Dueling Canoes: Burt Reynolds in “Deliverance”

June 11, 1979 is a date I will always remember. It was on that date that I heard that my favorite actor of all-time, John Wayne, had passed away. He still is my favorite actor, even after all these years. Now, September 6, 2018 will be another date I will remember. On that day my second favorite actor left the stage for the final curtain.

Burt Reynolds made his mark on in the cinematic arena, and like him or not, he had an influence on those that came after him. Admittedly his presence was not in the same arena as the Duke, and many of his movies appealed to those of less sophistication than, say, fans of Marlon Brando or Spencer Tracy. To this I say, so what? Reynolds’ name on the marquee was just as big a draw as any of them, maybe even more so.

Reynolds broke the mold in so many ways. Did you know he was the first man to appear nude in a national magazine? In 1972, shortly after delivering his breakout role performance in Deliverance, Reynolds agreed to pose for Cosmopolitan, a woman’s magazine, and if Deliverance hadn’t delivered the goods on his rising star status, the photo certainly would have. (Even though it’s fairly discreet by today’s standards, I’m not going to post the picture…)

For most of the 70’s and 80’s, Burt and his iconic mustache dominated the macho male movie lines. With such roles as “The Bandit” (Smokey and the Bandit), Paul Crewe (The Longest Yard), J. J. McClure (The Cannonball Run), and Stroker Ace, Reynolds thrilled both men and women alike. He remained on the scene even through some admitted turkeys (how he acquiesced to being in Cop and a Half is beyond me). He even proved he could sing, after a fashion, in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

Deliverance proved to be his breakout role. He had been on the scene for several years before that, and had a handful of movies under his belt, as well as a slew of appearances on television (he played the town blacksmith Quint Asper for several seasons on TV’s Gunsmoke, among other shows), but this is the one that put him on the map.

Deliverance (1972):

Four Atlanta businessmen decide to take a weekend jaunt down the Cahulawasee River (not a real river, the real Chattooga river did the honors as a stand-in). The trip is done at the behest of Lewis (Burt Reynolds) who insists it is their last chance to see the unmolested wilderness, as a dam that is currently under construction will end up flooding the valley and make the trip unavailable in the near future.

Going on this trip with him are Ed (Jon Voight), Drew (Ronny Cox) and Bobby (Ned Beatty). Of the four, only Jon Voight had any significant impact on Hollywood prior to this movie. (This was the first movie role for either Beatty or Cox).
Lewis is a free spirit who lives for the moment. (Which is a perfect prequel to many of Reynolds’ roles after this point). Drew, on the other hand, is the most level-headed of the group. Ed has come along for the ride, although he is pretty much there only because he wants Lewis to think of him as a real man and not a guy who just wants to toe the line in his marriage and his life. Bobby is the wimp of the clan. He keeps trying to talk the others out of this survivor trip and just go play golf.

The guys end up in the backwoods and get a couple of men to drive their cars down river where they will be ready for them when this trip ends. If you have ever heard the song “Dueling Banjos”, you will get a kick out of Drew and the local hillbilly boy performing the song. The song itself remains a recurring theme throughout the movie.

The first night goes without a hitch, but on the second day Ed and Bobby end up aways ahead of Drew and Lewis who are in the other canoe. While waiting for them, a couple of hillbillies come along and take them hostage. (It is suggested, but never revealed, that they may have a still nearby). The scene turns rather graphic, and at this point you may want to skip ahead to the next paragraph. While one hillbilly holds a gun on Ed, the other rapes Bobby, commanding him to “squeal like a pig.”

Lewis shows up and shoots one of the boys with his bow and arrow and the other takes off. Although Drew is all for taking the body back to the authorities, Lewis convinces the others that this would be a bad idea. They could be arrested on manslaughter charges and have to face trial. So Lewis and the others, to the vociferous objections of Drew, bury the body and continue downriver.

When they come to some rapids in the middle of a canyon Drew falls overboard. Lewis yells that somebody shot him. Drew’s body disappears and the others end up on the shore. Certain that there is a shooter up on the cliffs, Ed goes after the gunman. Although Lewis would probably be the best choice for this endeavor, he broke his leg during the run through the rapids, and in the midst off all this, one of the canoes is destroyed.

If you’ve seen this movie you don’t need me to tell you the rest. If you haven’t seen it might I suggest a night of watching something that is extremely gripping? Much of this movie is already a part of the lore of cinema history.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.