Ned Beatty‘s recent passing took a lot of us back to John Boorman‘s Deliverance (’72). Released 49 years ago, it was perfect for its time, but would probably not be right for ours. Sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone.

It’s too white, for one thing. And I’m not sure audiences would want to see an action thriller triggered by the anal rape of an overweight suburban salesman by some unwashed toothless hillbilly — that’s some rough stuff. But what a primal, fascinating tale.

Deliverance was the first and possibly the last well-made drama that scared viewers half to death with the idea that city and suburban folk should stay the hell out of the primitive areas of this country and far away from the residents of these cultures. A film that said “you don’t want to know those people, and they don’t want to know you.”

The basic attraction of Deliverance is the thrill, danger and horror of four suburban guys on a nourishing canoe trip down a beautiful wild river, and how, for a while, it all seems like the greatest woodsy adventure ever.

Until everything turns around in the darkest way imaginable…sexual assault, bloody murder, hiding a body, another killing, a subsequent life or death struggle to survive by having to kill again and and then, back in civilization, having to lie their way out of a possible arrest and prosecution in the aftermath. And all it happening in the midst of a bucolic hillbilly hell — leafy, primal, horrific.

Did Deliverance paint an incorrect and malicious portrait of deep-rural types? Yes, and them’s the breaks. But there’s never been another horror film quite like it. And despite the restrained realistic vibe and first-rate dialogue and Vilmos Zsigmond‘s magnificent cinematography, that’s exactly what it is — a southern nightmare trip.

I wonder how familiar under-40 audiences are with Deliverance, and whether a remake could work. Would there be complaints from the LGBTQ community that a depiction of male rape might somehow demonize homosexuality? (I’ve always wondered if the male rape scene in Pulp Fiction was inspired by Deliverance.)

I’m also wondering how the original would have played if Sam Peckinpah had directed it. It’s probably for the best that he didn’t. The film benefits from Boorman’s deft, somewhat artsy touch.

I’m also wondering how it would’ve played if Gene Hackman, Lee Marvin or Jack Nicholson had played the Jon Voight part. Or if Marlon Brando had played the Burt Reynolds role. Or if Donald Sutherland or Charlton Heston had taken a whack at it.

Wiki page says that Robert Redford, Henry Fonda, George C. Scott and Warren Beatty were also attached to the film at different points.

I only know there are relatively few action thrillers that play as well as Deliverance. There’s something timeless about the clash of urban and rural cultures, and about guys who mostly qualify as suburban wimps (except for Reynolds’ Lewis character) forced to test themselves against the elements and do what’s necessary to survive. And there’s something so eerie and unnerving about the line “my God, there’s no end to it.”