The next recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book following my screening of The Night of the Hunter is this John Boorman classic that turned Burt Reynolds into a star.
Lewis (Reynolds) convinces his friends Ed (Jon Voigt), Bobby (Ned Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox) to go on a canoe trip along the Cahulawassee River before it’s dammed up and turned into a huge lake. When they run afoul of some denizens of the American back country, they find themselves in a struggle for survival.
James Dickey wrote the script based on his own novel, and Boorman brings it to life with his great cast. They establish the characters and their relationship easily over the film’s opening credits, with humor and sharp dialogue, as well as their plan to take on the river.
From there, the film takes off fairly quickly, and includes some iconic moments, including the famous “Dueling Banjos” and “Squeal Like a Pig” sequences. Trouble is quickly found when Ed and Bobby come across some backwoods folk who use and abuse them, until Lewis and Drew catch up to them, and save their friends.
But from that point on, what started out as a leisurely weekend on the river becomes a race to escape and live to never share the story with anyone else, and keep the secret of what really happened on the river, and which ones will survive.
There is a grittiness to the physical locations, and the backwoods are almost frightening in their state of primal glory. As counterpoint, Lewis’ know-it-all and all-or-nothing weekend warrior behavior, is a frightening reflection of the modern city dweller who thinks he knows best about all things.
Featuring stunning cinematography by the late Vilmos Zsigmond, the film puts four men right into the dark heart of America, and makes them fight to get out alive and some 44 years later, this film looks amazing. It’s quiet, unnerving, and captivates us much now as it did upon its release.
The cast turn in strong performances, and with all the location work, you can only imagine what a grueling shoot it must have been. Add to that the fact that to save on production costs, all four leads did their own stunts, and the film was uninsured!
A strongly crafted film, that doesn’t pull it’s emotional and physical punches, it allows each of the leads to shine, but in the end, it ends up being Jon Voigt’s film as he confronts his own perceived weakness, and confronts both nature and the darker aspects of man.
Stark, beautiful and an white knuckle ride, Boorman crafted this American classic, that has since become a touchstone of popular culture.
A fascinating film.