The 1970s was a decade of groundbreaking motion pictures. That included the 1972 dark adventure classic Deliverance.
Director John Boorman’s film, based on the novel by poet James Dickey, is as brutal as it is beautiful. It made Burt Reynolds a serious movie star and featured some of the more hard-to-watch scenes ever filmed, even all these years later.
No matter your feelings on Deliverance, there’s no denying its impact or its potency. Let’s take a look behind the scenes of the Oscar-nominated classic.
It was Burt Reynolds’s breakthrough role
You have to go way back to 1958 to find Burt Reynolds’s first acting credit. That was long before his mustachioed days. From there, he found himself mostly in TV roles.
Though he played the lead in a few westerns, Deliverance changed things for Burt.
The film’s success and critical reception saw him go from a B-movie actor to an A-lister overnight. It would propel him toward other big movies, like The Longest Yard and Smokey and the Bandit.
Despite a career amassing close to two-hundred credits, Burt always said that Deliverance was the best film he’d ever been in.
Big names were considered
Movie stars are what make a film successful. At least, that was the thinking back when Deliverance was getting ready to shoot.
Unfortunately for John Boorman, Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox were not movie stars. Warner Bros. wanted names they could sell.
The who’s who of Hollywood legends offered parts in the film is pretty impressive. Initially tapped to play Lewis was Steve McQueen. He said no. Henry Fonda then turned it down. Charlton Heston did as well, but only because he had a scheduling conflict.
Gene Hackman was offered the Ed role. He refused, instead hoping to play Lewis. But they turned him down.
The dance scene was improvised
Among the scenes most associated with the movie is the dueling banjos sequence. It grows into a spirited, lively back-and-forth. Amid the many horrors of the the film, we find ourselves smiling here, if only for a moment.
That gas station attendant couldn’t help himself either.
He gets so into the music, he breaks into a joyous jig. The old man, played by local Ed Ramey, wasn’t asked to show off his moves; he did all that on his own.
Director John Boorman thought what Ramey did seemed to fit the character perfectly, so he left it in the movie.
The budget was so small, they didn’t have stuntmen
When making a movie, safety is key. Horror stories have emerged about on-set accidents that could have been prevented through wiser decision-making or double-checking props.
Insurance is necessary for every production. Without it, don’t even bother shooting. Well, Deliverance didn’t care about that.
Producers didn’t insure the movie, needing to put all the money into what you see on the screen. If someone had been seriously injured, that was a risk they were willing to take.
And considering the actors did all their own stunts, it was a huge risk! Yup, that’s really Jon Voight climbing those cliffs. No stuntmen needed.
One actor nearly drowned
Even though he plays a city boy not adept to the wilderness and its traps, Ned Beatty was the only one of the four actors with any canoeing experience.
However, no amount of experience can prepare you for the fear of imminent death when you believe you’re drowning.
Ned went overboard during one scene and was sucked under the water by a whirlpool. He was under for at least thirty seconds, requiring a production assistant to leap in after him.
His first thought when he believed he would drown? How John Boorman would finish the film without him. His second? “I bet the bastard will find a way!”
The banjo boy was a local
Several locals were cast in the film. Boorman wanted the banjo-playing boy, Lonnie, to be a local as well.
The character was supposed to be an albino. He was described in the script as “probably a half-wit, likely from a family inbred to the point of imbecility.”
The casting director was taken to a grammar school nearby to search for a kid who fit the description. And that’s when she found Billy Redden.
Billy was just what Boorman had been looking for. So the casting director ran to the phone and let him know she’d found their banjo boy, based solely on his appearance.
One actor regrets passing on the film
It’s rare that the first actor approached is the one who gets the role. The casting process can be an arduous task. There’s lots of waiting for an answer, and then lots of passes.
Deliverance went out to many big names for the four main roles.
Jon Voight was not the first actor to be offered the role of Ed. Among the many who turned it down was Donald Sutherland. After reading the script, he felt it was too violent.
After seeing how the film turned out, Sutherland had to kick himself for that decision. He’s said he regrets passing on the part.
Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando were almost cast
In 1971, when Deliverance was nearing production, Jack Nicholson was the biggest name in town. John Boorman actually got him to play the role of Ed.
