It's no secret that the seventies brought some groundbreaking cinema to the forefront immediately after the huge success of "Easy Rider". It was the end of the John Ford/David Lean era of hugely expensive epics and the beginning of something else entirely. Sometimes brutal, sometimes exploitative, always controversial, these new filmmakers that seemed to take over Hollywood were in the midst of something like a revolution. And in many ways they took over, by any means necessary. George Lucas, Francis Coppola, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Sam Peckinpah and many other visionary directors sprang from this amazing period of creativity.
Hollywood was reborn, seemingly overnight, and so were superstars. Jon Voight, Robert DeNiro, Burt Reynolds, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman... all doing the best work of their lives. Finally, the studio executives learned of a huge untapped marketplace, youth culture, and in many ways it was like striking oil. The counterculture had taken over for this brief period, and it gave birth to what we know now as the modern day blockbuster. And "Deliverance" is very much a product of that time, and yet upon revisiting it, it is in many ways one of the more timeless films to come from that most wonderful of film decades.
Based upon a novel by James Dickey, who also wrote the screenplay and even does a cameo as Aintry Sheriff Bullard, John Boorman directed arguably his most outstanding work. Originally released in 1972, this movie hit a nerve with moviegoers and has also become embedded into our modern collective film subconscious, not to mention the butt of quite a few obnoxious southern fried comedy routines. "Squeal like a pig!" has become a rallying call much like "Get'r done!" in many parts of the United States, sadly.
The notoriety of the rape sequence has in many ways made people forget the underlying message and impact of this film, and that's too bad because the message is felt today just as much, if not more than it was when it was first released (and we were actually pulling out of Vietnam).
The story involves four longtime friends who embark on a journey into the Georgia woods to seek out and conquer a river that will be destroyed by the technology of mankind through damming. Ed Gentry (Jon Voight) is the more even headed and mild mannered of the four urban young men, more taken to philosophy than outdoors and backwoods adventure. Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds) is the driving force of the adventure and is a hardcore survivalist type who the rest tend to admire for his masculinity and knowledge of survivalism. Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty in his first film) and Ronny Cox (Drew Ballinger) are also along for the ride, and let's not forget Cox also brings along his guitar for one of the most famous musical sequences in film history. The notorious and legendary 'Dueling Banjos' sequence is as effective and thought provoking as it ever was before. I mean, why can't we all just get along?
These four men at first have the arrogance of city boys, and seem to be happy to leave their jobs and lives behind on a trip into the unknown led by their wild adventurer friend. The four men stop in at a local gas station to fill up on fuel but also to hire someone to drive their vehicles downriver to pick them up where they will eventually end up. When asked why they want to take two canoes down the dangerous path of the river by one of the backwoods hicks, Lewis responds, "Because it's there."
Lewis goes with Ronny in one canoe and Ed and Bobby in the other. We get to know the characters a little more after they camp out. They all reveal a little more about themselves, and in the morning they head off again. And, of course, this is when all hell breaks loose.
Now, much has been written in the past about the controversial rape sequence that follows, but I believe I will save the rest for the viewer. I actually watched this film with a couple of people who had never seen the film, so I know there are more out there, and I don't want to ruin it. Let's just say the rest of there film can be seen from many different viewpoints, and that's the real reason the film is a classic - because you can look at it on so many different levels.
On one it is a highly entertaining adventure story about man versus nature, on another it is a symbolic story about the danger of intruding upon unknown territory, and on another level it is about man versus himself and if the progress of technology is bringing us forward or separating all of us and taking us a few steps back.
And of course the multi faceted morality tale that lies just beneath the surface. Either way you want to see the film, it is a masterpiece and only gets better with time. In many ways it is cinematic poetry, and at the same time raw and savage, just like the beauty of the flowing river is also deadly and unpredictable.
It was a surprise hit and was even nominated for three Academy Awards (one for Best Picture), not bad for a film which touches upon themes some felt best left ignored. And it is extremely well-shot and the performances by a cast of unknowns catapulted all of them to stardom, except for the inbred hillbilly playing banjo, he only lived in my nightmares when I was growing up. This film is far more frightening than "Wrong Turn," let me tell you.
