Long before moviegoers watched in horror as actor Ned Beatty was forced to strip off his clothes and told to “squeal like a pig” during a film set in the rural mountains of North Georgia, there was the novel by Atlanta writer and poet James Dickey that started it all.
It’s been 45 years since “Deliverance” first hit the book shelves across this nation, but the profound impact that the tale of four suburban men canoeing down the dangerous rapids of a remote Georgia river and encountering a pair of deranged mountain men can still be felt today.
When the book was first released back in April of 1970, the reaction was definitely mixed, to say the least. Most critics praised the adventurous tale, describing the novel as “riveting entertainment” or a “monument to tall stories.”
The New York Times called the book a “double-clutching whopper” of a story that was a “weekend athlete’s nightmare.”
“Four men decide to paddle two canoes down the rapids of a river in northern Georgia to get one last look at pure wilderness before the river is dammed up and ‘the real estate people get hold of it,’” the New York Times book review stated in 1970.
But to the shock of the reader, the whitewater adventure turns into a struggle for survival when the character Bobby Trippe is brutally sodomized by a mountain man while his friend Ed Gentry is tied to a nearby tree.
“In the middle of the second day of the outing, two of the campers pull over to the riverbank for a rest,” the New York Times wrote in 1970. “Out of the woods wander two scrofulous hillbillies with a shotgun, and proceed to assault the campers with a casual brutality that leaves the reader squirming.
“It’s a bad situation inside an impossible one wrapped up in a hopeless one, with rapids crashing along between sheer cliffs and bullets zinging down from overhead. A most dangerous game.”
The New Republic described “Deliverance” as a powerful book that readers would not soon forget.
“How a man acts when shot by an arrow, what it feels like to scale a cliff or to capsize, the ironic psychology of fear,” The New Republic review stated. “These things are conveyed with remarkable descriptive writing.”
The book spent 26 weeks on the New York Times best-selling hardback list, and 16 weeks on that newspaper’s paperback list.
Within two years, it had achieved its eighth printing and sold almost 2 million copies.
The novel was having an immediate impact on the image of northern Georgia, according to the book, “Dear Appalachia: Readers, Identity, and Popular Fiction since 1878” by author Emily Satterwhite.
“Dickey’s novel created for readers an Appalachia that served as the site of a collective ‘nightmare,’ to use a term adopted by several of Dickey’s reviewers,” Satterwhite wrote. “The rape of city men by leering ‘hicks,’ central to the novel… became almost synonymous with popular conceptions of the mountain South.”
The book is a tall tale written by a man raised in a wealthy neighborhood in Atlanta, who both loved and feared the mountains of North Georgia, according to Satterwhite.
“Dickey’s father, James II, was a lawyer who loved hunting and cockfighting; his North Georgia farm served as a refuge from his wife, her family inheritance and the Buckhead mansion and servants that her wealth afforded them even in the depths of the Great Depression,” Satterwhite wrote, adding that James Dickey, like his father, was also uncomfortable with his family’s wealth. “Dickey preferred to claim that he grew up in the mountains. He attributed his blustery aggressiveness to his ‘North Georgia folk heritage’ and averred, ‘My people are all hillbillies. I’m only second-generation city.’”
But that was far from the truth.
“Though Dickey’s ancestors had indeed lived in mountainous Fannin County, Georgia, they were not the plain folks he made them out to be,” Satterwhite wrote. “He failed to acknowledge that they were slaveholders and among the largest landowners and wealthiest residents of the county. Dickey’s romantic — and racist — vision of Appalachia as a place apart stayed with him his entire life.”
Dickey’s conflicting feeling about these so-called “mountain people” of North Georgia is evident in many of the conversations between two of the novel’s main characters, graphic artist Ed Gentry and outdoor survivalist Lewis Medlock.
In the beginning of the book, Lewis attempts to describe to Ed, the narrator of the novel and the character who is generally believed to be loosely based on Dickey himself, what makes the mountains of northern Georgia so special.
Lewis insists that there “may be something important in the hills.”
But Ed quickly fires back, “I don’t mind going down a few rapids with you and drinking a little whiskey by a campfire. But I don’t give a fiddler’s f*** about those hills.”
Lewis continues to try to persuade Ed by telling him about a recent trip he took with another friend, Shad Mackey, who got lost in these very same mountains.
“I happened to look around, and there was a fellow standing there looking at me,” Lewis said. “‘What you want, boy down around here?’ he said. He was skinny, and had on overall pants and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I told him I was going down the river with another guy, and that I was waiting for Shad to show up.”
The man who stepped out of the woods was a moonshiner who, to Lewis’ surprise, offered to help.
