Summer of Deliverance
Looking back on the film that changed the face of whitewater in the Southeast
Words and Photos by Doug Woodward
Forty years ago, a film appeared on the big screen which caused theater-goers to squirm with angst—not from some imaginative sci-fi scenario, but because the sequence of terrifying events could easily be related to real-life possibilities, particularly for paddlers in the southern Appalachians. ‘Deliverance’ also launched into greater prominence the careers of Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox. Three Georgia whitewater paddlers happened to be in the right place at the right time, becoming part of the film’s legend. Doug Woodward recounts what it was like to be part of that experience.
James Dickey changed my life. He never knew that. And at the time, I didn’t even know it myself. But as surely as Dickey could put swashbuckling thoughts to paper and then morph them into his own persona, his words also became a part of who I was.
I met him only once. It was on a crisp autumn evening in Atlanta, at Lewis King’s Buckhead home. Dickey’s friend since their youth, King was the real-life model for the Lewis Medlock of Deliverance. He had the skills—canoeist, archer, guitarist, athlete of note during his years at Georgia Tech. He had already lived the role. But there were differences. With a tough, wiry body, piercing blue eyes and silver hair, King bears little resemblance to Burt Reynolds, who portrays Lewis in the film version of Deliverance. And where the movie character comes across as macho and flamboyant, dominating his companions, King is modest in the extreme, making little of his personal accomplishments.
Six of us were present that night—King and his wife Joan, Dickey, Payson Kennedy, Claude Terry and myself. Payson, Claude and I had been running whitewater rivers together for years, but it was Claude’s friendship with King that brought us there.
Earlier, Claude had asked me, “Have you read Deliverance?”
“Well,” Claude continued, “Warner Brothers is going to film that story down here and they’re looking for a river. There’s a chance, too, that we might get involved. Can you make it to dinner this Friday? Great! Oh, by the way, James Dickey will be there.”
Around the King dinner table, with rising excitement, we discussed logistics, equipment and sets as if we were the filmmakers ourselves. The Chattooga was the river we all knew best—the rapids, the obscure access points, where to find the right scene—but we concluded that Alabama’s Little River would better fill the bill since it had both the rapids and the towering cliffs needed for a death-defying climb out of the canyon. North Georgia’s precipitous Tallulah Gorge was briefly mentioned, but we considered it too difficult a venue for practical filming. Warner Bros. Pictures thought otherwise, and in the end, both the Chattooga and Tallulah would be chosen, each becoming a portion of Dickey’s fictitious Cahulawassee River.
Following dinner, I set up projector and screen to take the group a bit farther west. Running the rapids of the Grand Canyon by kayak had been the highlight of my year and one by one, the Colorado’s big ones—Hance, Hermit, Crystal and Lava—lit up the screen. There were some oohs and aahs as angry brown water exploded in 15-foot haystacks and our tiny kayaks flitted here and there. The lights came on. Dickey and King passed a guitar back and forth, strumming a few tunes, each deferring to the other.
Dickey was an imposing figure of a man, and his presence filled the room. But it was much more than physical. There was a mystique about him—of things hidden, perhaps ominous—which he enjoyed perpetuating. There were references to the canoe trip that he and King had taken years before with another close friend, Al Braselton. The trip had spawned the imaginings that would eventually become Deliverance. Dickey would not describe details of that canoe trip. With a knowing smile, he would simply say, “There’s a lot more truth in the story [Deliverance] than you might think.”
King was more candid. We knew that they had canoed the Coosawattee River in northwest Georgia. Truth now eerily imitating fiction, the Coosawattee was in the process of being dammed and the valley behind it would slowly fill over the next two years, drowning all traces of the history of those lives once intertwined with the river.
King later supplied what we came to regard as the facts of that river trip, now long faded into the mists of time. First, he had emphasized, “You may think of the southern Appalachians as being wilderness now, but in the ‘30s and ‘40s that country was really wild. A man that was perceived as a threat to the mountain folks might just disappear—permanently,” he said. “Murder was always a viable option, because few outsiders were going to go snooping around those forests looking for the missing man.”
It seemed that the canoeing that day was actually done by Dickey and Braselton, while King went looking for a place downstream to meet the pair. Finding no road to the river, he parked and started down a path leading through forest. Like yellow-jacket sentries guarding their nest against danger, two armed men suddenly appeared and demanded to know his business. King’s tale of a canoe on its way through the rapids of this river seemed absurd to the mountain men, and they thought it was far more likely that he was a revenue officer looking for their moonshine still. The older of the pair told the younger to take King to the river. His words (“Stay with him, son,”), along with their sinister undertone and unspoken meaning, were ones that King has never forgotten.
Unsure of his armed companion’s patience, and almost overwhelmed by the thought that Dickey and Braselton might already have passed that takeout point, King waited and sweated and prayed. The canoeists had run into serious difficulties themselves in the rapids upstream, but finally hove into sight just at twilight. At that point, the demeanor of the mountain men changed completely. Shotguns disappeared, and there were smiles and kind words as they helped carry the canoe and gear up the hill to the truck.
