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.