Saturday, April 19, 2008

DELIVERANCE - The Archetypal Journey


Four Atlanta businessmen, answering the ancient call of men testing themselves against the elements, set out on a treacherous journey down a wild river in the backwoods America where they are catapulted into a life-and-death struggle with the wilderness’s most dangerous inhabitants and forced to dig deeply into their own suppressed primitiveness with the result that each, in his own way, realises that one can never be the same after glimpsing the sharp-clawed survivor in one's soul.


Essentially, this is a fish-out-of-water story in which the fish are undergoing a primal rite of passage.

Four suburbanites from Atlanta go into a wilderness, dependant on one of their party (Lewis Medlock).

This is a character-driven drama, and the characters are really archetypes.

The Four Principle Characters

Ed Gentry (John Voigt) - Joe-Average. Everyman. The Middle-Class. Respectable and Moderate. He craves the normal while flirting with the dangerous. He wants to be safe and indulges in vicarious thrills. Underlying value: to be secure.

Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds) - Physical man. Hunter. Athletic. Materialistic. Underlying value : to survive.

Bobby “Chubby” Tripp (Ned Beatty) - Appetitive. Desirous. A sensuous voluptuary who is preoccupied with his own sexual prowess (or lack of it). He is both feminine and lustful. Underlying value: to prove his manliness.

Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox) - Artistic. Imaginative and creative. Aesthetic sensibility. A sense of proportion, balance and justice. “The Law”. The group’s conscience. Underlying value : to do the right thing.

The Dramatic Question:

Are these guys going to make it down the river safely, “in time to see the football game on Sunday”?

Knowing what the dramatic question of the story is, we are going to be alert to what stands in their way. And what does?  Nature (the antagonist), as well as their own natures.

Interestingly, the source of each one’s strength is also the source of their vulnerability. Where each is strongest, he is also weakest.

Rape of nature is introduced right at the beginning. The reason for the canoe trip is BECAUSE Lewis is anxious to see the river before “they” – the powers-that-be (i.e.: progress) – build their dam and flood the river. They are, as Lewis says, going to rape the country. But the city boys are, themselves, expressions of the very progress that Lewis abhors. And in the film the Rapists become the raped; the defilers, the defiled.

What is the essence of the rape? Lack of respect for nature wedded to a sense of invulnerability.

The hillbillies are part of nature. They are presented as something to be feared – the dying child – inbred, grotesque, laughable. They are NOT respected by the city boys.

Every major turning point in the film is accompanied by a PLAN, starting with the plan at the beginning : “We’re gonna leave Friday and I’ll get you back in time to see the pom-pom girls at halftime cos I know that’s what you care about.” (Lewis Medlock).

The story presents a journey into the heart of darkness and joins other stories that comprise this enduring tradition of storytelling, from Huckleberry Finn to Moby Dick, from The Odyssey to Ovid’s tale of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. It is a journey into the unknown, into the unconscious, where each finds what he fears most and struggles to over come that fear or die. Water is highly symbolical in the journey, associated as it is with the unconscious, with memory (Neptune) – there is also the idea of initiation (baptism), and transformation.

Dreams are associated with the unconscious too – at the end of the film there is Ed’s dream of water and the resurrection of his most hidden fear.

The idiot savant (Lonny) = Spontaneity… as does the dancing hillbilly. There is no learned behaviour here, merely the natural expression of being inside the moment, inside nature, inside one’s own nature. It is what the city boys “sold” as Lewis points out. The banjo and guitar music at the beginning is improvised, free – the conscious mind goes on a holiday… at this point there is real COMMUNICATION between the locals and the interlopers. It is interesting to note that as soon as Drew wants to formalise or acknowledge the connection (with a handshake) he breaks the connection. Lonnie (nature) turns away from him.

The musical motif is repeated throughout at significant moments, sometimes in the form of reverie – as in a musical memory of what has been lost - or sometimes as a dirge or a slow ominous march towards the dark of the not-yet born.

