Mountain Men - Features - Atlanta Magazine
 
 
 

Mountain Men

A look at the adaptation of James Dickey's novel

In the summer of 1971, Hollywood came to North Georgia to bring James Dickey’s Deliverance to the silver screen. Over three months, the cast and crew battled relentless chiggers, stifling heat, a raging river, the author’s drunken outbursts, and suspicious locals to film one of the most disturbing and powerful movies of the decade. In an oral history that includes Dickey’s never-before-published correspondence, star Burt Reynolds and director John Boorman join more than a dozen others (including the creepy banjo player) in recalling the making of a movie that would forever change how the world sees Georgia.
 
"Banjo Boy" Billy Redden / photo by Jason Maris
It's near impossible to float down a river in Georgia without someone referencing Deliverance, usually exclaiming, in an exaggerated drawl, “Squeal like a pig!” That many of these giddy rivergoers—almost always from the Big City—have never seen the film or read James Dickey’s 1970 novel, much less considered the horrific act that line conjures, is the point: Movie lines live a life of their own. Just visit squeallikeapig.com, the personal website of actor Bill McKinney, who uttered it. Or spend a few minutes on a summer Sunday watching the rafts plunge down Bull Sluice, the Chattooga River’s main event, and listen for the jokes straining over the roar of the rapids. Is it the river that made the film, or the film that made the river?
 
James Dickey wrote a dark, muscular novel, which became an even darker, more unsettling film. It’s about a canoe trip gone wrong on a remote river in North Georgia, but it’s also about “the measures that decent people may—or must—take against the amoral human monsters that are constantly amongst us, whether in the woods of North Georgia or on the streets of New York,” as Dickey wrote to William F. Buckley in September of 1972. When I first read the book, at seventeen, it felt like a portal to manhood.
 
Deliverance is a product of the male ego: the egos of the alcoholic-poet-turned-novelist (when the film was being made, Dickey wrote in a journal, “It seems to me that I am the bearer of some kind of immortal message to humankind”), a fearless English director, and, not least of all, a B-movie actor who grew up in Waycross, Georgia, whose name was Burton Leon Reynolds Jr. And then, still, the fictional egos of the four men in the two canoes who, led by the possessed Lewis, go down the fictional Cahulawassee “because it’s there.” There for now, that is. It’s a disappearing river, about to be dammed to generate power for the civilized folks from Atlanta.
 
Instead of Roman Polanski or Sam Peckinpah, who were both discussed, Warner Brothers chose the lesser-known John Boorman to direct. He was a director on the rise, having done Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific—both starring Lee Marvin—in the previous four years. Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, and George C. Scott were all considered for parts that went to newcomers Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds. Nearly half the cast were local mountain people. It is something of a miracle, you begin to realize, that this bunch made a Hollywood film on a wild river that almost no one had canoed, in a state where movies weren’t made, and that it became one of the most lasting depictions—to say nothing of its accuracy—of the rural South, and North Georgia in particular.
 
It also set in motion four decades of film production in Georgia. Reynolds ultimately appeared in eight films made in the state (see page 87). For fiscal year 2011, the impact of the film industry in Georgia was $2.4 billion. How did this start? To compile this oral history of Georgia’s cinematic big bang, Atlanta magazine interviewed more than twenty people who helped bring Deliverance to the big screen, and quoted from some of the memoirs and letters associated with the production.
 

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  1. Bill Mankin posted on 10/25/2011 12:11 PM
    Thanks to this article, I now have an answer of sorts to a question that has nagged me for nearly forty years: What did residents of north Georgia think of the movie Deliverance, particularly the film’s depiction of the state’s mountain people? I guess the answer is that they felt mixed to uncomfortable to insulted. However, from my own experience, and having seen the film several times since its original release, I feel like there are other impressions that need to be revealed.

    It’s important to remember that the four presumably sophisticated Atlanta city boys at the center of the film’s story were all quite flawed themselves. They came to the mountains ill-prepared for their weekend river adventure, full of hubris, ignorance, and weakness. In retrospect, the hill-country folks they encountered don’t suffer all that much by comparison. Yes, the violent assault scene was wrenching, but that brutal act of terror was an aberration, perpetrated by a couple of crazed, sadistic bullies - of which we have our own despicable versions in the big city. As for the rest of the mountain characters in the film, almost without exception, every one of them presented a mostly positive or sympathetic view of the local population.