“‘You say you got a man back up there hunting with a bow and arrow. Does he know what’s up there?’ he asked me. ‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s rougher than a night in jail in south Georgia,’ he said, ‘and I know what I’m talking about. You have any idea whereabouts he is?’ I said no, ‘just up that way someplace, the last time I saw him.’”
What happened next opened Lewis’ eyes to these mountain people, he told Ed.
“The fellow stood up and went over to his boy, who was about fifteen. He talked to him for a while, and then came about halfway back to me before he turned around and said, ‘Son, go find that man.’
“The boy didn’t say a thing. He went and got a flashlight and an old single-shot twenty-two. He picked up a handful of bullets from a box and put them in his pocket. He called his dog, and then he just faded away.”
Several hours later, the boy returned with Shad, who had broken his leg. When Lewis finishes his story, it’s obvious the tale means very little to Ed.
“That fellow wasn’t commanding his son against his will,” Lewis said. “The boy just knew what to do. He walked out into the dark.”
Ed quickly asks, “So?”
“So, we’re lesser men, Ed,” Lewis said. “I’m sorry, but we are.”
When the pair reaches the fictitious mountain town of Oree, Georgia, in the novel, Ed is clearly even less impressed.
“An old man with a straw hat and work shirt appeared at Lewis’ window, talking in. He looked like a hillbilly in some badly cast movie, a character actor too much in character to be believed. I wondered where the excitement was that intrigued Lewis so much; everything in Oree was sleepy and hookwormy and ugly, and most of all, inconsequential. Nobody worth a damn could ever come from such a place.”
As Lewis continues to negotiate with the mountain men, Ed becomes even more harsh in his description of Oree and its residents.
“There is always something wrong with people in the country, I thought. In the comparatively few times I had ever been in the rural South I had been struck by the number of missing fingers. Offhand, I had counted around twenty, at least. There had also been several people with some form of crippling or twisting illness, and some blind or one-eyed. No adequate medical treatment maybe. But there was something else. You’d think that farming was a healthy life, with fresh air and fresh food and plenty of exercise, but I never saw a farmer who didn’t have something wrong with him, and most of the time obviously wrong.
“The catching of an arm in a tractor park somewhere off in the middle of a field where nothing happened but that the sun blazed back more fiercely down the open mouth of one’s screams. And so many snakebites deep in the woods as one stepped over a rotten log, so many domestic animals suddenly turning and crushing one against the splintering side of a barn stall. I wanted none of it, and I didn’t want to be around where it happened either. But I was there, and there was no way for me to escape, except by water, from the country of nine-fingered people.”
The South Squeals Like a Pig
The portrait of mountain people as toothless, sexual deviants in a “country of nine-fingered people” was too much for many Southerners to accept.
“The consequences of fictional representation have never been more powerful for the imagination of mountainness — or perhaps even for southernness, ruralness, and ‘primitiveness’ more generically — than in the case of ‘Deliverance,’” Satterwhite wrote.
By the time director John Boorman brought “Deliverance” to the big screen in 1972 starring Burt Reynolds as Lewis and Jon Voight as Ed, the damage to the South’s reputation was in full force.
The movie, which was primarily filmed in Rabun County in North Georgia during the summer of 1971, grossed about $6.5 million in its first year and was considered a great success at home and internationally.
“Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate the thoroughness with which ‘Deliverance,’ transformed by Dickey and director John Boorman into a film classic, has imbricated itself into Americans’ understanding and worldview,” Satterwhite wrote. “From the ubiquitous rendition of the ‘Dueling Banjos’ theme song to allude to danger from hicks to bumper stickers for tourists reading, ‘Paddle faster, I hear banjoes,’ the novel and film have created artifacts that many of us encounter on an almost weekly basis.”
Ironically, the movie’s most memorable line, “Squeal like a pig!” was never a part of the book. It was allegedly improvised by the actor during filming.
But the South wanted to still promote Dickey, an accomplished Atlanta author, so articles in the Columbia Record and other South Carolina and Georgia newspapers frequently featured Dickey’s novel. The film version of “Deliverance” was also honored at the Atlanta film festival.
“Southern hopes for self-promotion were evident at the film’s premiere in Atlanta,” Satterhite wrote. “Dickey leaned over to say to Jimmy Carter, then the governor: ‘Ain’t no junior league movie is it, Governor?’ ‘It’s pretty rough,’ Carter agreed, ‘but it’s good for Georgia.’ Carter paused. ‘It’s good for Georgia. I hope.’”
However, the success of “Deliverance” had such an impact on the Peach State, Carter decided to create a state film office in 1973 to ensure Georgia kept landing movie roles.
