50 years ago, a naïve crew of filmmakers, actors, and one alcoholic author marched into the craggy pine forests of northeastern Georgia. When they emerged three months later from the forests of South Carolina, they had the raw meat of a film that would become a cultural phenomenon.
Two years before the film, the 1970 novel Deliverance hit book stores across the country. For better or worse, its success would transform James Dickey’s life, an author and poet who had been flying by the seat of his pants until that point (literally and financially).
Deliverance is about America.
A native Georgian, Dickey had just finished a two-year stint as the POET LAUREATE OF THE UNITED STATES, a million dollar title with a hundred dollar paycheck. Before that, Dickey had taught English and wrote copy for ad agencies, then bounced around academic institutes from South Carolina to Wisconsin to California as a lecturer, instructor, or poet-in-residence. He never stayed anywhere long.
His career may sound bland, but Dickey was anything but bland. He carried his demons with him from place to place, self-medication with alcohol. Haunting memories of World War II, where he flew 38 missions as part of the three-man crew of a P-61 Black Widow, the first American military aircraft to use radar. He flew in the newly-formed 418th Night Fighter Squadron, defending American positions against Japanese night attacks.
You know, for so many years men threw the word ‘rape’ around and never thought about what they were saying. And I think the picture makes men think about something that’s very important, that we understand the pain and embarrassment and the change of people’s lives.
~Burt Reynolds on ‘Deliverance’
It’s hard to imagine those cramped hours in a plastic-hooded tin can, only able to see the enemy as blobs on a radar screen and then as shadows against the Moon. Then becoming a target for .50 tracer rounds hosing the sky. The terror of those missions is not something a person forgets, and Dickey endured FIVE Bronze Stars worth.
He was also a lifelong alcoholic, and what some called a “mean drunk.” Burt Reynolds described Dickey as a man who, “when he’s had a couple of martinis, you want to drop a grenade down his throat.” The actor saw this firsthand.
Dickey served as a script consultant during the filming of Deliverance, and the cast and crew tolerated his big talk and volatile personality. That is, until he stumbled onto the set red-faced and smelling like a gin mill one day and accused director John Boorman of ruining his script and his book. Standing a foot shorter than Dickey and having no fight experience, Boorman tried to calm the drunk writer.
The movie still has significance: the idea of people facing violence and what our responsibility is, how we have to step up. We leave the protection of others to certain members of our society: policeman and the military. But in some way we lose part of our manhood by hiding, by coddling ourselves into thinking we’re safe.
~Jon Voight on ‘Deliverance’ in 2012
No dice. Dickey pounded his fist into Boorman, breaking his nose and non-surgically removing four of the director’s teeth. Dickey was kicked off the set for the remainder of the shoot, allowed to return only four a single day to shoot his cameo as the sheriff. The writer never repeated the success of Deliverance and by the late 90s, alcoholism weakened and eventually killed James Dickey.
John Boorman had a hard time scraping up a budget for the film and even by calling in every Hollywood favor he could, only found $2 million in financing (the film would go on to gross $46.1 million). That’s fine for a film shoot on a studio sound stage, but not for a film with hundreds of dangerous stunts, filmed on location in dense wilderness on the other side of the country. But $2 million was what Boorman got. For that, he hired two relatively unknown stage actors (Ned Beatty and Ronnie Cox), one actor who couldn’t get out from under the shadow of 1969’s Midnight Cowboy (Jon Voight), and a floundering actor named Burt Reynolds.
Until Deliverance, Reynolds had been “a well-known unknown” (his words). One of his most significant hang-ups in finding success was that he looked too much like Marlon Brando. This prevented him from finding his niche in the business. Never a lazy man, Reynolds supplemented his income with odd jobs as a bouncer, a dockworker, a stuntman and a dishwasher.
For his first 15 years in the business, Reynolds picked up roles here and there, with small to middling parts in a dozen TV shows and films. Of those, only his stint as Quint Asper in Gunsmoke had been any real success, but he got tired of standing around and looking virile. Then Deliverance came his way.