Deliverance had been a Book-of-the-Month Club selection early in 1971. Dickey had rewritten it into a film script for Warner Bros. He and King knew that we were competent canoeists, that we knew the Chattooga, Little and other area rivers as few others knew them and that we would be good technical advisors on equipment and scenes. But they were not Warner Bros. And so that night we left with a caution born of realism.
Filming started in mid-May. But May faded into June and June was fast dwindling away. We began to hear rumors through Lewis King. The crew was already filming on the Chattooga, but it was not going well. A canoe had been trashed—not purposely—and a support raft had capsized near the start of Section IV, expensive camera equipment going to the bottom. “For Christ’s sake, find somebody who knows how to handle this river!” echoed from John Boorman, the director with stringy red hair flying free beneath the brim of his witch-like hat, and not a patient man.
Reinforcements were brought in, but we were not. Ralph Garrett, a professional stuntman who had come from California to take the fateful fall from the cliff, was paired with a local fisherman who “knew the river like the back of his hand.” Neither had any canoeing experience, but they would try their skills first on Section II, the “family” stretch of the Chattooga. At the end of the day, the pair stumbled ashore at Earl’s Ford, bruised but wiser men.
It was Ralph’s turn: “We’ve heard that you have some guys who really know this river and are good in a canoe. Get them up here. You need them!”
The call came to Claude and he relayed the news to Payson and me. “It’s happened. They want us,” Claude said. “In fact, it sounds as if they need us.” All of our normal work came to a sudden halt as the three of us activated the leaves of absence that we had prearranged.
By the time we were called to appear in July 1971, Warner Bros. already had most of the cabin, camping and archery scenes in the can. They were ready to concentrate on the river. So were we.
On some days—at First Falls, Corkscrew, and Jawbone—we were called on to be doubles. But instead of Burt Reynolds lying in the bottom of our Grumman, it would be his dummy, known affectionately as “No Balls,” for the large void in the hinged crotch area.
On other days, we might act as demonstrators, running the easier rapids several times until the principals felt they could do the run themselves. Or again, we might be called on for technical advice, such as, “Where can we find a rock face with a swift current running past, that Jon Voight can be clawing at for a finger hold? And where we won’t lose him downriver!” (Thus the naming of “Deliverance Rock,” where that scene was shot repeatedly.)
Later in the first week, I was to get my comeuppance in Jawbone Rapid. I was ferrying the Grumman and No Balls to the next shooting site and dropped into the large top eddy on river-left. However, I had violated a cardinal rule of paddling any craft: Never take to the water with loose rope in your boat! There was a tangle of perhaps 80 feet of three-eighth-inch line in the bottom of my canoe, tied to a thwart and tossed in with unnecessary haste.
As I peeled out into the surging current, I leaned hard on a left-draw and as my paddle took my weight, it snapped completely in two, plunging me headfirst into the “jaws,” the canoe on top of me. In the next moment, as I was taking my lumps from the rocks, I realized that No Balls, the Grumman and I were all still connected by rope.
Fortunately, very fortunately, we passed to the left of Hydroelectric Rock, an undercut deathtrap, but the canoe was still hell-bent on running Sockemdog, the last of the Five Falls. It was only through a well-timed assist from Claude that we made the eddy above and I was able to slip the coils of rope from my ankle.
It was interesting to see how locals were brought into the filming. It may be that Boorman had determined to do this before ever arriving in Rabun County, but then again he may have been trying to stem the rising tide of resentment against how the mountain folks were being portrayed by Dickey’s novel. When Warner Bros. needed visually disturbing characters for minor roles, Rabun County’s Frank Rickman was the person who knew where to find them among his many friends.
Also at home with all manner of earth-moving machinery, Rickman was to the bulldozer what Stradivarius was to the violin. A craftsman supreme, but with earth and rock, he could sculpt a scene of beauty out of a hopeless mess. Or, he could do the opposite.
During our weeks of waiting to see if we would be summoned to the Deliverance set, Claude, Payson and I would often come north to kayak the Chattooga on weekends. This is a river that each of us loves deeply and at that point we were already involved with the proposal to give it Wild and Scenic status. On this particular day, we were eddying out on the South Carolina shore after an exhilarating run of Woodall Shoals and struck by a depressing sight. Car bodies were half-buried at the water’s edge. Stoves and refrigerators littered the small beach. The junk and litter just went on and on. “Shit! What S.O.B. could have done a thing like this!” was our collective thought. We were depressed for the rest of the trip. A couple of weeks later, when the beach was again spotless, we realized that it had been a temporary set for the movie and was Rickman’s work!
What took place in Tallulah Gorge was a tribute to persistence and ingenuity. Besides the cliff-scaling scene, it was here that the two canoes collide and the Old Town breaks apart. Having picked their ideal spot high in the Gorge, the crew, under the direction of Special Effects Coordinator Marcel Vercoutere, set about building an artificial rapid of boulders and logs, taking care to not create a lethal strainer. They constructed a track so that the Old Town would slide into a broached position in the rapid—the canoe having already been rigged to separate into two halves with a cable pulled from shore.
