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FAILED MASCULINITY IN BOORMAN'S 'DELIVERANCE'

'Let's just wait and see what comes out of the river.'

Nearly fifty years after it's release, John Boorman's Deliverance still stands as one of the key works of art on the subject of masculinity. In those five decades, we have witnessed what came out of the river and we are still no better off than Ed in the film's final moments; haunted by what we've become and it seems unable or unwilling to do anything about it. If there is anything to learn from Deliverance about the legacy of traditional masculinity, it is not to be found in the infamous rape scene— of which much has already been written, but in recognizing that what Ed represents, and not Lewis is the real problem facing masculinity in the 21st Century.

In 1970, James Dickey, 18th Poet Laureate of the United States published his novel Deliverance and in 1972, John Boorman, fresh off of the much more underseen and underappreciated study in masculinity, Hell in the Pacific, directed the film adaptation. Despite what Roger Ebert concluded in his review, herethe film is not about violence or man versus nature but masculinity. While Dickey's novel is rather faithfully adapted to the screen save an excised prologue and the overwrought poetic reflections of central character Ed, the film manages, more so than the book, to be a timeless reflection of masculine insecurities. Not only does it investigate the nature of masculinity in the face of emasculation by modern society (a common idea of the Men's Liberation movement of the early 70's,) but it offers a final statement—perhaps prophecy is the better word—on that condition's unchecked and rampant spread. Partly because of what Ebert dismissed as sensationalism and partly because of the display of unchecked machismo that went into the actual filming, Deliverance lays out the masculine psyche like never before or perhaps since in American film.

Like any great work of art, Deliverance presents a theme, then complicates our understanding of that theme with equal parts specificity and ambiguity so that it remains a Rorschach test for each individual viewer. As such, I don't intend to argue my points as being what Dickey or Boorman intended, but simply how it reads from a modern perspective. And how it reads is as a haunting meditation on masculinity in crisis, a crisis that has been festering unchecked for decades. The threat and reality of emasculation looms over the film whether that be the literal emasculation portrayed in the rape scene or the metaphor of emasculation that Dickey and Boorman unsubtly push regarding the modern world's encroachment upon nature and traditional man's sense of self. Deliverance gives us five variations on masculinity, four in crisis, one as crisis and it's about damn time we heeded the banjo music.  

The first four variations are found in our main characters. Lewis (Reynolds), the traditional Alpha Male obsessed with his manhood and survival—of conquering nature. Ed (Voight), the Domesticated Male very much aware that he is missing something in his comfortable life and quite sure that Lewis, the Alpha Male, can help him find it (the problematic psychology of current Men's Rights activists.) Drew (Cox), the Law-Abiding Male, secure in his position within modern society, painfully naive, but absolutely secure in who he is and what he believes in. Finally, Bobby (Beatty), the embodiment of Commerce and Suburbia's largesse, totally out of his element from the beginning. Worth noting is that the most direct victim of unchecked masculinity in the film, Bobby is also Lewis' equal in his ability to bury the past and repress emasculation as we will come to see by film's end.

These four variations on a theme, all aspects of writer James Dickey as professed by the man himself, are coming out of Atlanta for the weekend to float the Cahulawassee River—a fictional river, shot on the Coosawattee River—before it is flooded and erased forever from the map in the name of industry and progress. A situation created by what we can only imagine as The Tennessee River Valley Authority or similar concern. Lewis alternately regals and chastises the men about the beauty of the river, it's untamed wildness and their imperative as men to see it before it disappears completely. It's worth noting that Lewis' often reckless actions in the film may very well belie his own insecurity, a fact Drew rather insightfully points out early on; 'He learned'em (the woods), he doesn't feel'em. That's his problem. He wants to be one with nature and he can't hack it.' 

Initially, Ed is the buffer between Lewis, who he clearly idolizes, and the other men. Drew and Bobby while in quiet acceptance of Lewis' macho theatrics alternately admire and detest him. They are all enablers of the more primitive attitudes and actions of Lewis, the Alpha Male, but it is Ed's almost loving reverence of Lewis that is most damning for the men in the film (it's clear that Drew and Bobby wouldn't be in this situation without him) and modern masculinity in general. Whereas the main narrative shows Ed as a man forced to come to terms with his masculinity, succeed and then realize in the end that he has actually failed, it is simultaneously the story of 20th Century Masculinity. The story of men living comfortably in the increasingly modern world, but idolizing the man's man and seeing no other valid representation of their own nature, doubling down on this archetype only to find it lacking and ultimately damning. 

There are three scenes that I believe are most worth noting in the first act: Drew's impromptu jam session with a banjo playing kid. Lewis' continued diatribes on the river and the impending failure of the modern world, "Machines gonna fail and the systems gonna fail' and finally Ed's failure to kill a deer and the subsequent hiding of this fact from Lewis and the other men. As the jam session illustrates, Drew is the only one who apparently cares to, or is capable of communicating with the locals as humans—as equals. Still, he remains somewhat confused as to why this brief interlude doesn't engender more of a connection, especially upon seeing the boy further down the river. It is a perfect distillation of the do-gooder mentality, the church-going, law-abiding man who wants to help, who has charity in his heart but is too naive to truly comprehend the pride of the destitute. He is the embodiment of an ideal ultimately unable to maintain his convictions in the harshness of reality. 

Lewis' continued lording over the group is also a perfect distillation of character. Lewis is not a bad man, an egotist to be sure, but for all intents and purposes, a man most men identify with or at least innately understand. There is a very real need in a certain type of man, at least the cis-gendered white man of a certain generation to not simply commune with nature but conquer it just as there is an inherent distrust of everything the modern world offers hence the diatribes on a failing society. Still, he is more often than not a bull in a China shop and his nature should be mitigated by the men around him, not allowed to lead the way.  

