How rural horror Deliverance set a controversial trend

Deliverance shows Boorman’s skill as a director, achieving his usual visual flair but with a decidedly more disturbing subject matter. The film is remembered for two sequences especially: one of “duelling banjos” in which Drew and a local boy (Billy Redden) conjure up an impromptu duet between banjo and guitar, and an infamous scene where Bobby is sexually assaulted and ordered to “squeal like a pig”.

Fifty years on, Boorman tells BBC Culture that the film was a challenging one to make from the off, recalling how the studio Warner Bros was uncertain about its content. “It was a pleasurable location and a good cast,” he says, “but the studio was beating me over the head to reduce the budget. They really didn’t want to make the film in the end. They got cold feet about the rape in particular. Studios, when they don’t want to make film, reduce your budget hoping you’ll go away. They finally reduced it to $2m and I still made it with a profit in the end.”

Just like the characters of his film, Boorman exhibits a streak of defiant determination in the face of adversity, even today, aged 89, having retired from filmmaking after 2014’s Queen and Country. “It’s a tough world making movies,” he says with an undeniable fondness. “If you want to fight for your ideas and principles, it’s tough. But we did it.”

Deliverance stands as a powerful exploration of the harshness of the rural landscape, one with an ecological message that still resonates; that the destruction of the natural world has consequences for everyone. But the other aspect, one that has provoked a more divided response over the years, is its portrayal of “local” folk. In many ways, it defined a very particular branch of US cinema – one that became particularly popular in the 1970s, and expressed an abject fear of those who lived outside of cities.

People vs landscape

The link between place and people is incredibly important in Deliverance. In fact, it’s arguably the main driver of the division between the central urbanite quartet and the many country folk, or “mountain men”, who appear. Boorman explores his characters initially through their relationship to topography before delving deeper. The locals seem to be a part of the landscape while the vacationers are outsiders wanting to conquer it for their own personal ends; a common theme of what is often labelled the Southern Gothic. The genre first came to prominence in literature of the 20th Century, with authors such as William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. Moving on to the big screen, filmmakers ran with its visual and atmospheric potential in films ranging from Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) and J Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear (1962) to Don Siegel’s The Beguiled (1971). Filmmakers made the most of the genre’s dark and Gothic portrayal of the Southern States; highlighting in particular an almost surreal grotesquery they saw as embedded in the Deep South.