Jack said he’d do the movie on two conditions: if he was paid $500,000 and if Marlon Brando agreed to play Lewis.
Marlon learned what Jack was asking for and demanded the same. There was no way the studio was going to pay these two half the movie’s budget. Plus, the thought at the time was that Brando’s star was fading.
So Boorman reluctantly looked elsewhere, casting cheaper actors. Can you even imagine the movie with Brando and Nicholson?!
The film’s writer was unruly
The movie is actually an adaptation of a 1970 novel, also called Deliverance. Its author, James Dickey, was a larger than life man—a character in his own right.
His presence on set sure didn’t make things easier for anyone. John Boorman had the wounds to prove it.
Though Dickey had adapted his own book into a script, Boorman did a bit of re-writing. Dickey didn’t like that. While drunk, he picked a fight with the director and hit him in the face, breaking his nose and shattering teeth!
The two would make up, somehow, and become friends. But the set is no place for a writer.
The actors did dangerous stunts
Among those impressed with the actors for doing all their own stunts was writer James Dickey. A man in touch with nature himself, he very much enjoyed seeing these Hollywood types get out there and put their lives on the line.
In hindsight, it probably wasn’t very bright of them.
The four stars “had more guts than a burglar,” Dickey said of their stunt work without the safety net of insurance. The movie itself seems to reference this in a self-aware moment.
When asked about insurance, Lewis says, “Insurance? I’ve never been insured in my life. I don’t believe in insurance. There’s no risk.”
Reynolds was a natural outdoorsman
Before he was an actor, Burt Reynolds was an athlete. After high school, Burt went to Florida State University on a football scholarship.
Playing both halfback and defensive back, he’d hoped to go pro. But injuries derailed him and he walked away from football after his sophomore year.
That didn’t mean he couldn’t put his athletic prowess on display in front of the camera. Reynolds’s Lewis is an alpha male in the film. He wields a bow and arrow with deadly results.
James Dickey, a bowhunter, gave the inexperienced Burt a few lessons with the weapon. That’s all he needed. Almost immediately, he shot with extraordinary accuracy.
The horrifying ending was much-copied
If you remember the film well, you know it doesn’t end when the characters leave the area. Holding on a shot of the calm Georgia waters, a pale, bloated hand emerges, breaking the surface.
Ed then wakes up with a start. He’s in bed beside his wife. It was a nightmare.
This trope of the killer coming back for one last scare started a new trend in Hollywood. Director Brian DePalma was the first to copy it, recreating a very similar final scene in 1976’s Carrie.
He wouldn’t be the last. The epilogue fright is now expected in modern horror films.
The banjo sequence is virtually the only music in the entire film. It was also a pain to shoot.
Not only did Billy Redden not know how to play the banjo (another boy played the chords by reaching around Billy’s side), but he also struggled in his acting performance.
Because Billy and actor Ronny Cox got along so well, the boy couldn’t turn away from him, refusing to shake his hand. However, he wasn’t too fond of Ned Beatty, for whatever reason.
In order to get the reaction Boorman needed, Beatty was asked to stand beside Cox. Ned’s very presence was enough to get Billy to coldly look away.
So what does the title mean?
If you’ve seen the movie and wondered why it’s called Deliverance, you’re not alone. The word is not mentioned in the film, so the title goes unexplained.
Deliverance means salvation, or freedom. So why in the world would they choose that? Why not Fear, or Survival?
Well, the book boasts the same title. And it’s explained there. Deliverance is what these four Atlanta men are seeking in their journey into the wilderness. They yearn for adventure and beauty outside the stress of the city.
And they would have found it… if they weren’t in a fight for their lives against the elements and toothless hillbilly murderers!
Reynolds broke a delicate bone
Stuntmen were not needed on this production (which could barely afford them). When we see the actors in the water and doing physically demanding activities, that’s really them doing those things.
Burt Reynolds wasn’t immune to bumps and bruises. And breaks.
During the scene in which his canoe capsizes, Reynolds goes into the water. They’d used a cloth dummy previous, but no one thought that looked real enough.
So Reynolds did it himself. And he paid the price. Burt suffered a broken coccyx in the scene. That’s a tailbone for the lay person. Making this film was literally a pain in the you-know-what.