Ed, on the other hand, the main character of the book and film, is the unseen problem in masculinity. Ed's failure to kill the deer is something he is ashamed of and something he hides from the others. He desires to conquer nature but is unable to do so. He is the clearest example in the film of masculinity in flux and as such he is relegated to an impotent voyeur during the film's most infamous scene. In this state, he represents the vast majority of men in America, the ones that stand by in silent support of the Alpha Male even if intellectually they know better than to support his bullying, egotistical ways. They are cowards, unsure of their own masculinity and when they do take action it is out of fear. Ed and not Lewis, I would argue represents the majority of men in America very accurately. 

The fifth variation on masculinity that Deliverance supplies us is that of the Rapists, the ultimate power trippers who upon discovering those weaker in their traditional masculinity are emboldened to wield that power to humiliate and destroy. I've never seen that particular scene as sexually motivated, but instead have long associated it with power and an extreme example of the simple maxim of nature as well as primitive man; the strong eat the weak. I would add that the strong also do this not just for survival but sometimes sport. The Rapists then are the distillation of the masculine mythos to it's crudest base function; it's primitive lizard brain. I don't plan on discussing the rape scene beyond this point. It's been investigated with a great deal of insight better than I could manage by Brian Formo here, and while I feel the sole focus on the rape from the point of view of current gender politics is quite fruitful in its revelations it ignores a great deal of what else the film has to say. Of more interest to me, and, I believe more conducive to a discussion regarding masculinity, in general, is how each of the men in the film reacts to the rape, the choices they make and how each choice is shown to play out. The important thing to note in this regard then is that Ed remains a witness, the impotent voyeur, figuratively castrated by the actions of the rapists as well as Lewis' unwavering masculinity.

The second act begins with the rape, followed by Lewis' murder of one of the rapists and then gives us a key moment with the brief debate between all four men of what to do about the situation. Lewis' point of view is naturally one of distrust of the system. Ed, as usual, goes along with Lewis. Bobby doesn't want the nightmare to follow him home, to have to relive the attack and ruin his reputation, but Drew shows himself for the first time since the jam session and fights for what he sees as the right thing; to report the incident and let the authorities do what they will. Perhaps naive on Drew's part, he none the less represents what is best and just about the modern man, but Lewis' overtures to Democracy—suggesting a vote—seal his fate. His modern, just view of the world is challenged by the events that befall the group, but his undoing is a simple manipulation of ideas he values by the more aggressive Alpha Male. A common problem in modern politics. Drew's is the most direct failure of masculinity in the film, as it is his own doing, his own willingness to override his beliefs in the face of a more aggressive logic and it is this failure that he cannot reconcile himself with. Whether Drew's subsequent death is suicide or a light-headed spell at the worst possible moment is beside the point. What's important is that it is not murder. 

After burying the rapist's body in a shallow grave, Lewis reminds them, using the casual language of the Alpha Male, the 'rape' of the land and the progress of industry will aide their crime. The group then get back on the river and immediately two things happen: Drew takes a header into the river and the group hit a series of rapids that destroys one canoe and overturns the other. The result is Lewis' compound fracture, masculinity effectively sidelined for the remaining duration of the film and Ed's rise to Alpha Male by proxy. Despite being removed from the equation, however, it is still Lewis that drives the remaining decisions made by the men in the film. Most importantly, it is Lewis that believes Drew was shot by the escaped hillbilly now lurking somewhere above them on the bluffs. ''Drew was shot,'  Lewis proclaims, but as we will later learn, he was not. Ed, feeling their lives depend on it, endeavors to scale the bluffs overnight and succeed where he failed in the killing of the deer earlier. The fact that Boorman chooses to instill doubt in Ed and the audience's minds as to whether this is indeed the same man from earlier is a masterstroke that casts Ed's ascendance to Alpha Male in shadow and is ultimately another failure of masculinity, another instance of the charade of machismo riddled with doubt and insecurity. 

The third act of the film begins with the discovery of Drew's body, the revelation that he wasn't shot, after-all and then his river burial. Another sacrifice to the growing artifice of their survival story. The rest of the film concerns itself with the men's final contemplative leg of the river, getting their stories straight, the significant revelation of the townsfolk as decidedly unlike the mountain folk of the beginning, and most interestingly the seeming transference of victimhood from Bobby to Ed in the film's penultimate scenes. With Lewis convalescing in the hospital, his statement and assurance to Ed that 'I don't remember nothin. Nothin,'  is emblematic of Lewis and surprisingly Bobby's facility for repression.

As we see afterward, Ed and Bobby have been taken in by what appears to be a boarding house full of elderly men and women. They are collected around the dinner table and Bobby is acting as what we imagine to be his old self again; chatty, jovial and having it appears to already repressed what happened to him to some degree. Ed, on the other hand, is starting to fall apart and chokes up over dinner leaving Bobby to rescue the situation, 'Boy this corn is special, ain't it?' This reveal of the two victims of the rape scene is telling, I think, in the writer and filmmakers intention in regards to their theme. Bobby, the most direct victim of the darkest variation of unchecked masculinity has become the repressed everyman, doing what must be done and in every way has become the strongest masculine figure in the film. The inactive voyeur, the uncertain bystander and failed Alpha Male, Ed, however, has now become the haunted conscious of the group and of all men who stand by and do nothing, or only act too late and under duress. 

The definition of deliverance is the action of being rescued or set free. It's an ironic title in that by film's end they are neither rescued nor set free, but haunted for what we can only presume will be the rest of their lives. Ed especially. Perhaps, we should then see the title as a prayer for deliverance. One that after all these years, for Ed, Bobby, Lewis, and us, remains unanswered. 

 

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