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Deliverance: Survival of the fittest



In his first novel, ‘Deliverance’ published in 1970, the accomplished Atlanta poet, James Dickey – who earlier won the 1965 National Book Award for poetry – crafted a tale of four suburbanites who head to the backwoods in order to get in touch with a vanishing America, and end up having their bodies and souls tried under the most horrific circumstances. The novel ran up the best-seller charts, and it didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling with an offer for its screen version.

Dickey adapted the screenplay himself and initially wanted Sam Peckinpah, the director of the Western epic, ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969) to direct the film. Warner Bros who financed the film, however, opted for British filmmaker, John Boorman whose most noted credits at that juncture were two Lee Marvin films, ‘Point Blank’ (1967) and ‘Hell in the Pacific’ (1968).

Dickey also wanted actor, Gene Hackman to portray Ed Gentry. Jack Nicholson too was considered for the role of Ed. However, Boorman wanted his favourite Lee Marvin and Marlon Brando to play Ed Gentry and Lewis Medlock, respectively. After reading the script, Marvin said he and Brando were too old, and suggested that Boorman use younger actors instead. Boorman agreed, and cast Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds. Earlier, both Donald Sutherland and Charlton Heston turned down the role of Lewis Medlock. Other actors who were considered for the project were Robert Redford, Henry Fonda, George C Scott and Warren Beatty.

The Dickey-Boorman collaboration went smoothly through pre-production, but as shooting progressed, their relationship strained to the breaking point. Boorman felt that Dickey was interfering too much, and the actors were upset by his presence. During the filming of the canoe scene, Dickey showed up inebriated and got into a bitter argument with Boorman. They allegedly had a brief fistfight in which Boorman’s nose was broken and four of his teeth shattered. Dickey was thrown off the set, but no charges were filed against him. Later, the two reconciled and became good friends, and Boorman even gave Dickey a cameo role as Sheriff Bullard at the end of the film.

‘Deliverance’ was shot primarily in Rabun County in north-eastern Georgia. The canoe scenes were filmed in the Tallulah Gorge southeast of Clayton and on the Chattooga River. This river divides the north-eastern corner of Georgia from the north-western corner of South Carolina. Additional scenes were shot in Salem, South Carolina. A scene was also shot at the Mount Carmel Baptist Church cemetery. This site has since been flooded and lies 130 feet under the surface of Lake Jocassee. The dam shown under construction is Jocassee Dam.

To minimise costs over the film, the production wasn’t insured, and the actors did their own stunts. For instance, Jon Voight actually climbed the cliff. Furthermore, instead of extras local residents were cast in the roles of the hill people which besides saving costs added to the realism.

The film’s soundtrack brought new attention to the musical work ‘Dueling Banjos’ which had been recorded numerous times since 1955. Only Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel were originally credited for the piece. The songwriter and producer, Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith, who wrote the original piece, ‘Feudin’ Banjos’ (1955) and recorded it with five-string banjo player Don Reno, filed a lawsuit for song-writing credit and a percentage of royalties. He was awarded both in a landmark copyright infringement case. Smith also asked Warner Bros to include his name on the official soundtrack listing, but reportedly later asked to be omitted from the movie credits because he found the film offensive.

‘Deliverance’ was essentially void of any real film score. Boorman’s original plan was to have a composer and full orchestra to do the film score. However, as the budget came under further pressure he decided to dispense with the composer and orchestra. The film has a number of sparse, brooding passages of music scattered throughout, including several played on a synthesizer. One version of the film appears to have some extra music and sound effects, while the other has these deleted. Both versions are available on home video.

A scene was cut from the end of the final movie. A body is dragged from the river and is shown to the three survivors. The body is never shown to the camera and audiences are left to guess the identity of the dead man. The body under the shroud was played by Christopher Dickey, who was the son of the author.

