JEOPARDY: Burt Reynolds in action filming Deliverance
Deliverance was a film that erased forever the genteel cinematic depictions of the rural South as immortalised in Gone With The Wind.
The remote forests and rivers of North Georgia became, through the doomed adventures of four Atlanta suburbanites and their ill-fated canoe trip, a monstrous, untamed landscape of wild rapids, inbred locals and rapist hillbillies in a movie that, upon an early screening, left even governor of the state Jimmy Carter all but speechless.
“It’s pretty rough, but it’s good for Georgia – I hope,” gulped Carter, then governor of Georgia. The movie would be the fifth most successful film released in America that year, scooping three Oscar nominations.
Yet the shooting of the film, which turned an obscure B-movie actor called Burt Reynolds into a major star, was so fraught with violence and danger that even James Dickey, the author upon whose novel the movie was based, wrote in a letter at the time: “I am deathly afraid that somebody will get hurt on this film, because there is no doubt that it is the most dangerous one ever made. If we can just get out of the gorge.”
The tale of how four middle-aged men (played by Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox) became victims of male rape, vengeful, gun-toting mountain men and the deadly rapids of the fictional Cahulawassee river (actually the real life Chattoga), challenged everybody involved; not least its British director John Boorman.
His clashes with Dickey (himself a Georgian local) ended with punches being thrown and the 6ft 4in, heavy boozing author being ordered off the set of the film he helped create.
“(Dickey) was drunk a lot and had become very overbearing with the actors. Eventually I had to ask him to leave,” recalls Boorman, now 89.
Tensions came to a head one night when a drunk Dickey punched Boorman in the face, cracking four of the director’s teeth.
Yet despite the brawl, Dickey even- tually returned to the set to play a disgruntled sheriff who confronts the four canoeists after their harrowing ordeal.
“I just couldn’t handle (Dickey’s) act,” wrote Reynolds (who died in 2018) in his autobiography. “His Jim Bowie knife on his belt, cowboy hat, fringed jacket…”
But problems between the crew were nothing compared to the danger presented by the Chattoga river itself.
Located 100 miles from Atlanta in Rabun County, the actors who, apart from Reynolds, had almost no experience in outdoor adventure sports, performed almost all of the stunts themselves.
When Reynolds’s character Lewis was scripted to go over a waterfall in a canoe, Burt (also a native of Georgia) scorned the plan to use a dummy, with potentially fatal consequences as the actor later revealed.
“They sent a dummy over the waterfall and it looked like ****, like a dummy. So I went over the waterfall and hit a rock about a quarter of the way down and cracked my hip bone and my coccyx. They told me if I got caught in the hydro flow, swim to the bottom and it’ll shoot you out.
“They didn’t tell me it would shoot me like a submarine torpedo! They couldn’t find me for five minutes. A mile down the river they saw this nude man stumbling, crawling towards them. I said to Boorman, ‘How’s it look, John?’ He said, ‘Like a dummy going over the waterfall’.”
Jon Voight, who becomes the hero of the movie as the mild mannered Ed Gentry, put himself in equal danger with a perilous rock climbing sequence he performed himself, almost plummeting off a cliff in the process.
“I was about 10ft up on the face, which was slippery and almost perpendicular,” he later said.
“I told the two grips below me, ‘If I start to fall off, I’m going to push off the rocks and you’ll catch me’.
“I started to slip, called out and one of them caught me.” When Voight was caught a razor sharp rock was lying inches from his skull. Ronny Cox pla dr mo near aturb played the doomed Drew who drowns in the river early on in the movie after seemingly being shot. He also nearly met a grisly end – washed away during the filming of another scene in the turbulent river.
To help make the fierce rapids movie, the filmmakers released a flow of water from a nearby dam when they were ready to One such rush of water flung Cox out of his canoe, causing him to rock below the surface, damaging impossible for him to swim to safety.
Without the strength to grab on to safety rope placed for him, nor the second rope hung near the waterfall’.”, it took one fearless crew member to jump in with a rope tied around his waist to save Cox from plunging over the waterfall’.” itself to an almost certain death.
Ned Beatty, playing the rotund Bobby character who became the victim of the hillbilly rapists in the movie, had probably the narrowest escape from death of all, just averting being flung into churning rapids.
Boorman revealed how Beatty (who died last year) became stuck in a raging current, prompting a professional diver employed on the set to find him when he finally emerged. Recalling the incident, Beatty recalled, “I thought, ‘This is where I [meet my end],’ and my wife was pregnant, and I thought about how mad she would be that I [perished] in a river in Georgia.”
It was only later that the actors began to realise why John Boorman, as well as insisting they do their own canoeing, also, unusually, wanted the film to be shot chronologically.
Burt Reynolds claimed Boorman revealed to him that the motive for filming each scene in sequence was: “If one of you drowns, I can write that into the script.”
However, although the actors survived, a member of Georgia’s wildlife wasn’t so fortunate. A notable early scene in the film shows Reynolds’s character Lewis fatally shooting a deer with a bow and arrow.
Chris Dickey, son of the author, who, as a teenager, worked on the set of the movie, recalled the mix up which caused the deer to perish.
“A little deer was brought in from an animal park and heavily tranquillized so it could be controlled,” he later wrote. “There was never any question of hurting it in any way. But it [perished]. It had been given an overdose. Boorman and his assistants were in a quiet panic. ‘This is all we need’, I remember one of them said.”
The colossal success of the resulting film vindicated Boorman’s choice to use all but unknown actors – instead of the studio’s original preference for Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando to play two of the canoeists.
Yet the movie played a role in numerous real-life fatalities on the Chattooga in the years after release.
According to US Forest Service statistics, 17 people were killed on the hitherto unknown river in the four years after Deliverance came out, mainly due to movie fans wanting to recreate the expedition that Reynolds and co embarked upon – presumably without being raped by mountain men in the process.
Half a century on and the tale of suburban men pitted against the most vengeful and dangerous elements of nature and human degradation still feels significant, as a tale of how people face violence and decide on their responsibilities.
As John Voight later stated, the key message of the film was never about inbred, banjo-playing Deep South locals or dangerous waterfall’.”s at all.
“We leave the protection of others to certain members of our society – policeman and the military,” Voight reflected.
“But in some way we lose part of our manhood by hiding, by coddling ourselves into thinking we’re safe.”