The Tribune’s David Middlecamp shares his memories of the backwoods thriller
Forty years ago, the film “Deliverance” opened in theaters.
While most critics today consider the sadistic backwoods thriller a classic, Roger Ebert felt the film, a harrowing tale about four Atlanta businessmen who encounter a couple of violent hillbillies in the Georgia wilderness, suffered from “pure exploitative sensationalism.”“The scenes of violence and rape also work, it must be admitted, although in a disgusting way,” Ebert wrote in 1972. “The appeal to latent sadism is so crudely made that the audience is embarrassed.”
Those audience members might have been more even embarrassed if, like photographer David Middlecamp’s parents, they had come to “Deliverance” expecting a fun, family-friendly movie akin to “Smokey and the Bandit” or “The Longest Yard.”
As my fellow Tribune blogger shares below, that family outing did not go as planned.
The early 1970s were the end of the golden age of drive-in movies. A family could be entertained affordably, and even when we lived in Colorado,* the drive-in beckoned.
In Denver during the winter, you would rent an electric heater in addition to hanging the grey pot-metal speaker in the car window.
Without the heater in the cooler months, breath vapor would freeze inside the window blocking the view of the picture. (Later in life, I would discover that some people did not come to the drive-in to see the movie.)
I forget the first half of the drive-in double feature on this particular night. But Dad enjoyed Burt Reynolds movies and the second feature, “Deliverance,” promised to be an action picture.
There was always a happy banjo tune on the radio that season, associated with the movie, and the promotional posters showed Burt pulling the string of a bow taut and looking down the arrow to an unknown target.
My parents had loaded up the back seat with blankets expecting my younger sisters and I to be asleep by the end of the first movie. Turns out none of us kids fell asleep.
We all were watching with from the back seat of our Volkswagen Fastback as Burt and his buddies pushed off with canoes down-river for a nature excursion.
The first sense of disorientation came when the actor playing the banjo player turned out to be developmentally disabled. It wasn’t Earl Scruggs in a suit and tie on a stage.
This was in an era long before the movie “Rain Man” and the camera lingered on the face of the banjo boy before drifting downstream.
This movie wasn’t unfolding like the Disney fare I had been exposed to to that point.
Soon the four canoeists were interacting with the colorful native denizens and I got the sense that mom and dad were getting less and less comfortable.
On the screen: Mountain Man: “I bet you can squeal like a pig. Weeeeeeee!”
In the car, Mom shoots a nervous glance at dad.
Dad shoots a nervous look at mom.
Mountain Man: “Weeeee!”
Mom fidgets, looks to see if the kids are awake.
Three wide-eyed, wide-awake kids stare at the movie screen in amazement and wonder. The adults on the screen are unlike anything we have seen before.
Toothless Man: (grinning): “He got a reel purdy mouth ain’t he?”
Mom calls, “Bob, we are leaving now!”
Dad’s arm is a blur as he cranks the window handle and throws the speaker out on the gravel, not bothering to hang it up. Our tires squeal before Ned Beatty can squeal again and pebbles plink off of the windshield behind us as dad fishtails the car out of the parking lot.
As far as I know, that’s where the movie ends.
* Editor’s note: By the time “Deliverance” reached theaters, Dave was living in Vista, Calif.
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