Now, onto the video portion of this review. To be certain, this film has never looked better on home video. It is presented in a 1080p high definition 2.4:1 transfer. You will be impressed by the level of detail, although when it first begins, it doesn't look quite as good as it does a little later. It looks far better than it did on DVD, and Warner Brothers has done an excellent job for its thirty-fifth anniversary, of that you can be sure. That said, it really looks like a film from the seventies and certain scenes, like I said, look better than others. The dark scenes in particular aren't really as impressive as on other high def releases, more grayish and blurry. And now it becomes painfully obvious that Boorman tinted up some scenes to make it appear as if it were nighttime. If there was ever a time to 'pull a Lucas' perhaps the rock climbing scene could have been touched up, but what do I know?
And yet despite its obvious age, I'm sure this film won't look this good again, possibly ever, and I was thrilled to see it in high def and it is the definitive release certainly. Fans of the film will find new texture and the color level is better than ever, and yet it retains its gritty (and grainy) seventies look throughout. I mean this film always seemed to have an intentionally muted color level and the focus always seemed a little soft, in my opinion, and this release enhances that, together with its striking overexposed look. This is certainly not demo material, but I was impressed nonetheless.
The audio seems cleaned up as well, and sounds perfectly adequate, and of course the banjo sequence sounds better than ever. This film has a Dolby Digital Plus track and the surrounds, though limited, get a workout. Most of the action is upfront though, as it should be for a film that was originally in stereo. And the sounds of the river and the deep woods are better than ever. The audio truly shines during the rock climbing sequence, we can hear the sounds of the menacing rushing river below as loose rocks fall behind us and insects chirp into the night. Brilliant and terrifying, the makers utilize very effective ways of using the surround field to convey isolation and horror not to mention the unforgivable intensity of Mother Nature and the chaotic natural forces of our dangerous planet. The dialogue comes through very clean and easy to understand, also. Sonically, this film fares even better than the picture. Truly it sounds far better than it has ever sounded on home video.
Now for the 35th Anniversary Warner Brothers has put together some bonus features that are sure to impress even the most die hard fan with their significance and how much they actually add to the overall effect of this iconic film.
First and most importantly, is a wonderful and informative documentary that is split into four different parts. All are in standard definition as I expected. The first is called 'The Beginning' (16:43) and follows the history from novel to the big screen. It is my favorite of the four because unlike other phony featurettes, this one is brutally honest. We get all the stories about the ego clash between Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight and also how James Dickey was kicked off the set for driving everyone nuts with his alcoholic obnoxiousness on the set and his controlling manipulations of the actors. What a huge, intimidating Southern writer, just like the story itself he seems larger than life, even now. He really seemed to enjoy tormenting the actors and everyone on the set by messing with their minds. They talk about him as if he's Sam Peckinpah, and the stories are truly entertaining and really quite funny. Watching all of the actors and the director open up honestly about the struggles to make this film is nothing short of a revelation, and Reynolds' obvious knowledge that he was in the midst of something that would finally make him a star and catapult him from being a B movie and bad TV show actor is obvious. And we all know what a career he had after, also. Wonderfully candid and brutally honest, all four of these features are equally fascinating. The second is called 'The Journey' (13:03) is everything about the film production from the beginning, the third 'Betraying The River' (14:36) is all about filming the controversial sequences, and the fourth 'Delivered' touches on the films impact on audiences and explains the remarkable ending and it's impact and meaning.
We also have a great, vintage featurette called 'The Dangerous World Of Deliverance' with a running length of about ten minutes. We also have the theatrical trailer (which is very cheesy, poorly edited and gives away almost the entire movie in under three minutes) and an excellent commentary by the director which, although it covers a lot of territory from the documentary also provides some insight into this British directors most cherished films that has become very much a part of American cinema folklore.
"Deliverance" is a much hailed masterpiece of American cinema and deserves all of the attention bestowed upon it over the last few decades. It means even more now than it did then, for me at least and is a powerful experience whether it be the first or twentieth viewing. This HD-DVD is without a doubt the definitive edition and Warner has really outdone themselves once again by remastering and providing excellent bonus materials to a long neglected release. The bonus materials are the same for the new DVD and Blu ray editions, so there is no reason I can't recommend this stellar release to everyone reading this review, you should all rejoice. You will be impressed and this is one of those films that belongs on everyone's shelf.