‘Deliverance’ Has an Infamous Rape Scene, and Men Keep Failing to Understand It
Deliverance wouldn’t seem like a film that begs for a re-watch. That’s probably because its two most iconic moments, a banjo session at a truck stop and a man’s rape in the woods, have been co-opted for numerous hillbilly exploitation moments ever since; many of us probably associated the roots of mainstream hillbilly parody coming from this film.
The banjo chords alone can be used as a you’re not welcome here sound from afar whenever a stranger enters the woods or played for laughs whenever a city slicker enters the rural south. And a redneck man’s desire to rape another man has been used in films as varied as Pulp Fiction and Dumb & Dumber; after 1972, confederate flags and bad teeth all became easy story codes to imply danger to another man that a rape could be coming.
Deliverance has now been in the world for 45 years. And it demands a re-watch but not for the reasons you might think. Sure, in America, many who are grappling with the current state of the White House have turned the The Hillbilly Elegy into a bestseller through a desire to “get to know” the people in the states that bleed Republican red. And there’s been a backlash against J.D. Vance’s bootstrap success book because his descriptions of impoverished learned helplessness sure seems to echo a governmental down-speak to the rural poor. Yes, there’s definitely strife between city folks and rural folks in Deliverance, but just like a purchase and then dismissal of Vance’s book because it doesn’t share a similar worldview is a kneejerk oversimplification, the view of Deliverance being modern city men vs. un-evolved rural men is also a gross oversimplification.
Deliverance is about men who feel weak around other men, regardless of social or regional status, but it’s also about the freedom that men take for granted. And the two scenes that Deliverance is most well known for play out entirely differently than you probably remember.
Before dissecting those two scenes, let’s discuss the four men who come from the city into Appalachia for a canoe trip. Burt Reynolds is the alpha male who is constantly shown in a state of trying to prove himself, even though all the other men in the group have already conceded to his machismo superiority; from his leather vest to his fast off-road driving, and his back-to-the-earth passionate description of why they need to traverse this river before a dam gets built turning it into a staid, motionless lake—Reynolds’ Lewis is always attempting to show that he’s in charge. Ned Beatty is the waggish fellow who doesn’t flex an attunement to back-to-the-earth survival. No one seems to respect him but they like having him around to feel superior to and to feel adulated by. Ronny Cox is Drew, someone of refined talents in books and musical instruments, and is described to be “about the best damn person” you’d ever meet. Drew’s declarations don’t come with gruff language and ultimatums like Lewis’, despite his intelligence grounding the entire group. Whereas Drew doesn’t appear to be enamored with Lewis or engaging in any pissing matches, Jon Voight’s Ed is somewhere in between Drew and Lewis. He’s attracted to Lewis’ bravado because he wished he had it himself. Drew and Bobby’s existences are plainer and Lewis’ appears more primal and manly. Lewis can sense this affection and so those two men frequently pair off together, the admired and the admirer as Lewis either tests Ed’s resolve or shows him his superior nature by racing through the woods, leaving the other car behind, and Ed holding onto his seat with a scared look on his face.
Lewis, the boorish type, describes the necessity of their river trip because “they’re building a dam across the Cahulawassee River. They’re gonna flood a whole valley, Bobby, that’s why… Just about the last wild, untamed, unpolluted, un-fucked up river in the South. Don’t you understand what I’m saying?…They’re gonna stop the river up. There ain’t gonna be no more river. There’s just gonna be a big, dead lake… Why? To just push a little more power into Atlanta, a little more air-conditioners for your smug little suburb, and you know what’s gonna happen? We’re gonna rape this whole goddamned landscape. We’re gonna rape it.”
