As the Chattooga River Festival quickly approaches, (June 22 – 24, 2012), there has been much soul-searching by the organizers concerning the choice of Deliverance as the overriding theme. With this summer marking the 40th anniversary of the release of Deliverance on the big screen, it seemed a logical choice to make the movie the drawing card.
Ronny Cox will play a big part in the weekend festivities — both musically and as one of the principal film actors returning to the rivers (Chattooga and Tallulah) where the movie was filmed. The others — Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight and Ned Beatty — have been non-committal but could decide to come at the last minute.
But the questions being asked by the media giving publicity to this event have given the organizers pause. Basically, “Is there still significant resentment by Rabun County residents over how Deliverance depicted mountain people?” This prompted me to write my own take on the issue, which appears below:
The Deliverance Question
by Doug Woodward
How did the folks in Rabun County, Georgia feel about the movie Deliverance once it hit the big screen in the summer of 1972? Were they victims of James Dickey’s imagination? Was there any truth in the story that emerged in theaters across the country? Did the film serve as a wedge to create a divide between the “river people” and the mountain communities?
As the first Chattooga River Festival — with an emphasis on the 40th anniversary of Deliverance — approaches, these and many related questions are being asked by the Festival organizers and others. How real was this dark tale to Dickey himself? How much was based on fact, and how much can be attributed to macabre creativity?
We know that in the fifties there was an actual canoe trip taken by Dickey, Lewis King, and Al Braselton, all friends from the Buckhead area of Atlanta. The river, drowned years later by Carter’s Lake, was the Coosawatee in northwestern Georgia. What actually happened that day on the Coosawattee?
Dickey enjoyed perpetuating an air of mystery and — though we asked him personally — would never provide details. King was more candid in describing to us how he was accosted by moonshiners, the hours he spent in their company in fear of his safety and, in the end, their helpfulness in carrying canoe and gear from the river to the road.
Did any of the mind-boggling scenes from the film actually occur? Were there murders? Were there homosexual advances? Was the trio threatened with physical harm? No. Were the paddlers frightened by the possibility that they might simply disappear without a trace? You bet.
Was the scenario that took place in the woods by the river necessary to both the book and the movie? Dickey thought so. In order to justify the murders by Lewis and Ed, the actions of the mountain men had to be the most despicable possible to the reader and viewer.
Without a doubt, Dickey accomplished this — but there was a backlash and controversy, even at the time of the filming. Dickey’s son Chris, who helped during the darker scenes, felt that — to put it crudely — the movie was going to be about “butt-fucking.” Dickey staunchly maintained that the over-riding theme would be the wilderness experience.
As the film gained prominence, both views were seen to have validity. The very mention of the word “deliverance” would bring a knowing look and the phrase “squeal like a pig” in response. And there was no doubt that the thrill of running a whitewater river, even for the inexperienced, had also emerged.
Ed Herricks reported that during a two-week run (autumn, 1972) of Deliverance in Blacksburg, Virginia, two Virginia Tech students had lost their lives on the New River and three more nearly drowned a week later. The phrase, “Deliverance Syndrome” had already gained traction by that time as the tragic scenario was being repeated across the U.S., the Chattooga itself claiming nineteen lives in three years.
But what of the mountain people? Not only the “heavy” characters that Dickey had brought to life in the woods, but the frail lady tenderly holding the “afflicted” child, the skinny clogger in the background, and of course Billy Redden, the “banjo boy?” Made up and cast by Warner Brothers to look as “different” as possible, were they typical of those you might find in the north Georgia mountains or even in the small towns? Of course not. If you were to make a movie depicting say, homeless life in Seattle, you could also search out a similar cast that would send shivers down your spine — and never know their real personalities.
But looking back 70 or 80 years, life in the mountains was sharply different — folks rarely ventured beyond their home or country church, only occasionally visiting a neighbor or the nearest small town. Roads were rarely graveled and even fewer were paved. But you knew your neighbors — their health or misfortune, how their tobacco crop was doing, their need for a helping hand. Outsiders were regarded with caution, a need to know what their business was. Acceptance was slow, but genuine when it was given.
When my daughter Autumn was in her younger years, she played fiddle, but became bored by the Suzuki routine, wanting to play the Scotch-Irish mountain music. Through a friend, she found Lois Duncan, then in her eighties, who could play almost any stringed instrument and had a vast repertoire of Celtic tunes. The two became fast friends for the last decade of Lois’s life, Autumn regaining her love of the fiddle and the joy it could bring.
I came to know Lois also, but in a very different and intriguing way. One day she rummaged in a desk drawer, pulling out a stack of penciled notes, hesitantly asking if I would be willing to help bring her childhood history into a readable form. It was a delightful opportunity and — a window into mountain life as lived almost a century earlier.
