Five decades on, director John Boorman’s 1972 survivalist thriller Deliverance has still not lost its power to thrill and shock audiences. The film follows four men from the city who take a canoe trip into the wilderness of Georgia, but it isn’t long before their idyllic adventure turns into a living nightmare. Few people who see Deliverance are ever quite the same afterwards – but did you know the following facts about the film?
20. Writer James Dickey claimed the story happened to him (but not many people believed him)
The screenplay for Deliverance was written by James Dickey, a recent United States Poet Laureate who adapted the script from his own debut novel. On meeting director John Boorman, Dickey reportedly said to the British filmmaker, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told another living soul. Everything in that book happened to me.”
Boorman later doubted the veracity of this claim when Dickey almost capsized a canoe whilst getting in. Dickey was on set during production providing technical advice and assistance, although his larger-than-life manner meant he was often a source of tension. The writer also wound up making a cameo appearance in the film, as the Sheriff.
19. Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Charlton Heston and Donald Sutherland all passed on the film
Early on in the development of Deliverance, studio Warner Bros had high hopes for landing a big name cast. Long-established Oscar winners Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston were both offered the film, as were then-rising stars Jack Nicholson and Donald Sutherland, but all of them turned down offers to appear in the film.
Eventually, it was agreed that it would be more cost effective to cast comparative unknowns. Director John Boorman found Burt Reynolds (a prolific TV actor who’d yet to break through in movies), plus Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox (both theatre actors who’d never made a film before). The biggest star of the bunch was Jon Voight, a recent Oscar nominee for the acclaimed hit Midnight Cowboy.
18. The film was shot on one of the most hazardous rivers in America
Oftentimes, movies which take place in dangerous locations are in fact filmed from the safety and security of a studio set, with extensive use of special effects and blue/green screens. This was absolutely not the case on Deliverance, for which the cast and crew shot along the Chattooga River, along the border of Georgia and South Carolina.
At the time, this section of the Chattooga was graded as one of the most dangerous stretches of river in the US. Unfortunately, its exposure in Deliverance encouraged many inexperienced people to have a go at traversing the river themselves in the years that followed, and as a result a number of people have since died there.
17. To keep the budget down, the actors were required to perform their own stunts
Today, we would assume that any major film shot in such a hazardous location would be heavily insured with extensive health and safety regulations in place. However, back in the early 70s this wasn’t something filmmakers worried so much about, especially on smaller productions such as Deliverance, which was made for just $2 million – a frugal sum for a studio movie even back then.
To keep costs down, Deliverance was made without insurance, and the actors were required to perform almost all of their own stunts. This meant that Voight, Reynolds, Beatty and Cox performed all their own rafting scenes, and in the nerve-wracking later scene where Voight climbs a cliff with no safety equipment, the actor did this for real.
16. Burt Reynolds insisted on going over a waterfall himself
Even though the actors on Deliverance were required to do their own stunts, there were certain instances where the stunt in question seemed simply too dangerous. For the moment where Burt Reynolds’ character Lewis goes over a waterfall, director John Boorman shot the scene with a dummy. Reynolds objected that this looked fake, and insisted on being allowed to do it himself.
Boorman reluctantly agreed, and Reynolds went ahead and allowed himself to be washed over the waterfall on camera. Unsurprisingly, performing this stunt wound up doing Reynolds real harm, leaving him with a broken coccyx. When the actor asked the director how it looked, Boorman reportedly replied, “it looked like a dummy going over a waterfall.”
15. Banjo boy Billy Redden couldn’t actually play
One of Deliverance’s most memorable moments is its opening scene, which sees Ronny Cox’s guitarist Drew engage in an impromptu duet with a young local on a banjo, playing the bluegrass song Dueling Banjos. In the movie, the boy proves a remarkably talented banjo player, but the reality on the Deliverance set was quite different.
Actor Billy Redden was a young unknown with zero acting experience who lived locally. While he had the look director John Boorman wanted, Redden couldn’t actually play the banjo, so when shooting his scene he performed only the strumming. His left arm was hidden, while an experienced banjo player hidden behind him reached around and performed the fretting.
14. ‘Squeal like a pig’ was an on-set ad-lib
One of the most notorious lines in Deliverance is “squeal like a pig,” which one of the mountain men orders Ned Beatty’s Bobby to do during the traumatic redneck assault scene. This line was not in the script: accounts vary on who came up with the line, some claiming it was Beatty himself, although director John Boorman attributes it to a crew member.
