The vanishing wilderness and the eternal beasts: "Let's go back to the city and play golf, huh?" Much of the groundwork was laid by Mann in The Naked Spur, for John Boorman it's a marked advancement on Hell in the Pacific and a full-scale exploration of cinema's elemental side. (The Appalachian river is introduced framed by piney foliage and consumed by sunlight, it later expands and splinters into pure, raging foam.) James Dickey's macho-poet bluff is split four ways, he's the wannabe survivalist (Burt Reynolds) and the squeamish businessman (Jon Voight) along with the sarcastic salesman (Ned Beatty) and the doomed lamb (Ronny Cox), all of them on the verge of a most eventful Georgia weekend. Melodic communication between provincials and outsiders is offered and denied, the banjo so famously strummed by the wizened backwoods lad is last seen dangling lazily on a rickety bridge. The rapids are sculptured with a swift camera on the zigzagging canoes, by contrast the encounter with the mountain men (Bill McKinney, Herbert "Cowboy" Coward) and the ensuing violation seem to unfold in slow-motion, a nightmare on a carpet of brown leaves under the aegis of Rashomon. Survival is the aftermath, so grins the agonizing warrior to his milquetoast friend: "Now you get to play the game." The forest has its baleful spirits, Boorman marvels at them with complex setups in extended takes, a marvel of allegory enlarged by the immediacy of form. Characters wander in and out of the frame as a campfire at dusk suddenly becomes a Stygian void, day-for-night filters on the rock-climbing sequence give a supernatural glow. The trembling hand on the arrow and the tolling church bell on the flatbed truck (cf. Aguirre der Zorn gottes), "the best of us" ends up a mangled, water-logged corpse. Dickey himself presides over the exhumed graveyard, a demonic Andy Devine glaring at city-slickers: "Let's just wait and see what comes out of the river." The shape of trauma at the close points to Excalibur, "chill thy dreaming nights" (Keats) and then some. Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond.
--- Fernando F. Croce