Lonny is also the gatekeeper – their last connection with so-called civilisation. As they pass under the footbridge, they pass the threshold of the known world and enter into “the belly of the whale”.

The structure is unusual.

What is the inciting incident? Where does it occur? It all depends on HOW you “read” the story.

In the novel, it’s the men deciding to go on a canoe trip. In the original script it’s the men arriving in Oree. In the film, arguably, it’s the men’s encounter with the Griner brother and his agreement to drive their cars down to Aintry.

The story proceeds by virtue of the contrasts it presents and the tensions that result from these contrasts:

The primitive vs the modern
The backwoods vs the city
The old vs the new
The known vs the unknown


The quest to make it down the river- to literally survive -
can be examined from the perspective of the dramatic
action that occurs in each scene, and the emotional
energy that is generated by the characters' actions.
Positive energy (+) is evident when the actions work to
make it more likely that their objective or goal will be
attained. Negative energy (-) manifests whenever
character actions and the actions of the antagonists
work against achieving the goal. Sometimes,the actions
may appear to be positive but are really negative (+-)
or vice versa (-+). The following presents one
interpretation, tracking the movement of the emotional
energy of the characters' odyssey.

Act I

Sequence 1 – “Into the Wilderness”

Scene 1 ROAD and WILDERNESS (Two cars make their way along roads that become more and more primitive, accompanied by V/O conversation. First plan) +

Sequence 2 – “Oree”

Scene 3 - GRINER BROTHERS COMPOUND (Inciting incident?) + / -

Act II

Sequence 3 – “Heading Downstream”
Scene 4 - TRACK TO RIVER + / -
Scene 5 - THE RIVER / RAPIDS +
Scene 6 – FIRST CAMP +


Sequence 4 – “The Resting Place”
Scene 8 - BY THE RIVER (Burial of the dead hillbilly & second plan) + / -

Sequence 5 – “Into the Abyss”
Scene 9 – RIVER/GORGE -
Scene 10 – CLIFFS + / -
Scene 11 – GORGE +

Sequence 6 – “Deliverance”
Scene 12 – RIVER (discovery of Drew) -
Scene 13 - RAPIDS +

Act IV

Sequence 7 – “Civilisation”
Scene 14 - RIVER (third plan) +
Scene 16 – HOSPITAL +

Sequence 8 – “Investigation”
Scene 17 – GUESTHOUSE -
Scene 18 – RIVER -
Scene 19 – ROAD (Church with ringing bell) -
Scene 20 - HOSPITAL +

Act V

Sequence 9 – “Return”
Scene 21 – PARKING LOT (One more question) +
Scene 22 – CEMETERY -
Scene 23 – ED’S HOUSE/ATLANTA + / -


Act One
• Ordinary World
• Call To Adventure
• Refusal Of The Call
• Meeting With The Mentor
• Crossing The 1st Threshold

Act Two
• Tests, Allies, Enemies
• Approach To The Inmost Cave
• Supreme Ordeal
• Reward

Act Three
• The Road Back
• Resurrection
• Return With Elixir

In terms of the film, DELIVERANCE, it might be stated as follows:

