All On Accounta Paddlin’ A River: John Boorman’s Deliverance


It’s the early 1970’s: two first time novelists works will be translated into unforgettable films of primal terror. While Peter Benchley’s Jaws under Steven Spielberg’s eye lead to the birth of summer blockbusters, James Dickey’s Deliverance, directed by  John Boorman, birthed a slew of darker crazy hillbilly / isolated weirdo horrors. Southern Comfort is considered an unofficial sequel by some. The film gave the world a sickening catchphrase that haunted actor Ned Beatty for years (“Squeal, piggy!”) and its raw, belly of the beast, elemental thrills and chills linger long in the dark corners of the mind. All on accounta paddlin’ a river…

Four Atlanta weekend backwoodsmen fall victim to the vengeful spirit of inbred locals and the savage Cahulawassee river when they seek to ride the rapids before the whole area is flooded by dam construction. All form a gestalt consciousness construct of author James Dickey’s warring psyche. They are: Ed (Jon Voight), cautious and self loathing ad exec (and Dickey’s profession); Lewis (Burt Reynolds) Mr macho, with the latest hunting bow (Dickey also canoed); Drew (Ronny Cox), Dickey’s artistic soul; and Bobby (Ned Beatty), Dickey’s aggressive cowardly side.

Lewis presages the terror to come: “We’re going to rape this whole goddamn landscape!” Boorman described Deliverance thus:

“The film is about basic masculine urges and how they are suppressed by modern, civilized life. Men have an underlying need to express deeper urges. Spending a night by the river, Ed has a line: “Doesn’t matter what’s happening in the world, no one can find us up here.” He expresses that they’re free, delivered from all the cares of the world. Yet, we as an audience, know something nasty is going to happen, and that’s why it’s menacing. There are double meanings to the dialogue in many scenes.”

Boorman, tasked by Warner Brothers to keep costs down, discovered Beatty and Cox on stage. Apart from an FBI training film for Beatty, neither had acted on camera before. Only Beatty, of all the actors, had paddled a canoe. Rehearsals with the canoes took place on calm, flat water, nothing like the savage locations Boorman personally sourced, the Chattooga and Tallulah rivers, full of jagged rocks and treacherous rapids. He desaturated the colour to make the river look more foreboding. After the film came out, several people drowned trying to tame it. Boorman didn’t feel remorse – after all, hadn’t he shown how unforgiving it was? The river held no fear for him, he loved pushing himself. Together with his D.P Vilmos Zsigmond, he captured every elemental surge and torrent the actors faced from a rubber raft, as the men desperately try to escape a nightmare of their own making.

deliverance canoes

He shot more or less sequentially, and wasted very little film. Voight, used to multiple takes, challenged him. “Do you think it can be done any better?” Boorman replied, and walked off. He was a hard task master, but he knew his actors were up to it – they’d rehearsed enough, damn it. Even if they did blanch at some of the stuff asked of them. Boorman also clashed with Dickey, who had an enormous ego and tenuous grip on reality, it seemed. He told Boorman everything in the book happened to him, and he’d never told that to another living soul. Boorman immediately told someone else, who replied he’d been told the same thing – in fact, nearly everyone had been. When Boorman saw him capsize in calm water he knew Dickey was bullshitting. When they butted heads over the script, he was kicked off set, but retained a cameo as the Sheriff who doubts the veracity of the survivors story, but has to let them go.

Ronny Cox was a gifted guitar player, in tune with the folk scene, so Boorman created the famous “Duelling banjos” scene for him with a local mountain boy, Billy Redden. Billy couldn’t play, so another boy crouched behind him doing the fretting, while Billy strummed.

Again because of budget cuts, Boorman couldn’t afford an orchestral score. Instead he booked a two hour recording session with the guitar and banjo. Despite a Warner Music executives misgivings, “Duelling banjos”  became a number one hit.

There were no stunt doubles on Deliverance. For a scene where Lewis tumbles down a steep rapid, a dummy was to be used, until Reynolds insisted on doing it himself, cracking his spine for his trouble. Afterwards, he eagerly asked Boorman how it looked. ” Like a dummy going over, ” he shot back.


Ronny Cox was double jointed, so when the men find his body swept downriver, he was able to bend his arm right around his head, as if smashed up. Rocks weighed him down in the river while he held his breath. Boorman had wanted his fate to be ambiguous – was he shot by a vengeful local or did he give up, numbed by what they’d gone through and he was complicit in?

The centre piece rape ordeal, as Bobby and Ed are captured, was finely rehearsed and shot in one four minute unbroken sequence, mostly from Ed’s pinioned POV. Up to now, the camera had been fluid, now it was static, coldly, discomfortingly observing. Boorman described the hillbillies here as “malevolent spirits of nature.” Ed is tied to a tree and Bobby is humiliated then raped by the terrifying Bill McKinney. (Stanley Kubrick became obsessed by McKinney, asking Boorman about him, intending him for his Sergeant Hartmann in Full Metal Jacketbut in the end he chickened out of meeting him at the airport!)

“Squeal like a pig!” arose from studio concerns over suitable language for future TV broadcasts. Beatty, who worked on a farm in his youth herding pigs, came up with it, little knowing it would haunt him for years. He later wrote a piece about his equivical feelings over the imagery for the New York Times. Reynolds didn’t help matters by suggesting there was actual penetration. Beatty recalled “John looked me in the eye and asked me “Is this something you can do? Can you do this part?” I just said “I’m an actor, I can do it.” The tone wasn’t polite.”

Years later, Boorman met him backstage in London where he was playing Big Daddy in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Beatty told him “I know why you hired me for Deliverance – it was just because I was such a bastard.” Boorman replied “No, no. I hired you because of your anger. I knew you were going to need that to keep going.”

Ed goes on to kill who they believe to be the other rapist after they are rescued by Lewis and Drew, using the injured Lewis’ bow in cold blood. He comes out of the experience in the novel a stronger, Ubermensch figure. Boorman rather favoured Nietzsch’s quote about looking into the abyss with regards Ed’s fate:

“Far from finding his identity, I wanted him to be haunted, coarsened and diminished by the experience. The river, which no longer exists, stil flows through Ed’s troubled mind.”

deliverance hand

Originally posted 2013-02-01 07:10:15. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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