She had grown up Lois Yarborough in a tiny North Carolina mountain community called Liberty — a community nearly erased from current memory when it was wiped off the map by the construction of Interstate 40 north of Waynesville. Her words paint the picture best.
…most of our days were spent within a mile or so of home. We walked everywhere. None of us had a car at that time. If anyone went to Waynesville, our county seat, they would take wagons. A few had work horses. There were not even gravel roads.
The mail came from Cove Creek by horse and buggy. It cost one cent (later two cents) to mail a letter. We seldom got letters or wrote them since we knew few people outside of our settlement.
My grandfather, Tom Yarborough (Uncle Tom, as he was called), was most special to me. He lived in a log home on the creek, a swinging bridge nearby. Everyone going to Rabbitskin crossed the bridge and came by his house. All were welcome and invited in — to eat, if it was mealtime. I was born in his house on February 22, 1915.
There were not many families in Liberty, maybe twelve. I can remember them all — the old folks and their children. All fine, good people — salt of the earth. We made do at home — raised all our food. Corn was the main crop. It was used to feed the cattle, horses, pigs and chickens. The only “store-bought” things were lamp oil (kerosene), coffee and sugar. They were bought with eggs, which were seldom eaten, since they were the same as money to us.
Lois goes on to describe church suppers, boyfriends, the one room schoolhouse, birth and death in the community in that simple, forthright manner that can be so poignant in the telling. Life in Liberty — and also in many other isolated mountain communities — was self-contained out of necessity, full of hardship and tough labor, but the folks who lived there were bound together with love for each other and a pride in their way of life.
Could you equate Lois’s description of life in the North Carolina mountains in the 1920’s to life in the north Georgia mountains 50 years later during the filming of Deliverance? Hardly. Rabun County residents certainly enjoyed most of the amenities and choice of businesses that their Atlanta neighbors down the road were accustomed to having at hand. And though US 441 had yet to be four-lane, it was a decent enough highway to allow city-dwellers to reach the cooler mountains in about two hours. Were there still cabins tucked back in out-of-the-way mountain spots? Yes, and there still are, but at least half of them are now owned by Floridians escaping the summer heat.
Is the resentment of many Rabun County residents to the depiction of mountain people justified? Only if taken personally, which many do. There are, of course, those Rabun County residents who worked with the film makers and some who were cast in minor film roles. Most of these individuals were delighted to be part of the film production and were able to see it as separate from their own identity. Many others, however, were shocked at the images which appeared on the theater screen and were unable to move past the “them and us” scenario. Paramount was the rape scene, which was seen as an affront to the Christian principles of the devout.
How did the paddling community react? Strange as it might seem, the reaction was largely adverse. Betty Reidel, newsletter editor for the Canoe Cruisers of Washington, DC, one of the largest in the Nation, advised readers that they should ignore the film story and view the movie only to enjoy the spectacular beauty of the Chattooga River. Lou Matacia, longtime river outfitter in Virginia, received a letter from the Grumman Company urging him to use the movie in promotion of canoe sales. He angrily retorted that he would have nothing to do with that “twisted and demented” story and would certainly not associate it with his business.
No matter what your view of the story is — hair-raising adventure at its most frightening, a tale perverted and repulsive to the senses, or something in between — there can be little argument that Deliverance had a huge impact on the psyche of theater-goers, thrill seekers and would-be river runners, not to mention the financial impact on the paddling industry, the economy of Rabun (GA) and Oconee (SC) Counties, and the careers of Reynolds, Voight, Beatty and Cox.
But what about the Chattooga itself? “The wilderness experience on the river has been destroyed by the movie,” Dickey once regretfully expressed. I would disagree.
There was a gap of approximately a year and a half between the release of Deliverance and the time that the Chattooga became part of the National Wild and Scenic River System. During that period, the three outfitters and numerous individuals worked tirelessly for the Chattooga’s W&S status, never a foregone conclusion. Then-governor Jimmy Carter paddled all three sections of the river and in the end was a key player nationally in getting the Chattooga included.
Once that happened, the river came under legal protection, gained a 1/4 mile buffer on each side (both GA and SC) and even had a road bridge removed in the headwaters. Agreements between the U.S. Forest Service and the outfitters limited each of those three commercial entities to two trips per day and no more than 30 customers per trip. Stringent safety regulations and mandatory private registration were instituted.
The Chattooga, which has never had the intrusion of a railroad or highway paralleling it, a dam, or private development on its banks, remains wild and pristine in our time, forty years after the release of Deliverance.
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Doug Woodward worked as a technical advisor and canoeing stuntman during the filming of Deliverance. A chapter of his book, Wherever Waters Flow: A Lifelong Love Affair With Wild Rivers, recounts his perspective of the making of the film.