Dickey was thrown off the set
Because of his big personality and his constant need to get involved with every scene, author James Dickey was asked to leave the set. He was none too pleased.
The actors were better able to relax with him gone, however. And then… Dickey came back.
Not to punch anyone else in the face, but to play a role. He’d been asked to play the sheriff who warns the men in the end not to return. When he was booted from set, he told them to find another sheriff.
Good thing they didn’t. Dickey’s cameo performance is fantastic. He revels in every word he speaks (all of which he wrote).
The movie’s most infamous scene was filmed in one take
It’s uncertain exactly what audiences were expecting in 1972 when they sat down in a theater to watch Deliverance.
Those laughing and enjoying themselves were stunned to silence by the end, remembered a writer friend of Dickey’s. Surely the scene that first shut them up was the one everyone knows.
A brutal scene of assault wasn’t the sort of thing audiences anticipated in a night out at the movies. The scene is tense and unnerving.
Ned Beatty, who plays the victim in the scene to actor Bill McKinney’s mountain man aggressor, asked to do the scene in just one take, unwilling to endure it numerous times.
“Squeal like a pig” was improvised
The most memorable line from the film was not originally in the script. Dialogue during the Ned Beatty assault was supposed to contain primarily swear words.
Thinking of telecasts on broadcast TV, Boorman figured he should try some cleaner options.
Accounts differ as to who came up with the line. Beatty, who worked with pigs as a teenager, had those memories come back to him in the moment.
Because he played football, he was asked to move giant boars around like they were ball carriers in those days. So, “Squeal like a pig” may have been his brainchild. Either way, Boorman liked it better than what was written.
One actor had to play dead for several minutes
Following the infamous scene, Burt Reynolds’s Lewis fires an arrow into Bill McKinney’s character’s chest. While the other assailant runs off through the woods, McKinney struggles to breathe before collapsing onto a tree.
He dies with his eyes open and his mouth agape. Then the real acting begins.
McKinney was forced to hang out there, allowing the tree to support his weight while the others decide what to do with the body. He’s almost always in frame. And he never moves. Or blinks.
How’d they accomplish that? It was all McKinney. He’d trained himself to hold his breath and keep his eyes open for two whole minutes!
The film had a big impact on tourism
Though reports surfaced of the camping industry taking a hit following the film’s release, it had a positive effect as well.
For all the terrors wrought by the wilderness and people of the Southern Appalachians, tourism in the region only spiked.
In the years since 1972, roughly thirty-thousand people per year raft the rivers of northwestern Georgia. Their adventure-seeking spirits have created a $20-million local industry, annually.
What’s more, the Chattooga River, where the movie was shot, has become federally protected. That means it can never be dammed or developed. Even sheer brutality will not stop humanity’s thirst for exploration.
Georgia natives took deep offense
As well received as the movie was, not everyone was a fan. Its biggest critics, unsurprisingly, were the mountain people of the region where the film was shot.
Some who lived in the area were unafraid to vocalize their disgust with Hollywood’s portrayal of them.
Author Barbara Woodall objected strongly to the stereotyping. In her mind, the movie communicated that she and other locals were “all ignorant, stupid hillbillies, straight from the land of nine-fingered people.”
She would go on to say, “It’s a wrongful depiction of a humble, passive people, you know, that didn’t deserve to be assaulted on the silver screen like that.”
It was one of the first major movies filmed in Georgia
Deliverance filmed on location in northwestern Georgia. It was set there, and it filmed there (with some additional shooting in the Carolinas).
Before then, the state was not exactly a hotbed for film production. But this film changed things going forward.
After Deliverance, the state saw an uptick in movies shot there. And Burt Reynolds had a lot to do with it. A Southerner himself, he would shoot several more movies there in the 1970s.
With its advantageous tax credits, the state has seen more production than ever. The Avengers movies filmed there. So have Netflix’s Stranger Things and Ozark, just to name a few.
One local extra was legitimately scary
Bill McKinney—the mountain man who assaults Ned Beatty—was a real Hollywood actor. His partner in the attack wasn’t. John Boorman was looking for a non-actor for that role and was having trouble finding one.
That’s when Burt Reynolds had an idea.