• Ed Gentry (John Voight) makes the hero’s journey.
• Ed begins his journey from his hometown in Atlanta, Georgia. He is an innocent man, living the family life and working a good job. (Ordinary World)
• His friend, Lewis Medlock, invites Ed to join him on a camping and canoeing trip. This is his Call to Adventure.
• Ed wants to go from the first minute, but his friends Bobby and Drew refuse for a while. (Refusal of the Call) Eventually Lewis convinces them to go.
• Ed views Lewis as almost like a God. (Meeting with the Mentor) For Ed, Lewis convincing them could have seemed supernatural.
• They make their way to the river by car. (This is where the film starts!!)
• They setup the canoes and begin moving down the river. Here they cross the first threshold, "I edged up more, looking out--or in--through the ragged, ashen window he made." (Dickey, 79) This is where the adventure begins and where there is no going back. They are entering the “belly of the whale”.
• They move on down the river and camp the first night. Lewis hears someone or something in the woods. Ed misses a shot at a deer. (The beginning of tests, etc)
• The next day they move on. Bobby and Ed are in one canoe, and Drew and Lewis in the other.
• Bobby and Ed get ahead of the other canoe and decide to pull over and take a break.
• On shore they run in to some hillbillies. Bobby is sodemized by one of the men while Ed is held at gunpoint. Then they start to move on to Ed, but Lewis, who has finally arrived on the scene, shoots and kills one of the hillbillies. The other gets away. (Climatic test, enemies, helpers).
• They are in a dark terrible place and they have to escape. The initiation happens when the vote is taken to bury the dead hillbilly instead of taking the body and reporting it to the police. (Approach to the Inmost Cave)
• From here they move on to the rapids and the gorge (the Abyss and the Supreme Ordeal). Drew is shot by the hillbilly that got away, and Ed decides to fight “the dragon”, which is the combination of the cliff and shooting the hillbilly.
• They sink the hillbilly’s body in the river. Ed assumes leadership (Reward)
• They find Drew's body and sink it too.
• They go down one more set of rapids and at the bottom Ed meets his goddess. It is a golden tree (in the novel) that he uses to mark that spot. In the film, it’s portrayed by rusting car bodies. (The Road Back)
• As soon they get to land and get help the Apotheosis takes place. A police investigation ensues in which Ed comes face-to-face with a male authority figure “the father”) in the guise of the country sheriff. (Atonement)
• The ultimate boon is when they are getting ready to leave the town and they know everything is going to be all right. (Resurrection)
• They go home. (The Elixir, in this case the knowledge of what has happened)


Oscar said...

Hi Billy,

I heard your talk at the Writers' Festival, which led me to Where's the Drama and your blog. Thank you for sharing some fascinating and profound insights.

I'm writing a screenplay based on a real historical person - who I recognise as one of my voiceless tribal ancestors that I want to give voice to. I'd like to know your thoughts on creating/finding dramatic stories when the plot uses historical "facts". My reading of the history is deeply revisionist. A major reason for wanting to write this story is that I feel the characters have been misinterpreted by conventional historians and I want to show things from another angle.

Aristotle sort-of deals with this question in Poetics, stating with sly humour: "When the poet writes history, he writes what should have happened, not what did happen. Of course, sometimes what should have happened actually did happen."

My problem is, when I allow my characters to mediumistically tell me what happens next, they lead me away from what the historians say happened next. And I'm worried if I stray too far from the official version, it will attract unwanted opposition. Actually, it's already attracting opposition: I was shortlisted for next-draft funding from the AFC, but the outside reader assigned to my project knocked me back, declaring I need to "do more research" because I depict one of Australia's early Governors as a villain. Needless to say, I know the period I'm writing about inside out, and that's why I reject the official version. Anyway, I guess I'm answering my own question: yes, it's going to attract opposition, but that's a sign I'm on the right track.

Thanks for letting me vent. I reckon you might be the audience for my next draft! I love hearing and reading your enthusiasm for writing/creating/channelling. You are one of very few teachers who actually propose a method for getting ideas onto paper. The Robert McKees and Christopher Voglers of this world are excellent story analysts, but they have no idea about story creation. They're like weathermen or economists - they can tell you what happened yesterday, but only guess at what's coming tomorrow. And they don't have the guts to say "I don't know".

Keep up the good work,


Billy Marshall Stoneking said...

Oscar - Thanks for your post, and support. Much appreciated.

