An extra documentary suggests James Dickey wanted someone else to make his movie; give him credit for not squealing like a pig.

By Michael Sragow

Published December 13, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Directed by John Boorman
Starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ron Cox
Warner Home Video; widescreen anamorphic (2.35:1) and full-screen (1.33:1)
Extras: Behind-the-scenes documentary, "The Dangerous World of Deliverance"; plus trailer and production notes

James Dickey, the poet-novelist who wrote "Deliverance" and its screenplay, told Sam Peckinpah's biographer, David Weddle, that he wanted Peckinpah to direct. When Dickey and Peckinpah met to discuss it, the director said to him, "You and I are doing the same thing, me with my images up on the screen and you with your words on the page. We're trying to give them images that they can't forget.'"

But instead of the controversial, unpredictable Peckinpah, Warner Bros. assigned John Boorman, the prodigiously talented British director who a few years before had made "Point Blank." Judging from the documentary program on this DVD, Dickey never recovered from his disappointment. He doesn't mention Peckinpah, but on the evidence of "The Dangerous World of Deliverance" it's clear that Dickey and Boorman didn't share an easy rapport.

The documentary makers emphasize Dickey as the key creator of the work. They punch home that the issues of men testing themselves in nature are rooted in Dickey's life and are part of his creative wellspring; in the documentary we see Dickey wielding bow and arrows as expertly as Burt Reynolds does in the film. Dickey becomes as much a natural force for Boorman to contend with as the cliffs and rapids on location.

From the proof of the film itself, Boorman endured -- and prevailed. First released in 1972, "Deliverance" came back into vogue in the late '80s and early '90s, when Iron Johns of every variety were crusading into the wilderness to bond and to seek their authentic selves. The movie's aura is augmented by Dickey's cameo as a sheriff in this tale of four middle-class Georgians canoeing down the untamed, soon-to-be-dammed Cahulawassee River.

Boorman presents their quest as high macho adventure and nightmare. Under the guidance of a blustery outdoorsman named Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the mild-mannered, pipe-smoking Ed (Jon Voight) proves himself in rites of violence. One of their companions is raped, and the other killed. The novel depicts the wild river trip as an enrichment for Lewis and Ed, despite the dire consequences for the affable Bobby (Ned Beatty) and the sane, gentle Drew (Ronny Cox).

Unlike the book, the picture is never celebratory: It cleaves to a spooky, neutral tone. The simultaneous attractiveness and destructiveness of taking extreme action is the point of the film. This is one survival drama that's both gut-clutching and mesmerizing. Boorman; his cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond; and his editor, Tom Priestley, capture the spring of a canoe when the current snags it, the terror of a vertiginous drop, the eerie stillness of a gorge. They achieve poetic precision even when the men are shooting rapids. The movie has a mysterious beauty, like a landscape that changes drastically when night falls.

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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