Most of us around my age remember the shock of seeing this picture for the first time. There were things in here we just weren’t used to seeing, like homosexual rape. Graphic rape of any kind was not something we were used to seeing, for that matter. And this was about as graphic as you could get. I hadn’t realized that this was Ned Beatty’s first movie role. It took a lot of balls to be humiliated so in that scene; I see that it was done in one take, because he didn’t want to go through it more than once. The “squeal like a pig” idea was adlibbed at the scene, not in the script. And I have to mention that Bill Mckinney, the actor who played the “mountain man” who did the raping, should have had a special Oscar for his ability to hold his breath, not blink, and not move his eyes for a long time. He says he trained for it.
The story is so simple, and so compelling. It has to be Burt Reynolds’ best performance. Lewis is a modern-day man who longs to be a savvy outdoorsman, and is in fact the best-prepared of the four to survive in the woods. Jon Voight and Ronnie Cox are just along for the ride, and Bobby (Ned Beatty) has no business being on the water at all except in a slow bass boat on a placid lake with a six pack of Bud. (Ironically, Beatty was the only one of the four who had any experience of whitewater canoeing.) Bobby is pretty much an asshole, openly contemptuous of the genetically challenged hillbillies they encounter. Lewis is an asshole, too, but in a totally different way. Ironically, it is the most peaceful of the four who gets killed.
And there is the iconic scene very early, the one that I think sold the movie, which was Drew and the kid dueling with banjo and guitar. Still today, all you need is that theme picked out on the banjo and you instantly think of backwoods horror. The kid, by the way, was not in any way retarded, and his appearance was enhanced to make him look like some sort of genetic reject. (He was not a banjo player, either! Someone was behind him, reaching around to do the picking.) Which is certainly possible; some of those folks back in the really remote Appalachians have been reshuffling their limited gene pool for hundreds of years, and it hasn’t done them any good.
I think part of the tension in this film was because, except in a few really extreme shots, the actors did their own stunts. Jon Voight really did climb up that sheer cliff. A funny tale from IMDb: The chief stunt man looked at one shot where they had put a dummy in a canoe, and complained that it looked exactly like that: a dummy in a canoe. So he repeated the stunt himself, and broke his tailbone. When it was done he asked John Boorman, the director, what it looked like. “Like a dummy in a canoe,” he said.