Taking a closer look at the movie, ‘Deliverance’

I think every single time I have gone on a canoe trip with my buddies in the Ozarks since 1972, sooner or later, someone jokes about hearing a banjo.   

They are referring to a scene from the movie, “Deliverance.” 

This persistent joke is not really intended as a comment about people living in the Ozarks; it is, instead, an ongoing recognition that for many of us the movie “Deliverance” was and still is a very powerful film, one that we can’t easily forget — even after 45 years. 

Deliverance (1972)
Directed by John Boorman
Shown from left: Ronny Cox (as Drew Ballinger), Ned Beatty (as Bobby Trippe), Burt Reynolds (as Lewis Medlock), Jon Voight (as Ed Gentry)

“Deliverance” is not a “chick-flick.” It is a “guy-flick” and it is a “guy-flick” for a lot of reasons.   

Many of us have taken that ill-advised trip into the wilderness just to prove our “manhood.”  And we all know people who are exactly like the characters in the movie.   

In short, we can relate. While some guys are offended by the movie, in my opinion, most are not.

The movie was released in 1972. It was nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture of 1972 by the Academy Awards folks that year and, frankly, would have won but for the fact that “The Godfather” was released the same year and it won the award.   

As memorable as “Deliverance” has been for many of us, there are probably things about the movie, the actors and where it was filmed that might surprise you.   

So, here are some things you might not know about “Deliverance”:

• The director for this film, John Boorman, was British, not American. He had spent some time in the United States before doing this movie, but not a lot.  

The fact that a Brit would even attempt to do a movie about Southern Appalachian culture is remarkable in itself, but I think he nailed it.   

And Boorman, as director, was somewhat handicapped by the fact that this was a low-budget film. This meant he could not go out and hire the best-known actors for the major roles in the movie.   

Both Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson wanted to play the lead role of Lewis, which was eventually awarded to Bert Reynolds, but Brando and Nicholson each wanted too much money and because this was a low-budget film, they could not be hired.   

Actually, Reynolds was a perfect fit for this role, with his alpha-dog personality and physical appearance to match. I am glad he got the part instead of Brando or Nicholson. He was believable.   

In fact, Reynolds was so macho on the set that he insisted on doing his stunts, including the scene in which his canoe breaks up in the rapids. He actually fractured his coccyx (tailbone) while doing that particular scene.

• The plot for the film was based on a novel and screenplay written by James Dickey, a brilliant but controversial college professor and novelist who, in real life, had a serious alcohol problem.   

His personal life and his trouble with the bottle are detailed in a tell-all book written by his own son which is entitled “Summer of Deliverance,” and which describes Dickey’s conduct on the set.   

At the outset of the filming of the movie, Dickey and his son, then 16 years old, were on the set every day until Dickey became so drunk and obnoxious that he was permanently ordered off the set by Boorman.   

They finally compromised and as a part of that compromise, Dickey was given a part in the movie. 

He played the inquisitive sheriff at the end of the film and despite his drinking problems, he was very effective in that role.

• The lead role went to Bert Reynolds, who at that time had been on some television programs but was essentially an unknown actor as far as movies were concerned.   

Reynolds was originally a stunt man in Hollywood who eventually worked his way into acting. Despite his inexperience as an actor, his performance in this movie may have been his best.   

Jon Voight was the only recognizable “name” actor in the film; he was a good fit in the role of “Ed,” the passive, wide-eyed suburbanite friend of “Lewis” who winds up having to lead the men out of the wilderness.   

Ronny Cox played “Drew,” who plays the guitar in the duet with “banjo boy” on the porch of the cottage at the outset of the movie.   

Cox thinks he got the role only because he actually could play the guitar. One sidelight about Cox is that he is double-jointed.

In the film, he drowns and his body is later found downstream by the others. His body is grotesquely wrapped around a log. This is not trick photography. The image is due to the fact that Cox is double-jointed and able to look so contorted without much effort.   

The final actor in the gang of four was Ned Beatty, who will be forever remembered for his role as “Bobby,” who in the film learns “how to squeal like a pig.”   