It’s important that Lewis uses the word “rape” not because it foretells Bobby’s rape but because it shows how cavalier men are in using the language of one of the worst things that can happen to a person but is predominantly only likely to happen to women; he uses it to signify that something beautiful will become tainted. And that type of language use can even imply that a victim of rape makes someone worthless to society, i.e. victim shaming, something that ‘s inherent in the lower percentage reports of rapes vs. the number of men and women who actually are raped. Victims don’t want to face accusatory words or have their behavior analyzed down to every minute detail in order to ascertain whether or not sex was coerced. I can feel some of our readers rolling their eyes, but men freely use that word out of context because their gender doesn’t have the innate context of what it feels like to be statistically likely to be raped and thus adding protection measures to numerous situations in which it would feel foreign for a man to protect himself from unwanted sexual attention.
Reynolds and Cox understand this, too. In a 2012 interview with Huffington Post, Reynolds first attributes this thought to Cox and then says, “women get this movie much quicker than men. Women also understand. You know, for so many years men throw the word ‘rape’ around and never thought about what they were saying. And I think the picture makes men think about something that’s very important, that we understand the pain and embarrassment and the change of people’s lives.” And though this movie is 45 years old, the loose use of the word is still normal amongst many men, ranging from our current President to even movie pundits using the word “rape” to describe what it felt like to have DC fans react negatively to his opinions of the DCEU or what George Lucas “did to [your] childhood”. Your eye roll should be reserved for the flippant use of this word to imply victimization on trivial matters.
The freedom to use that word without consequences is the same freedom that the four men enjoy in going to a remote area to travel down a river, without thought of any potential harms that might befall them other than nature’s natural order. The river trip and Lewis’ description of it is a perfect vessel for analyzing manhood because the river pushes the men via a “wild and untamed” force. Not only does it test the men’s resolve but it enhances their feeling of freedom; much like men can wander the streets drunk and alone at night, and though they might be on edge or aware of others who might want to fight or rob them, sexual assault is not on their mind like it would more likely be for a woman in that same scenario.
(To be safe, perhaps this is where I should mention that I myself was sexually abused as a youth, but even despite living through that I do not feel unsafe in many scenarios that a woman would start to feel unsafe or at least acutely aware of her surroundings; and though sexual violence is also established to be more frequent than our data shows for boys and men, without speaking for everyone, I do think that most male survivors would say that their gender affords them a privilege in many situations to not feel unsafe.)
Sexual assault being the last thought of what could go wrong for a man in a situation is very important for Deliverance. After experiencing the freedom to traverse the last wild river in the South, Ed and Bobby pull their canoes over to a bank for a break. This is where they encounter their tormenters; and for most of their encounter with the hunters, you can sense that Ed and Bobby are only worried about being roughed up and robbed. The main instigator (played by Bill McKinney) is picking on Bobby in a method that would be very familiar to many men; he’s sized him up as being the weaker man in the lot and makes fun of his weight with words and standing very close to him, showing dominance. When he flicks Bobby’s clothed nipple he’s testing Bobby’s resolve, how much can he get away with before this guy might stand his ground? Despite what follows next, you don’t get the sense that this mountain man had rape on his mind when seeing these two. It escalated as a power trip.
What set off a chain reaction was Bobby insinuating that the hunters were bootleggers. That comment, which was truly Bobby’s way of standing his ground, is what turns this humiliation game into something personal for the men. It’s an outdated preconceived notion that those from the city believe that the rural poverty south engages in illegal outlaw activity to make what little money they have. By insinuating that they’re bootleggers, Bobby has shown that he feels superior to them. And that’s when he’s taken back into the woods by gunpoint, forced to strip, and Ed is tied to a tree forced to watch, as it does escalate to rape because Bobby complies with each demand thinking that the alternative would be death.
The four men we spent time with before this moment have also engaged in battles for superiority in moments within their group but they were able to do freely as friends. During the initial encounter with the mountain men, when each faction was trying to establish superiority over the other, the main threat would appear to be violence from their guns or fists. When women deal with a man or a group of men, they have to be very aware of their words, posture, etc. so as to not stoke this fragile ire of superiority amongst them.