Burt once worked a Wild West show in North Carolina. He knew an illiterate guy named Herbert “Cowboy” Coward. He gave him a call.
Cowboy performed one line and Boorman gave him the part. When Cowboy was told what he’d have to do in the movie (the assault scene), Reynolds remembers him replying, “I’ve done a lot w-w-w-worse things than that.” Yikes.
Dickey referred to everyone by their character’s names
When author James Dickey was on set, his behavior was rather unusual. He’d walk around calling the actors by their characters’ names, for instance.
Dickey never used their real names, instead only seeing the people he created in his book. Not everyone appreciated that.
The night before the first day of shooting, Dickey yelled out to Burt Reynolds in a bar. He called him Lewis.
Unable to ignore him forever, Reynolds turned to Dickey and told him he wouldn’t be Lewis until the following morning, adding, “Get out of my g%&&#@n face!” Thinking Dickey would stab him or something, the author joyously quipped, “That’s exactly what Lewis woulda said!”
The film was shot in an unusual way
When you watch a film, it follows a particular chronology. A beginning, middle, and ending happens, usually in that order. Unless it’s a Quentin Tarantino film. Or the countless others who have since copied him.
However, that’s not how movies are filmed.
In production, you abide by a schedule. For example, if there are multiple scenes in one location, you shoot them consecutively, even if they don’t unfold that way in the story.
But Deliverance was different. The movie was shot in sequence. That proved to be a huge help for the actors, who could better keep track of where they were mentally at every moment.
Dickey picked the director himself
Not only was James Dickey a novelist, he was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 1966. He was also an English instructor and lecturer.
One of his former students, David Giler, got an advanced copy of Deliverance while working at Warner Bros.
Giler urged studio executives to acquire the film rights. They listened, paying an astounding $100,000 for it, which was steep at the time. Dickey was permitted to write the script himself and interview directors.
He spoke with Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) and Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby). Upon meeting John Boorman, Dickey knew he’d found the right man for the job. And Warner Bros. hired him.
Dickey may (or may not) have lived the events of the film
When John Boorman first met James Dickey, the author said to him, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told a living soul, and I want you to promise not to mention it to anybody: Everything in that book happened to me.”
Boorman couldn’t keep that to himself.
When he left the meeting, Boorman took his associate producer (Charles Orme) aside and told him what Dickey had said.
Orme wasn’t the least bit surprised. Dickey had told him the exact same thing. Apparently he made this claim to everyone. Whether or not his book is actually autobiographical remains unknown. But it probably isn’t.
Even Reynolds struggled with Dickey
Director John Boorman would later describe working with James Dickey as going fifteen rounds with a heavyweight. Burt Reynolds found him to be a bit much as well.
Reynolds described Dickey as “a guy who, when he’s had a couple of martinis, you want to drop a grenade down his throat.”
But there was no denying the imposing Dickey’s eloquence.
When he was booted from set, Dickey stood before Boorman and the actors and told them, “It appears that my presence would be most efficacious by its absence.” Confounded, Reynolds turned to Boorman and asked: “Does that mean he’s going or he’s staying?”
One actor was able to fake a broken limb
When Drew (Ronny Cox) goes under the water and disappears, it’s unclear what happened to him. Maybe he gave up and just plunged into the water. Or maybe he was shot, though no gunfire is heard.
His body is later discovered (spoilers!) in a most unusual position.
Boorman considered using a prosthetic, but Cox didn’t need one. Blessed with hyper mobility—double-jointedness—Cox was able to wrap his arm around his head naturally, pain free.
In fact, Ronny claims he used to pull tricks like this in college. He’d bet people he could contort his body in alarming ways. He’d then walk away with a little extra cash.
Dickey gave himself a standing ovation in a theater
Writer and former James Dickey student, Pat Conroy, saw the film outside of Atlanta with some of his classmates back in 1972.
When Dickey came on the screen, someone in the back jumped to his feet and began applauding, yelling out, “Nice job!”
Conroy couldn’t understand who would react that way. He turned around to see who was making all that racket.
Much to his surprise, it was James Dickey. That’s right, he was celebrating himself. According to Dickey’s son, James was a man who basked in his own fame. One wonders how many times the poet did this during the film’s theatrical run.
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