells Bobby that “you don’t know nothing,” and they are warned that they would be “crazy” to follow through with their canoe trip. The fourth member of their group, Drew (Ronny Cox), plays guitar with a banjo strumming youth who appears to have one of Bobby’s “genetic” deficits. The musical “dueling” with the locals dancing and singing along, although a sort of benevolent competition between the two cultures, does show how these people coming from different worlds can exist in the harmony of the artistic moment. But, after the music is over, the boy turns away, ignoring Drew’s offered handshake, emphasizing how they are too different to ever be friends.
After the men are on their way they see the boy above them on a makeshift bridge. He swings his banjo back and forth which makes it look like the pendulum of a clock. The image seems to be warning them that their time as civilized men is counting down. After they get through some rapids, Bobby says they “beat it.” Lewis admonishes him because his attitude is like those whose egos make them feel they can conquer nature. Lewis says, “You don’t beat this river.” But, even though he is an outdoors man, Drew offers a different perspective on Lewis. He says that he may know the woods, but he doesn’t “feel” them. Lewis may want to be one with nature, but he really “can’t hack it.” After all, he only visits the rural regions; he doesn’t live there. When Ed tries to wake Lewis in the early morning, his friend is in the fetal position, and gives out a little yelp, like a baby not wanting to be disturbed. This scene undermines Lewis’ macho persona. The warnings that they are out of place start to become evident. Lewis hears something at night that could be dangerous, but doesn’t know what it is. Ed sounds like he feels relief that the large problems in distant parts of the world, or even smaller ones in Atlanta, won’t touch them out where they are. But, it also means that they are cut off from any help from the outside world. When Ed tries to exercise his hunting ability, he gets the shakes pointing his arrow at a deer, and misses, showing his not being in sync with what is required to survive in the woods. We begin to hear the “Dueling Banjos” theme more and more, now telling us ironically that these suburban men are not in harmony with this alien environment. Lewis may see this world as the Garden of Eden, but as they row, Ed asks “are there any snakes around here?” and they later see a water snake. Perhaps this image suggests that the devil lives here and that it is no paradise.

Bobby and Ed shore up their canoe while Lewis and Drew are still on the river. They encounter two mountain men. One of them looks grotesque, with his upper front teeth missing (Herbert “Cowboy” Coward). In this context, Bobby and Ed’s weakness is that they try to deal with these people like civilized men, instead of immediately going into what we, today, would call a Walking Dead survivalist mode. Ed addresses these two savage types while holding that tobacco pouch he probably uses in his study at home. The mountain men say the other two are lost, and they are in this situation where there is nothing to prevent acts of depravity. These two get the jump on them with a rifle and a knife. Ed is bound to a tree with, ironically, his own store-bought belt. The other man (Bill McKinney) makes Bobby disrobe, stripping him of the remnants of civilization, and calls him a “sow,” reducing him to an animal, forcing him to squeal like a pig. (There was a foreboding of Bobby being used as a woman when he said the life jacket he was told to wear looked like a “corset). Boorman, said that Bobby’s rape was the malevolent nature of the wilderness exacting revenge for what Lewis earlier called the “rape” of the valley.

To show how God and religion have no place in the barbarity of the forest, the toothless mountain man, before forcing Ed to kneel so he can perform oral sex on him, blasphemously says, “You gonna’ do some prayin’ for me, boy. And you better pray good.” However, Lewis shoots and kills the one who raped Bobby, while the toothless man gets away. Given the context, Lewis’ act is legally justifiable. What follows is not. Drew, the moral center of the story, says they must report all that has happened to the authorities. Lewis argues that he will not get a fair trial in this part of the state because all of the people are related to each other, and he killed one of their kin. Also, the one that ran away can make up any story he likes and recruit other mountain men. Lewis wants to bury the body which will be covered by the lake. In response to Drew’s pleas to act within the law, Lewis, raising his arms and looking around them says, “Where’s the law, Drew?” They take a vote, creating their own little government. Bobby, ashamed about the violation he endured, doesn’t want information about the assault to get out. Even though Ed is emotionally conflicted, he goes along with Drew’s plan. By covering up the killing, they lower themselves to the same level as the mountain men, abdicating any accountability to society at large. As they dig the earth with their hands to make a grave for the dead man, Drew swings his arms like an ape, grunting, showing how he has devolved into an animal.
 While paddling their canoes to escape, Lewis looks up as if he notices something. Drew loses his wallet with pictures of his family in the river. It’s as if he has lost whatever grounded him in the outside world by going along with covering up the acts of violence. He doesn’t put on his life jacket, implying he no longer can live with what has happened. He shakes his head, and falls out of the canoe in the rapids. Lewis, the man of nature, is thrown out of his canoe and his leg is horribly mangled. This macho man whines in pain most of the rest of the film. He says that Drew was shot by the other mountain man. Ed, now having to take over Lewis’ position, climbs the mountain. He spies a man with a gun. Echoing the previous shaking while aiming his arrow, he kills his prey this time. However, he slips, piercing himself with another arrow. Could this imply that his act of violence is self-destructive? To compound the confusion, the man he killed has false teeth. Is he the one with the rapist? Why would he now put in his false teeth? Bobby later asks if he was just another guy out hunting. We don’t know, because no legal investigation is utilized to gather evidence. When Ed tries to lower the body of the man he killed, they both fall into the river, and the rope and the man seem to entangle Ed under the water, symbolically tying them together morally, and suggesting that violence equates to swimming in dangerous waters.

They put Lewis in the remaining canoe and on their way they find Drew’s body. His arm loops around his head in a distorted fashion showing how he was a broken man physically and spiritually after their cover-up. They can’t tell if he was shot. To avoid any questions, they weigh down his body, as they did with the man Ed killed. They eventually come to the place where they can get off the river. Their entry place back on land contains a rusted out wreck of a car, a symbol of the civilization they are returning to. They exit the water where there is a church. On their ride back to their cars they see the church being moved because of the future flooding. The solid, definite foundation of beliefs that a church should represent are undermined symbolically by the building having no set location. These men no longer have an ethical or spiritual foundation on which to rely, as their lives, too, are shifting following what has been done to them and what they have done.

Despite suspicions by one of the deputies, a brother-in-law of one of the missing mountain men, the Sheriff (played by the author of the story, James Dickey) says there is no evidence to hold the men. They may have tried to bury what happened, keep it submerged, but Ed has nightmares of the dead mountain man’s hand rising out of the water, in a way pointing an accusing finger.
This film provides no right way to live. The so-called “civilized” world is destroying nature. But, the men who occupy this wilderness act as primal beasts. Their living conditions are deplorable. As one inhabitant says, the best thing for the town in the valley is for it to be “covered by water.” It’s as if Dickey is saying that for humans to be one with nature is to be primitive. The idea of the “noble savage” is a contradiction in terms: there is nobility in being savage. It appears that in this tale, there is no “deliverance” from evil.

The next film is Little Big Man.

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