As a result, the film and video industry has contributed more than $5 billion to the state’s economy since the Georgia Film Commission was established.
But the release of “Deliverance” was, without question, a difficult time for rural Southerners, wrote Western Kentucky University professor Anthony Harkins, author of “Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon.”
The mountaineers of “Deliverance” were “crippled misfits and savage sodomizers of the North Georgia wilderness” who terrorize the foursome of Atlanta canoeists who simply want to run the rapids of the fictitious Cahulawassee River.
“Indisputably the most influential film of the modern era in shaping national perceptions of southern mountaineers and rural life in general, Deliverance’s portrayal of degenerate, imbecilic, and sexually voracious predators bred fear into several generations of Americans,” Harkins wrote. “As film scholar Pat Arnow only partly facetiously argued in 1991, the film ‘is still the greatest incentive for many non-Southerners to stay on the Interstate.’”
In fact, Harkins points out that Daniel Roper of the North Georgia Journal described the movie’s devastating local effect as “Deliverance did for them [North Georgians] what ‘Jaws’ did for sharks.”
“The film’s infamous scenes of sodomy at gunpoint and of a retarded albino boy lustily playing his banjo became such instantly recognizable shorthand for demeaning references to rural poor whites that comedians needed to say only ‘squeal like a pig’ or hum the opening notes of the film’s guitar banjo duet to gain an immediate visceral reaction from a studio audience,” Harkins writes.
Harkins believes that’s not at all what Dickey intended in writing both the book and the movie’s screenplay.
“To (the character) Lewis (and Dickey), the mountain folk’s very backwardness and social isolation has allowed them to retain a physical and mental toughness and to preserve a code of commitment to family and kin that has long ago been lost in the rush to a commodified existence,” Harkins wrote. “Lewis praised the ‘values’ passed down from father to son.”
But all of that meaning appeared to be lost in the film, Harkins wrote. Instead, Hollywood was much more interested in the horrific tale and captivating adventure of traveling down a North Georgia river being chased by crazed hillbillies.
The film was about the shock and fear of such an incident in the rural mountains that enthralled moviegoers.
“The film explicitly portrays Lewis (Burt Reynolds) shooting the rapist through the back with an arrow and the man’s shocked expression as he sees the blood smeared projectile protruding from his chest just before he dies violently,” Harkins wrote.
Surprisingly, Dickey seemed to thoroughly enjoy that scene in the film during the movie’s New York premiere, Harkins writes.
“Known for his outrageous antics and drunken public appearances, (Dickey) is said to have shouted out in the crowded theater, ‘Kill the son of a bitch!’ at the moment Lewis aims his fatal arrow,” Harkins wrote. “And then ‘Hot damn’ once the arrow found its mark.”
Many years later, Ned Beatty, the actor in the famous rape scene wrote an editorial for the New York Times called “Suppose Men Feared Rape.”
“‘Squeal like a pig.’ How many times has that been shouted, said or whispered to me since then?” wrote Beatty, who, according to Atlanta’s Creative Loafing would reply, “When was the last time you got kicked by an old man?”
Beatty wrote the editorial amid the outcry of 1989’s high-profile Central Park jogger rape case, and offered his experience with the snide catcalls, Creative Loafing reported.
“Somewhere between their shouts and my threats lies a kernel of truth about how men feel about rape,” he wrote. “My guess is, we want to be distanced from it. 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.”
The Shock in Rabun County, Georgia
The rape of Ned Beatty’s character was easily the most memorable scene in the film, and, needless to say, many of the residents in Rabun County who were interviewed after the movie was released were less than thrilled.
“Resentment grew even while the film was being made,” Harkins wrote. “As word of how the mountaineers were being portrayed spread, (James Dickey’s son) Christopher Dickey, who was staying with his family in a low-budget motel and had more contact with the local residents acting or working on the set than did Boorman and the lead actors staying in chalets at a nearby golf resort, began to fear for his safety. Shaped by a century of media depictions of brutally violent mountaineers, he worried that some ‘real mountain men’ with ‘real guns’ might ‘teach some of these movie people a lesson.’”
Although many people in the region still bristle at the movie’s portrayal of locals as ignorant hillbillies, there were some major benefits to the book and film.
Both helped create the more than $20 million rafting and outdoor sports industry along the Chattooga River in North Georgia.
In 2012, the national media descended on Rabun County again when reporters quickly learned the film’s 40th anniversary was going to be celebrated during the Chattooga River Festival.