The shocking rape scene in Deliverance has made many men wonder why it happens. It’s important to note that in the more frequent rape scenes of women the motives of the man aren’t questioned. We don’t condone it, but we accept that it happens, and most don’t need to know extra motivation. John Boorman introduces the rapist the same way that many films have always introduced a rape scene involving a man and woman: as a stranger who simply emerges, commits a horrific act, and then vanishes. For decades of storytelling, writers and directors felt no need to add motivation to that scenario, it’s just accepted that that’s a threat. And that’s how Boorman sets up this scene and it’s ingenious because it should force men to grapple with why this movie is so uncomfortable for them but perhaps so easy to accept and not question a rape scene involving a woman. It also essentially plays out the sickening “she was asking for it” argument equivalent with another man substituted for a woman. Bobby’s simple bootlegging comment shifted the whole situation into something where the mountain man felt he needed to show his power and superiority over him. And of course a man in the audience will think that is wrong and can hopefully make the leap to all “asking for it” defenses are disgustingly wrong.
Deliverance should be something that, if they aren’t there already, puts men in a victim’s shoes, simply by being another man, and teaches them that it is the most debasing thing that a human can do to another human. When Lewis shoots the mountain man, Deliverance uses that to set up a thriller aspect of needing to cover up that crime due to the distrust of local authorities perhaps being related to the dead. It doesn’t say it outright—in fact the men of Deliverance don’t even mention what happened to Bobby outside of the man needing to be shot for the injury he caused—but going to any authorities to report a rape is going in with the deck stacked against the victim because proving rape is very hard and that’s where the questions of how and why the rape occurred, starts twisting the knife of shame and fault in the victim.
Bobby has a witness in Ed for the whole act, and Lewis and Drew witness the very end; but Bobby also doesn’t want to go through with publicly admitting that this had happened to him, something that all four men agree with and it’s perhaps the only way they put themselves in Bobby’s place, that they wouldn’t want others to know. The death of the mountain man allows for a different survival plot to kick in, how will they get back to their trucks without authorities finding the dead man and zeroing in on them for murder, but the distrust of local authorities is key. It’s heavily implied that the regional jury would be their undoing due to blood ties, but one can’t overstate that watching this 45 years later—with many horrific rapes going unpunished due to juries determining lack of facts or judges even admitting a stance of boys will be boys—men should read that extra layer of the fault within our judicial system that has shown repeated difficulty to side with, or even acknowledge, the victim.
Let’s backpedal for a moment to the other iconic scene. The banjo scene, it is a different side of the coin than the rape scene. Drew begins plucking his guitar at a one-car gas station and a boy with features that imply familial inbreeding begins mimicking his song; the two do a call and response and eventually speed up into a rollicking tune. It easy to say that Deliverance feels superior to the rural south, but I don’t think that’s the case. The banjo scene has been twisted in pop culture into something that foretells something awful to come, but the scene itself is actually quite delightful and fun. It shows Drew’s willingness to engage with the locals and his immense respect for the child’s musicianship.
Because the child rebuffs his handshake, it implies that the city vs. rural game has set motion but the ending of the film is key. After surviving the trip down the river, the men mostly receive kindness from the community. The medical facilities are not archaic, the doctors are every bit as talented as the ones you’d find in the city. The police are equally discerning, too, those who have authority in the area are not shown as hicks. However in a flip of the rape narrative, it’d be impossible for the police to prove anything that they have a hunch on, without finding the evidence of a body. With the river about to be dammed and flooding the rest of the valley, that body is likely never to be found, and so the men are just told to never ever come back to this place.
This tug of war between the rural area and the men from out of town is emphasized by the city essentially wiping this town off the map. The dam is being built to send more power to the city of Atlanta. The town where the men receive aid and need to deceive their way out of in order to get back to Atlanta needs to move everything to a higher ground. But don’t forget the word that Lewis, the supreme male specimen of the group, uses to describe this process. He describes it as “rape.” And Deliverance is about everything that that word implies, except it shows it as a physical act instead of a flippant loose word; it’s the power that the city has over rural areas, physically removing them, it’s the power of pre-conceived notions that overrides juries and it is, of course, the overpowering nature of rape itself. As Reynolds said, “women get this movie quicker than men” and 45 years later now is the best time for men to re-watch it and become aware of their privilege to venture anywhere they please.