The line was originally conceived as alternative dialogue to be used in TV screenings of the film, which would not allow profanity at the time. However, the line was considered so effective they kept it in the theatrical release, and all these years later it remains probably the single best-remembered and most frequently quoted piece of dialogue in the film.
13. When playing dead, actor Bill McKinney didn’t breathe or blink for over two minutes at a time
Another of Deliverance’s most harsh and unrelenting sequences follows the killing of the Mountain Man, and our heroes’ disposal of his corpse. Considering how long the characters carry the man’s dead body before finally getting rid of it, we might have imagined they would use a dummy on some shots – but in fact, it was Mountain Man actor Bill McKinney the entire time.
McKinney (a graduate of the prestigious Actors Studio in New York, who went on to appear in several Clint Eastwood movies) impressed John Boorman with his discipline in playing scenes as a dead man. Boorman recalls, “He held his breath and kept his eyes from blinking for two minutes – he’d trained himself specially for this shot.”
12. John Boorman’s son Charley Boorman has a brief cameo as Jon Voight’s child
Deliverance features a brief appearance from director John Boorman’s son Charley Boorman, aged six at the time, who appears as the son of Jon Voight’s Ed. This would be the first of several roles the young Boorman would take in his father’s films: later he played the young Mordred in Excalibur, and took the key role of Tomme in The Emerald Forest.
Though he went on to take more acting roles in adulthood, Charley Boorman has long since been best known for his travel writing and documentaries, in particular his round the world motorcycle treks with close friend Ewan McGregor (who he met on the film The Serpent’s Kiss). These biker adventures have been chronicled in the TV shows Long Way Round, Long Way Down and Long Way Up.
11. Burt Reynolds’ nude photoshoot for Cosmopolitan may have cost the film the Best Picture Oscar
Deliverance was a critical and commercial success, and wound up being nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing. Unfortunately for the cast and crew, the film ultimately didn’t win any of those Oscars, missing out on Best Picture to The Godfather, and to Cabaret in the other two categories.
Later, Burt Reynolds would hold himself responsible for Deliverance’s failure at the Oscars. Shortly before the film was released, the actor (who was slowly rising in popularity at the time) posed for a now-notorious nude photo spread for Cosmopolitan magazine. Reynolds believed that outrage over this was to blame for the Academy withdrawing support for Deliverance.
10. The filmmakers were sued over the use of Dueling Banjos
One of the most unusual things about Deliverance is that it has no official credit for its musical score. While the film contains some sparse incidental music performed on an early synthesizer, Deliverance’s most notable piece of music is of course Dueling Banjos. However, the use of this resulted in legal action being taken against the filmmakers and studio Warner Bros.
The piece was based on Feudin’ Banjos, written and produced by Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith and performed with Don Reno in 1955, but the film’s credits did not attribute the song to Smith, who sued for copyright infringement. In what was then a landmark case, Smith emerged victorious against Warner Bros, and was awarded both songwriting credit and a cut of the royalties from soundtrack sales.
9. James Dickey was kicked off the set after a brawl with director John Boorman
While director John Boorman may have appreciated the cinematic potential of Deliverance, his own vision of the material didn’t always line up with that of author James Dickey. The two men came to have a difficult relationship throughout production, with Dickey (said to be a heavy drinker and a cantankerous personality) frequently challenging Boorman over deviations from the script.
Dickey was said to be particularly enraged when the first 19 pages of his screenplay were cut. Eventually he and Boorman (pictured below) got into a full-on fist fight, in which the writer is said to have broken the director’s nose and knocked out four of his teeth. After this, Dickey was finally kicked off the set, only allowed back briefly toward the end of the shoot for his cameo role as the Sheriff.
8. Ned Beatty almost drowned in a whirlpool during the shoot
Not for nothing was the Chattooga River listed as one of the most dangerous in the United States. The Deliverance cast and crew endured a number of terrifying near-misses, one of which involved Ned Beatty. Whilst shooting one canoeing sequence, Beatty was knocked overboard and found himself being sucked into a whirlpool.
Beatty was reportedly under the surface of the water for more than 30 seconds before he was rescued by a production assistant who dived in to help him. The actor remarked of the incident, “I thought I was going to drown, and the first thought was, how will John [Boorman] finish the film without me? And my second thought was, I bet the b*****d will find a way!”