    Look, for example, at the rough-hewn Griner brothers, who agree to take the city boys’ cars to a downriver take-out point. Although they’re initially dubious, and then condescending and insulting towards the four would-be adventurers, they’re merely hurling the city boys’ own boorish behavior right back in their faces. We also have no doubt that the brothers’ boasts about knowing the local landscape far better than the urban outsiders are well-grounded. Outwardly, they may appear gruff and threatening, but the Griners ultimately prove to be perfectly honest and reliable, when the river trip survivors later find their cars exactly where they’re supposed to be.

    Then we have the most important mountain man/boy of all, the eerie and apparently mute young banjo player with the strange, blank face (played so compellingly by Billy Redden). At first, city boy Drew (Ronny Cox) is bemused by this unusual young man, who appears like he might be some sort of simpleton. Drew plucks a few notes on his guitar and draws the boy into playing along with him. Within moments the boy blasts past him on the frets and plays circles around him. This is our major clue that these local folks are far more than they seem, that hidden inside them may be knowledge, skills and wonders we’ve been too blind to see.

    As the intrepid four set off in their canoes, we see the boy a second and last time on the footbridge over the river, but now he takes on the simultaneous roles of Greek chorus, sentinel and wise oracle, delivering wordlessly through his impenetrable gaze alone a critical omen: ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, you’re headed for danger, you’ve been warned, it’s your choice’. Drew looks up at him, confused, searching, for clarity perhaps, for reassurance, but all he gets is what Poe’s inscrutable raven was willing to give - a cryptic, but in this case utterly silent, ‘Nevermore.’ We might even imagine the boy to be a prophetic and unexpectedly docile Cerberus, marking the no-turning-back point on this wild River Styx, where everything downstream becomes the Land of the Dead for those foolish enough to embark upon its waters. Drew’s canoe partner, Ed (Jon Voight), glances back at the boy – twice – and is clearly unsettled. The scene sends chills down my spine every time I see it. This boy’s role is a brilliant characterization, full of nuance, and this is an important moment in the film, yet many viewers are left just as baffled as Drew, and they miss, or dismiss, its deeper meaning.

    The remaining local characters in the film are all generally kind, competent or sympathetic. The denizens of the dinner table at the inn are warm-hearted and hospitable; the ambulance attendants and hospital staff do their jobs efficiently and compassionately; the sheriff is shrewd and tough, but fair. Even the old guy who dances the impromptu jig at the beginning of the film, who may appear to be a bit off-kilter and silly, is just a good-natured odd-fellow who can’t keep his feet still when the music’s playing, not unlike certain people we see from time to time in the big city.

    Overall, the film paints the north Georgia mountains as a beautiful if sometimes dark place populated by a full range of humanity’s imperfect yet mostly good souls, despite the obviously rare, horrifically bad apples. Pretty much like the rest of us. No better, no worse, just different. Besides, it’s our differences that make us so interesting to each other. Lo and behold, these people are enigmatic, mysterious, unpredictable – and fascinating and wonderful to watch. Not such a bad picture on the north Georgia postcard after all. Much better – and more worthy of high regard – in my view, than that cold, stiff, big city skyline to the south, full of its insatiable demand for electric power and hydro dams that drown distant wild rivers, small mountain towns, and hill-country lives with apparent impunity and little evident remorse.
    1. Christopher Dickey posted on 05/03/2013 02:59 PM
      @Bill Mankin Bill - Yours is one of the most perceptive commentaries on the mountain people in Deliverance that I've ever read. Can't thank you enough. I wish there were a way for more people to see it. - Chris
  2. Georgia Kraff posted on 04/07/2013 03:01 PM
    Hey Bill,
    I don't know if you're a professional writer - but if not, you should be. You captured "Deliverance" in your comment better than any review I've ever read in the past. I'm not from the South - well, I am - but from the Southside of Chicago. And when I saw Deliverance for the first time many years ago I was struck by everything you've mentioned. But I couldn't put it into words. Thanks for doing it for me.
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