When the artificial rapid was ready and safety crews set in place (including us), Boorman would radio Georgia Power to release perhaps three-quarters of a gate of water from the Tallulah Falls dam and bring the rapid to life, hiding any signs of construction. “Too much! Too much! Reynolds and Beatty have swamped! Give us half a gate!” he’d say as his bullhorn would go sailing into the river. It took several takes to finally get it right.
This same hundred yards of river in the early part of Tallulah Gorge—upstream of the section that boaters paddle today—was a hotbed of activity, as two other significant scenes were filmed here. Marcel and his effects crew had constructed a catapult, which consisted of one of the Grumman canoes hinged in the center and mounted on a 10-foot tower. A half-dozen crewmembers quickly pulled a rope attached to the bow, throwing the stern into a vertical position and ejecting the occupant. No Balls made the first try with great success.
Reynolds, a former stuntman, insisted on doing the scene himself and took his place in the stern. With a neat diver’s tuck, Reynolds sailed 30 feet out, doing a full gainer in the process. Only one take was necessary as editors later spliced that scene in sequence with the canoe breakup scene to make them appear as one.
It is also in this stretch of river that Drew (Ronny Cox) is lost as he lurches from the bow of the canoe in one of the big uncertainties of the story: Was he shot or not? It’s a difficult task for Cox to deliver to Boorman’s satisfaction. The cameras rolled six times on this one before a real-life injury halted the shooting as Cox dove squarely into an underwater rock, nearly dislocating his shoulder.
The Gorge filming took place directly above an intimidating 60-foot falls. A single safety line spanned the river no more than 10 feet from the brink, while Claude, Payson and I took turns waiting in a canoe in the pool below, just in case anyone washed over the drop. Amazingly, no one ever did, although at one point Claude had Burt Reynolds and two crew members—would-be rescuers who had succumbed to the current—clinging to the end of his throw-line. With the water-borne trio pulling him along the shore, he finally snubbed the rope around a tree, arresting the progress of the group just above the falls.
When the filming of Deliverance began in May, James Dickey’s son Chris was hired as a stand-in. He was 19, and the spectacle of seeing his father’s novel come to life in the mountains of North Georgia had a profound effect on his relationship with his father. Nearly 30 years later, he wrote Summer of Deliverance, a poignant and, at times, brutally honest memoir of the most defining years of his life.
Chris was called to the set on the day that the rape scene was to be filmed. He was told to “stand in” for Beatty at all the critical marks—climbing the leafy bank, bending over the log—so that the camera crew could focus precisely, prior to the actual shooting. The somber, sickening mood of the day followed him and he felt the film taking a twisted turn that threatened to overshadow all else. In Summer of Deliverance he describes thoughts that stem from a disagreement with his father, where Chris felt that the brutal scene would dominate, his father staunchly maintaining that it would be the wilderness experience.
Ultimately, I think they were both correct. The scene with Bobby and the perverted mountain man broke new ground for mainstream films and usually is the first image that comes to mind when Deliverance is mentioned. However, the feel of wilderness and the lure of river running also emerged in a big way.
Indeed. At times, the rush to conquer the “Deliverance River” seemed totally out of control. Nineteen people drowned on the Chattooga in the three years following the filming and more would follow. There were exceptions, but the usual scenario saw young people who had floated the relatively benign Chattahoochee in Atlanta in two discount store rafts, one filled with people and the other with a couple of coolers of beer, bringing the same equipment to the Chattooga. It just didn’t work. A similar scenario was being repeated on river after river across the country, and soon a new term for the driving force behind these ill-prepared adventure seekers had been coined: the “Deliverance Syndrome.”
Deliverance premiered in New York in August of 1972, a year after the filming had been completed. We had to wait another agonizing week for Deliverance to reach Atlanta. It opened the Atlanta International Film Festival on August 11. By the time the Festival was over, Deliverance had taken the top award, the Golden Phoenix, over 29 competing films. The cast and crew cleaned up also: John Boorman, best director; Jon Voight, best actor; Ned Beatty, best supporting actor; and Tom Priestley, best editor.
Our own screen-time could be measured in seconds, but the effect that the film had on our lives was far-reaching. That same summer, Claude and I started Southeastern Expeditions, running folks by raft down the Chattooga while still hanging onto our jobs in Atlanta. Payson and his family took an even bigger leap as they broke all Atlanta ties and threw themselves into transforming the old Tote-N-Tarry Motel in Wesser, North Carolina into one of the premier whitewater communities in the world, the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Forty years have passed since Boorman and his crew brought Dickey’s novel to life on the screen. But sometimes I look back over all those years—how we became linked to the legends of the film and the river, the whitewater rafting businesses that we founded, the evenings spent behind the projector as folks clamored for candid glimpses of Reynolds and Voight—and think to myself, if not for James Dickey …