I, too, have taken on historical subjects as the basis for dramatic scripts. My first play, Sixteen Words for Water, was based on the poet, Ezra Pound. It was a seminal experience in my realisation that one works best when one works as a medium. It was the writing of that play - and the forming of a close relationship with the character of Pound, that first alerted me to "the mediumistic methid". It was not the first time I had operated as a medium, but it was during the process of writing that play that I became conscious of it. As for your troubles with the funding bodies and readers and the rest of the dross and inner tubes that have little idea of the grammar of drama let alone the creative process as it can be experienced mediumistically, all I can say is keep your sense of humour and be true to the voices of your characters - those INSIDE and OUTSIDE the script (i.e.: Audience & Tribe) Do I have your email address? If not, send it to me so we can continue the conversation off line. In the meantime, here's a brief statement about that process as I experienced it during the writing of that play:

I begin with research, research, research, not so much because I am interested in gathering information but because I want to be free of it. I look for contradictions, confusions, chaos. I court them. I love to find experts who disagree. It is really a kind of meditative process. When the "facts" and "counter facts" reach critical mass, they explode, dissolve, and what I am left with is the hint of a voice, a gesture, an impression I can coax into light and sound.

The early drafts of the script are mere lures... super-structures into which I pour my own ideas, propositions, suggestions, nuances, in order to draw out the persons (and voices) that lurk in the dark. Some are more eager than others to tell their stories. Others less trusting. Some extremely shy. I listen. Listen for the characters to interject, disagree, champ at the bit of the script I have so cold-bloodedly fashioned from the conflicting opinions of research and my forgetting. I listen. Listen for the broad rhythms of their speech and physical movements. Their peculiarities. Some times these come stampeding out and I get carried away and go on writing way past the actual stampede. Next day when I return to the script-in-progress, I see it is only the actual stampede I can use... the willful parts must be deleted. I listen and refine. Listen and argue. Listen and dispose of more and more of the cold-blooded wilfullness. It is a stripping away. Stripping away the writerliness, the literariness, all that is an expression of my ego and not the egos of the characters whose voices are a part of me and somehow not me.

I guess what I am talking about is the unconscious. One enters into a kind of dream, a reverie; communes with spirits. Sometimes, often, their voices are audible. I have frequently been heard talking "to myself"... actually I am talking to "them". In the midst of my luring we enter into a kind of marriage. They become more real, more substantial, more interesting, than the people one stands in the queue with at K-Mart. One begins to feel rather fictional oneself in the presence of those heavily materialised masses trudging down Main Street. One loses the self one shows to the world and enters their world, their voices, their fears, their hope.

The Pound play was a four year marriage in which we (Pound and I) often fought most hideously. He offering, then withdrawing assistance. Back and forth. I never bowed to his threats, but I learned his idiosyncracies enough to know how to deal with him. We grew to understand one another. A kind of love-hate relationship. A marriage. When the play was finally produced it was like some horrendous separation. Neither of us wanted it to end quite so soon. Maybe there was more that could have - or should have - been said. But it was over. A divorce without mental cruelty, other than the self-imposed cruelty which occasions all creative acts.

Oscar said...

Billy, my email is, and I'm on Facebook with the name Oscar Bravo. Maybe you're not a Facebook kinda guy. I just signed up a week ago myself.

Thanks for your supportive comments. I know I should ignore the opinions of the gatekeepers. But at the same time, I'm fascinated to find out what they think. After all, they control access to $000s. If they're going to give funding to someone, it might as well be me. And their opinion does matter to me. When I found out I was on the shortlist of 12, I was elated. When I missed out on the top six, they're idiots.

Besides, like you, I'm an immigrant to Australia who's been here long enough to consider myself Australian. That makes the middle-class, middle-brow, mediocre artsy liberal establishment one of the tribes I belong to. There is a way to capture and hold these people's attention with works of (whisper it) art. I'm in the process of working it out.

Enough, already.

I was interested in your comment in your blog that without the mediumistic method, the result is melodrama. Until I read your blog, I believed I was anti melodrama. But you inspired me to research. And reading about melodrama on the website brought the realisation that melodrama has a broader meaning than "stereotypical soap opera". In fact, one of the critics referred to on the website describes melodrama as the predominant ethos of American movie making. Of course there's plenty of dross, but Slingblade, American Beauty, Sixth Sense, Spartacus, Fargo are all melodrama. Pedro Almodovar proudly makes melodrama.