…it hurts my pride when some jerk hollers ”squeal like a pig” at me. I get mad – real mad….Our last choice would be to identify with the victim. If we felt we could truly be victims of rape, that fear would be a better deterrent than the death penalty.
~Ned Beatty on the infamous scene
Not only did the Boorman want him to read for it, but had Reynolds specifically in mind when creating the part. This was partially because of Reynolds’ rugged nature…but mostly because the director wanted Marlon Brando and couldn’t afford it. Instead, he got a lookalike.
There were some things Boorman couldn’t get for his film and he had to make do. One was the usually flock of bit actors and extras that follow most productions. Boorman used the locals in Georgia and South Carolina. This gave the film an authenticity as memorable and haunting as the surrounding forest. It also saved a lot of money.
Oh, and Boorman also couldn’t afford stuntmen (he later acquiesced to ONE stuntman, which they never used). All four actors had to do their own stunts, and could NOT get hurt doing them. Why? Boorman couldn’t afford to insure the production. That’s not legal today and it wasn’t legal back then, but because the actors, the crew, and Boorman believed in the film so much, they went into the Georgia woods anyway.
Prior to the film’s release, Jon Voight was the biggest name attached to the movie. Only a few years had passed since his unforgettable and tragic turn as Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy. Voight hoped to distance himself from the film’s X-rated controversy, at least for awhile. When he reached the film’s rape scene, Voight turned it down…but Boorman changed his mind.
For Voight, the most memorable scene was at the film’s climax. The script called for his character Ed to climb a sheer cliff in Tallulah Gorge. When the time came, Voight passed on using a stunt double for the scene. He said he knew a stunt double would be too obvious, and trying to mash closeups with long shots would hurt Boorman’s film. That was one reason. The other?
Five or six weeks had passed since shooting began, and the cast and crew were working in a heavy cloud of testosterone. For the rest of his life, people would remind him HE didn’t climb the cliff. He couldn’t endure that.
So he climbed the cliff himself. All 200-feet of it. The film and that stunt inspired such awe that today, that section of the Tallulah Gorge is nicknamed “Deliverance Rock.”
“I almost got killed climbing the cliff…I was about 10 feet up on the face,” Voight recalled in a 2017 interview with The Guardian. “I started to slip, called out and one of them caught me. There was a sharp rock inches from my head.“
Fifty years later, the legacy of Deliverance remains as complex and dramatic as the film itself. Hundreds of articles, interviews, and even books have documented and analyzed the film ad nauseum. Most include trivia like—
For instance, Ronnie Cox is double-jointed, and the scene with his mangled body, one arm jutting behind his neck, was no special effect. It was a party trick that came in very handy.
Another fun fact: the construction of the dam and water burial of the town were no plot devices. Today, divers enjoy excursions 130-feet beneath Lake Jocassee to the Mount Carmel Church Cemetery featured in the film. There tombstones, and a few buried bodies, still remain (check out the video below).
A disturbing fact: before filming the infamous rape scene, Bill McKinney (called the Mountain Man in casting) prepared for his role by not speaking but only staring at the affable Beatty for weeks. He did this during breaks and meals, staring for hours and sowing fear in the other young actor*. Because of this, some of Beatty’s acting wasn’t really acting.
*Around the same time, Charles Manson used the same tactic to intimidate jury members.
None of that defines the movie though. Deliverance isn’t an adventure film, although it has adventure. It isn’t an action film, although it has plenty of that. It’s not not exactly drama, or coming-of-age, or horror, or suspense. And it has too much meat to be a straight survival movie.
The truth is, it’s all of those. Ronnie Cox had it right when he said this movie was “America.” The history of our country is a history of hacking out our place in the wilderness for independence, for fortune, and for glory, with plenty of moral flexibility along the way. It’s the perfect movie for a country that’s neither entirely good or bad, but somewhere in the middle, and always willing to fight.
Deliverance was and IS a cinematic force of nature. For film buffs, it’s a textbook lesson in what happens when a great script by a great author gets picked up by a great director, who lures great actors and a great crew to a great location. These all act as force multipliers, and deliver something as unique as America itself.