When released, ‘Deliverance’ was well received by critics and is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1972. Produced at a budget of $2 million, the film turned out to be box office success in the United States, becoming the fifth-highest grossing film of 1972 after grossing a domestic total of over $46 million. The film’s financial success continued the following year when it went on to earn $18 million in North American distributor rentals.

Beyond garnering Oscar nominations in the Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Editing categories, ‘Deliverance’ gave a career boost to everyone involved, especially putting Reynolds on the stars map after his breakthrough role in this film. The instrumental piece, ‘Dueling Banjos’ won the 1974 Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

Interestingly, the scene in which Ned Beatty is raped has been entirely cut for German video and television versions. Therefore, some of the dialogue and subtle references following this scene seem to be incoherent.



The stunt coordinator of ‘Deliverance’ decided that a scene showing a canoe with a dummy of Burt Reynolds in it looked phony; he said it looked “like a canoe with a dummy in it”. Reynolds was then requested to have the scene re-shot with himself in the canoe rather than the dummy. After shooting the scene, Reynolds, coughing up river water and nursing a broken coccyx (tailbone), asked how the scene looked. John Boorman, the director responded, “like a canoe with a dummy in it.”

Several people have been credited with the now-famous line in ‘Deliverance’, which includes the phrase, “squeal like a pig”. Actor, Ned Beatty said he thought of it while he and actor, Bill McKinney were improvising the scene.

In June 2012, Rabun County held a Chattooga River Festival to encourage preservation of the river and its environment. It noted the 40th anniversary of the filming of ‘Deliverance’ in the area, which aroused controversy.

Director, John Boorman’s son appears near the end of the movie as Ed Gentry’s little boy.

In the year after the release of ‘Deliverance’, more than 30 people drowned in the Chattooga River while trying to replicate the adventures of the characters from the film.



Four Atlanta men, Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds), Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty) and Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox) decide to canoe down a river in the remote northern Georgia wilderness, expecting to have fun and witness the area’s unspoiled nature before the fictional Cahulawassee River valley is flooded by construction of a dam. Lewis and Ed are experienced outdoorsmen, while Bobby and Drew are novices. While travelling to the site, the men – Bobby in particular – are condescending towards the locals, who are unimpressed by the “city boys”.

Travelling in pairs, the group’s two canoes are briefly separated, with Ed and Bobby getting stranded on the riverbank. They encounter a pair of local men (Bill McKinney and Herbert ‘Cowboy’ Coward) with a shotgun, who force them into the woods at gunpoint. Ed is tied to a tree, while Bobby is forced to strip and is raped by one of the men while being forced to “squeal like a pig.” As the men prepare to sexually assault Ed, Lewis sneaks up and kills the rapist with an arrow from his recurve bow while the other escapes. After a heated debate between Lewis and Drew on informing the authorities, the men vote to side with Lewis’ recommendation to bury the dead man and continue on as if nothing had happened.

The four continue downriver but encounter a dangerous stretch of rapids, during which Drew suddenly falls into the water and disappears. The other three crash their canoes into rocks, which results in Lewis breaking his leg. Encouraged by Lewis, who believes Drew was shot by the rapist’s partner and they are now being stalked, Ed climbs a nearby rock face with the bow while Bobby stays behind to look after Lewis. Ed hides out until the next morning when the stalker appears on the top of the cliff with a rifle; Ed clumsily shoots and kills the man, while accidentally stabbing himself with one of the spare arrows. Ed and Bobby weigh down the body in the river to ensure it will never be found, and repeat the same with Drew’s body which they encounter downriver.

Upon finally reaching the small town of Aintry, they take Lewis to the hospital. The men carefully concoct a story for the authorities about Drew’s death and disappearance being an accident, hiding their ordeal from Sheriff Bullard (James Dickey) in order to escape a possible double murder charge. The sheriff clearly doesn’t believe them, but has no evidence to arrest them and simply tells the men never to come back, to which they agree. The trio vow to keep their story of death and survival a secret for the rest of their lives. Later on, Ed awakens, startled by a nightmare in which a bloated hand of the man they buried rises from the lake.

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