“The movie, ‘Deliverance’ made tourist dollars flow into the area, but there was one memorable, horrifying male rape scene that lasted a little more than four minutes, but has lasted 40 years inside the hearts and minds of the people who live here,” CNN reported in 2012.
Rabun County Commissioner Stanley “Butch” Darnell told the media he was disgusted by the way the region was depicted in the film.
“We were portrayed as ignorant, backward, scary, deviant, redneck hillbillies,” he told CNN. “That stuck with us through all these years and in fact that was probably furthest from the truth. These people up here are a very caring, lovely people.”
“There are lots of people in Rabun County that would be just as happy if they never heard the word, ‘Deliverance’ again,” he added.
The news media interviewed everyone, including Rabun County resident Billy Redden, who as a teen was asked to play the “Banjo boy” in the film.
“I don’t think it should bother them. I think they just need to start realizing that it’s just a movie,” Redden, who still lives in Rabun County and works at Walmart, told CNN in 2012. “It’s not like it’s real.”
The Rabun County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau also pointed out that tourism brings in more than $42 million a year in revenue, which makes for a huge surplus for a county whose operating budget was about $17 million at the time.
Several local businesses embraced the 2012 festival including the owners of the Tallulah Gorge Grill.
The Tallulah Gorge is the very gorge that Jon Voight climbed out of near the end of the 1972 film and the owners of the Tallulah Gorge Grill wanted to celebrate that milestone.
“It is hard to believe that 40 years have passed since this movie first brought fame to the Northeast Georgia Mountains,” Tanya Jacobson-Smith wrote on the grill’s website promoting the festival. “Much has happened over the years here in Rabun County Georgia and around the world. Some good, some bad. Some still believe the movie was a poor portrayal of this county and it’s people. Other’s believe it is at least part of what has helped this region survive.”
Both thoughts are justified, Jacobson-Smith wrote.
“When ‘Deliverance’ was released in 1972, it was for many outside the community their first introduction to the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the ways of the people living and working in their shadow,” she wrote. “Many of us (myself included) saw the breathtaking beauty of this area for the first time via the big screen. We caught a glimpse into the lives of the people who inhabit this place, some good and some not so good. There are those who believe that ‘Deliverance’ made the mountain people seem ‘backwards, uneducated, scary, and even deviant.’ I believe there were also many who, like myself, saw a people of great strength, caring and compassion. A community knit together by hardship, sharing and caring for each other and willing to help anyone who came along.”
She wrote that, as in any community, if people look hard enough and thoroughly examine its residents, they will find some bad, but most often they will find “a greater good that outshines the bad.”
“That is certainly the case here in the Northeast Georgia Mountains,” she wrote. “Most importantly ‘Deliverance’ introduced the world to the natural beauty of this mountain region, the unforgettable sounds of the Appalachian music and the wild excitement of river rafting. Drawn here by what they saw on the big screen, tourists flocked to the area to see and experience for themselves the good things they had seen in the movie.”
As a result, tourists filled hotels and campgrounds to capacity, tasted the local fare in restaurants and cafes and discovered the thrill of swimming in, or paddling on, the state’s beautiful rivers and lakes.
“Forty years later, people from all over the world still come to this area to experience the beauty and simplicity of mountain living,” she wrote. “It is here in these beautiful mountains that ‘strangers’ find a vibrant community of lifelong residents and newcomers, working together to maintain a quality of life that has been lost in much of today’s world.”
Over the years, Rabun County and surrounding North Georgia communities have embraced these changes. Some parts of the area have become a playground for high-end homeowners with multi-million-dollar lakefront property.
But there was also some growing pains.
Thousands of “suburbanites” flocked to the river in search of whitewater thrills and exhibited what author Anthony Harkins calls “the Deliverance syndrome.”
These individuals showed the “same lack of respect and reverence for the river that the characters in the film had displayed,” Harkins wrote, adding “to the shame of local guides, some even would make pig squeals when they reached the section of the river where the rape scene had been filmed.”
Some of those individuals paid a price.
“Seventeen people drowned on the river between 1972 and 1975, most with excessive blood-alcohol levels, until new regulations were imposed when the river was officially designated Wild and Scenic in 1974,” Harkins wrote.
Ironically, some people like to point out that “Deliverance” author James Dickey tried to warn people prior to his death in 1997 about their need to respect the rivers located in the mountains of North Georgia.
“That river doesn’t care about you. It’ll knock your brains out,” Dickey told the Associated Press in 1973. “Most of the people going up there don’t know about whitewater rivers. They are just out for a lark, just like those characters in ‘Deliverance.’ They wouldn’t have gone up there if I hadn’t written the book. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t patrol the river. But it just makes me feel awful.”