7. Boorman was worried that the river looked “too pretty”
Deliverance is generally considered to be one of, if not the best ‘man versus nature’ survivalist thrillers. The film shows how ordinary 20th century men from the city find themselves massively out of their depth when faced with nature at is harshest. With this in mind, director John Boorman was naturally keen to present the natural world as harsh and intimidating.
The director realised there was a problem as soon as they started shooting: the Chattooga river, as dangerous as it might have been, simply looked “too pretty” on film. For this reason, Boorman took the step of desaturating the colour from the film afterwards, with the expressed intention of giving everything a paler, washed-out, less inviting appearance.
6. John Boorman and the director of photography shot the canoe scenes alone from a dinghy
Most of the time on major films when a director calls “action,” there’s a sizeable crew stood behind them out of shot ready to re-arrange things at a moment’s notice. This was not possible for many scenes in Deliverance, which were literally shot on the Chattooga river. Filming of these scenes required a considerably more stripped-back approach.
For these scenes in which actors Voight, Reynolds, Beatty and Cox were canoeing down river, director John Boorman and director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond were themselves rafting the river ahead of them in a rubber dinghy. The crew would help them get set up beforehand, then catch up with them further down the river once they’d got the shots they needed.
5. The final nightmare scene inspired the ending of Carrie
The chilling climax of Deliverance involves a nightmare sequence in which a hand eerily rises from beneath the water of the river, underlining that the surviving men are doomed to live with the guilt, and the fear of their crime being discovered. This moment is alluded to on Deliverance’s poster, although the poster shows the hand holding a shotgun, which doesn’t occur in the film.
John Boorman was friendly with fellow director Brian De Palma, who later paid homage to the ending of Deliverance with the celebrated shock ending of 1976 Stephen King adaptation Carrie. This film also ends on a nightmare sequence, with the hand of the dead Carrie unexpectedly tearing up from beneath the ground. This became one of the most widely imitated moments in horror.
4. Bill McKinney deliberately built an animosity with Ned Beatty before shooting the assault scene
Mountain Man actor Bill McKinney wasn’t only committed to realism when portraying a corpse: he was also determined to make co-star Ned Betty genuinely frightened of him, in order to make the notorious redneck assault scene really work. To this end, McKinney made a point of building tension between himself and Betty on the Deliverance set.
While McKinney kept his distance physically from Beatty, he would always make a point of staring the actor out when they were in the vicinity of one another, particularly during lunch breaks. McKinney is said to have taken this approach under the advice of fellow actor Bruce Dern, who told McKinney that he needed to make Beatty really afraid.
3. Director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond was hired because he’d filmed in war zones
It was apparent to all involved going in that Deliverance was going to be a highly intense shoot, and director John Boorman was determined to make it as raw and authentic as possible. To this end, Boorman made a point of hiring Vilmos Zsigmond as director of photography, due to the cinematographer’s experience shooting the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.
Boorman remarked of Zsigmond, “He shot footage of Russian tanks, and students throwing Molotov cocktails at them. I thought, “The man who’s seen that and been fired on by Russians is the kind of man I need for a film like this.” Zsigmond would later go to serve as director of photography on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which won him an Oscar.
2. Jon Voight’s canoeing double went on to found a successful Chattooga rafting company
While the actors in Deliverance were on the whole required to do their own stunts, there were a few moments that were considered simply too dangerous. For one particularly risky canoeing sequence, Jon Voight was doubled by Claude Terry, an experienced whitewater rafter who lived locally and knew the Chattooga river well.
After the popularity of Deliverance brought an influx of tourism to the area, Terry capitalised on this by founding his own whitewater rafting adventure company, Southeastern Expeditions, which still runs today. Terry (who died in 2019) was also a committed conservationist, and co-founded the organisation American Rivers to help protect and preserve rivers in the US.
1. Dueling Banjos earned John Boorman a gold record that was stolen by an infamous criminal – whom he later made a film about
While Dueling Banjos may have caused the filmmakers and studio Warner Bros a bit of legal grief, the recording of the song used in Deliverance became a huge seller. So big were the sales that director John Boorman found himself presented with a gold record, which he kept at his home in Dublin. However, this gold disc was stolen by notorious local criminal Martin Cahill.
In a curious twist, Boorman would later make a film about Martin Cahill, the 1998 drama The General, which starred Brendan Gleeson as Cahill with Deliverance’s Jon Voight cast in a supporting role. The film even contains a re-enactment of Cahill breaking into the director’s home and stealing the Dueling Banjos gold record.