Shocking as it may be to me, some people out there may never have actually seen John Boorman’s 1972 classic, Deliverance. It’s a damn fine thriller. If you bring just a smidgen of film theory to it, it also ends up also seeming like a masterpiece of homophobia, or perhaps an extremely troubling exercise in classism. It gives you a lot to chew on, either way.
The story goes like this: four men go on a canoe trip in the backwoods American south. The boys bring their bows and arrows for a little hunting. One of them—Lewis, played by a swaggering Burt Reynolds—goes on about confronting nature; if survivalists had beefcake calendars, he’d be July. The more middle-class and insufficiently repressed Ed (Jon Voight) is clearly attracted to his friend’s rugged masculinity. Though the homoeroticism is more clear in James Dickey’s novel, there is a scene early in the film—you have to be attentive or you’ll miss it—where a drunken Ed gazes at his friend with love, desire, and perhaps a bit of envy. Ed is nowhere equal to Lewis’ manhood; he can’t even shoot his arrow (get it?) at a deer he encounters. Still, Ed is nowhere near as “soft” and city-fied as Bobby (Ned Beatty), the third member of the group (spoilers follow). When Bobby and Ed stop to take a breather on the riverbank and let their friends catch up, they’re caught by surprise by two hillbillies with a taste for fat wealthy white men, and Bobby is brutally raped, in the infamous “squeal like a pig” scene, while Ed is forced to watch. At this point, ‘twang’ goes Lewis’ bow, and one of the hillbillies is penetrated even more dramatically than Bobby. Our protagonists take a vote on what to do, bury the corpse, swear to never again mention what happened, and get back in their canoes to flee.
Carol J. Clover, in her excellent study, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, reads films of this sort—The Hills Have Eyes, Rituals, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Pumpkinhead, Hunter’s Blood, Calvaire, Turistas—as being primarily tales of class resentment, skewed along urban/rural lines. In such films, a group of city folk travel to the country, where they’re confronted with the inequalities of the class system they participate in, often in the form of mutated, ridiculous, or deranged poor people. There’s usually a character among our on-screen representatives who has some degree of compassion, through whose eyes we witness just how obnoxious our class privilege makes us look. This character will undergo an interesting transformation in the film, as the poor begin to turn on the rich: he or she will end up justifiably killing all the poor responsible for what Clover calls this “guilt-inducing difference,” re-establishing the unjust social order with a vengeance. Films of this sort invoke class guilt, give us the opportunity to suffer a bit to atone for it, and then defiantly reassure us that our very survival hinges on overcoming it as decisively as possible. Kill the poor! It’s an interesting theory, but there’s more to Deliverance than that.
The traumas of Deliverance mark Ed’s rite of passage into being a true man. In order to get there, he must learn to master his arrow and replace Lewis as leader; for this to work, any trace of homosexuality has to be scared out of him (just like in your average high school, though a tad more dramatically). The horrifying rape, which serves as the climax to the sexual tension between Ed and Lewis in the first half of the film, certainly makes for bad PR for going gay; it’s as revolting a vision of homosexual sex as can be found on film (though Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible comes close). What better metaphor for repression than killing one of the evil sodomites and burying him? The film even encourages us to lose respect for Bobby, who is depicted after the rape as snivelling, weak, and emasculated.
In fact, homophobia of this kind is the norm in thrillers; consider Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, where the weak and slightly effeminate Cary Grant, dominated by his mother and thus, we are to assume, at risk of becoming gay himself, has to defeat two homosexual characters (Martin Landau and James Mason) in order to win the girl. Or take Hitch’s earlier Strangers on a Train (based on a book by Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr. Ripley): two men meet, one of whom is obviously gay. They flirt, and there is the suggestion that the straight one is at least curious. Predictably, this sets him up for a world of trouble, which can only be resolved by the queer character being killed (but he’s evil anyways, of course. He would have to be: he’s gay).
Deliverance is well worth seeing, in part for the psychology it lays bare. But readers seeking a very entertaining corrective for cinematic homophobia are advised to instead seek out Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation, my favourite of Araki’s films, though all of them bear looking at. Despised by many—but, I am happy to see, championed by queer Canadian critic Robin Wood—this film carefully manipulates its audience, raising the homoerotic attraction between the male characters to a nearly feverish tension until—
Well, wait, let’s not spoil it. Suffice it to say that rather than subtly justifying homophobia, the film presents it in the most unpleasant light possible: harsh and glaring. Make sure you’re watching an unrated cut of the film, so as not to be spared the full effect. Like Deliverance and Irreversible, it is definitely not for the squeamish.