Beatty had always been a stage actor — actually a part-time Shakespearean actor — and this was his first movie role, but what a memorable first role to have! 

The “squeal like a pig” line, by the way, was not in the original script; the actors came up with this line as they were rehearsing that scene in the woods.

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McKinney did a wonderful job playing “dead” in the scene where the men are trying to decide what to do with his body.   

According to the director, McKinney never moved or flinched during this scene despite the fact that bugs and mosquitos were swarming his face and body. (If it were up to Boorman, McKinney would have received a academy award for playing dead.)   

As for Coward, he was a friend of Reynolds and had worked with Reynolds as a rodeo clown at a dude ranch in North Carolina. The sidekick role required someone with no teeth and Reynolds suggested Coward.  

Coward actually has a speech defect. He talks with a terrible stutter but he only had one line in the movie — a memorable one at that — and he was able to pull it off without stuttering.

• And now we come to “banjo boy,” played by Billy Redden. This is the kid on the porch with the banjo.   

At the time of casting, which took place in Clayton, Georgia, Redden was a local 16-year-old high school kid. He had a rather odd appearance as a teenager and although he is mentally “normal,” he certainly did not look it.   

He was selected for the role, frankly, because his appearance suggested that he was the result of some in-breeding.   

Despite how it looked in the movie, Redden was not really playing the banjo himself. The left hand and arm was actually that of another teenager who could play the banjo.

This teenager was positioned behind Redden, hidden from the camera and working the strings with his left hand.   

Redden was paid $500 for his performance in the movie, which seems like a pittance in light of the impact that his performance had. 

Today, Redden still lives in Clayton and works at the local Walmart but presumably not as a “greeter.” He also still receives a royalty payment of about $25 every six months for his role in the movie.

• Because this was a low-budget movie, the actors had to do the stunts themselves. 

For example, when Voight climbed the bluff to kill the shooter on top, that is not a stunt man going up the cliff; that is Voight doing it himself.   

And when they are lowering the shooter’s body down by a rope after Voight kills him, that is actually Coward being lowered on the rope, not a stunt man or a phony body.   

Oddly enough, when they began filming, the only person who knew how to paddle a canoe was Ned Beatty, so the director had his hands full when they were filming on the water.   

The director was so concerned about the dangers of the river that he hired a professional diver to be present during the whitewater scenes.   

In fact, Beatty fell out of one of the canoes and nearly drowned during one of those scenes.

• The river depicted in the film is the Chattooga River (except for one river scene that was filmed elsewhere). 

Located in the northeast corner of Georgia, the Chattooga begins in the North Carolina mountains and flows southeast through Georgia.  

It constitutes the border between Georgia and South Carolina for about 40 miles. In the space of that 40 miles, the Chattooga drops more than 2,000 feet through several rock canyons and in spots is a Class V stream even at normal water levels.   

Back in 1971, when they were filming on the Chattooga, it was still a remote stream that very few people had heard of. But since then, and primarily because of the film, the Chattooga has become the most popular rafting and kayaking stream in the south.  

Unfortunately, it is extremely dangerous despite its popularity. In fact, since 1972, more than 40 people have drowned in those portions of the river that were depicted in the movie.  

To be sure, some of those deaths occurred because floaters were careless but some deaths occurred during professional rafting trips, when whitewater life jackets, helmets and whitewater rafts were being used and when drownings are not supposed to occur.

• In 1974, Congress passed legislation making the Chattooga River a “Wild and Scenic River,” similar to the designations for the Current River and the Eleven Point River.   

Under the rules for the Chattooga, there can be no motorized vehicles or development within a quarter-mile of the stream and there are significant restrictions on where you can float and when you can float.   

I have been to see the Chattooga twice — once to trout fish with a buddy from Atlanta. and once with Annie, my wife, to walk the trails that border the river.   

It is a beautiful place and reminds me of the Upper Jacks Forks in Missouri.   

No, I did not hear any banjos while I was there but believe me, I was listening.

(Bill Hoagland has practiced law for more than 50 years in Madison County, Ill., and lives in the Alton area. He and his wife, Annie, have been outdoor enthusiasts all of their lives. He can be reached at billhoagland70@gmail.com.)

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