I'm writing not to undermine your suggestions, which I believe are absolutely sound, but to broaden the debate. I'm writing a genre piece. And I've come to realise that one of the fundamental, not genres, perhaps moods or styles, in cinema is melodrama. As you rightly point out, melodrama must be disguised. In fact, no movie could be marketed to 16-year-old boys if it announced itself as melodrama. But what else is Gladiator, or Terminator, even Blade Runner, than melodrama? Funnily enough, I find this revelation massively liberating. I'm writing melodrama, disguised as action-adventure. Now I know what I'm doing.

Billy Marshall Stoneking said...


Thanks for your reply - re: melodrama, here's what I said:

"Divorced from some deep and identifiable emotional source in character, plot too easily veers into melodrama. "

"Successful storytellers are not limited to one point of view. Only by entering into a story through every character’s perspective and with every bit as much empathy as one has for the main character, can a storyteller find authentic characters that multiply the emotional meanings of the energies being built and released by their actions. The effectiveness of the storyteller/character relationship hinges upon this inclusiveness, for unless the relationship involves all of the characters that are relevant to the story’s telling, and only those that are relevant, Drama’s bastard brother, Melodrama, takes over."

"the storyteller who labours to build characters around the story instead of the story around the characters is more likely to produce melodrama, which is characterised by plot-driven action and characters operating merely as plot functionaries. Such stories are invariably driven by identifiable structural formulae and can become boringly predictable unless the formula itself is disguised. If there is an art to melodrama it resides in the storyteller’s facility to disguise its formula by imaginatively hiding whatever might make the story transparent and, therefore, dull.

In seeking an effective disguise, the successful maker of melodrama is guided not only by those character attributes and actions that promote the successful telling of the pre-determined story, but also by those attributes and qualities that are not directly relevant or germane to the actual plot, but are nevertheless useful in camouflaging those narrative decisions that, were they more obvious, might take away from the story’s unexpectedness or credibility.

In contradistinction to this, drama generates energy through a series of logical and emotionally meaningful actions enacted by ingenious characters that are involved in a quest that is imperilled by risk and danger. These actions are rooted in the character’s genuine emotional needs and desires, and the energy they build and release – when it is fresh, surprising and thoroughly credible – have the potential to evoke powerful emotional responses from an audience. As such, drama is character centric."

One must make a distinction between "good" melodrama and "bad" melodrama. The criteria for such a distinction involve those same qualities that characterise "good" drama from "Bad" drama - the central point I was trying to make is simply what is motivating the storyteller's choices and attentiveness - is it the NEED to hit pre-determined plot targets, or is it a rigorous LISTENING TO what is going on in the psychic and deep origins of the characters themselves? What I am talking about is the quality of the relationship one has with one's characters - are you moving them around the playing board of plot, with pre-assigned roles and duties, or are they moving YOU, altering the way you understand the meaning of the emotional energy their actions birth as they and you journey together through the evolving story? There is a difference between genre and style. Genre is the domain of melodrama; style - in the sense that poet, Charles Bukowski, spoke of is that ineluctable spontaneity that comes from the depths of one's being when one transscends the fears, prejudices, assumptions and expectations that constantly work to undermine authentic acts of love and creation.

Adam said...

One of the things I particularly love about Deliverance, apart from its pure, elemental force, is the dialogue, especially in the opening scenes; so portentous, loaded with subtext. Everything that emerges from the four city men's mouths at the beginning of the film reveals the inner anxieties, and obsessions which sow the seeds of their fate.

Anonymous said...

My comment is directed to anyone who uses the comment "Keep up the good work" as a sign off. This suggests they sit in a position of mentorship or superior status, which clearly the author lacks. It's annoying and demeaning and should be struck from anyone's vocabulary unless it's directed from an instructor to their student.

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