For a film just entering its fifth decade, “Deliverance” still maintains a real power to horrify. Based on James Dickey‘s poetic novel, and adapted by the writer himself, it follows four friends (Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox) who go for a canoeing trip together in the Georgia wilderness, only to come into terrifying conflict with some inbred locals. And that plotline taps into very primal fears — man vs. nature, town vs. country — and perhaps most memorably, it preys on masculinity, thanks to film’s unforgetabble rape sequence.
It’s remains shocking stuff today, so we can only image how it must’ve marked moviegoers when it theaters forty years ago on July 30, 1972. But despite the grim nature of the drama, the film was a huge hit, winning three Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Directing), making Burt Reynolds a star, rescuing Voight’s career, introducing theater actors Beatty and Cox, and cementing director John Boorman‘s position among the A-list. With the film celebrating its ruby anniversary today, it seemed like a good time to highlight five things you may not be aware of about the film. Read on below.
1. Sam Peckinpah wanted to direct the film, and actors like Donald Sutherland, Henry Fonda and Jack Nicholson were all linked to the project.
The critically acclaimed “Point Blank” and “Hell In The Pacific” made John Boorman quite a hot prospect in Hollywood, and while 1970’s “Leo The Last” was a flop, it had won Boorman the Best Director award at Cannes, so he was still very much on top. Even so, he wasn’t the first choice of James Dickey, the author and screenwriter of “Deliverance,” who was adamant that Sam Peckinpah was the man for the job. And given how much the story’s theme matched Peckinpah’s interests, it would have been a great choice, but the director had gone wildly over schedule and budget on 1970’s “The Ballad Of Cable Hogue,” and as such, was not in the good books at Warner Bros, who held the rights to “Deliverance.” Fortunately, Boorman pulled the gig off. As for casting, a who’s who of leading men were approached before the director landed his central foursome. Dickey suggested Gene Hackman to play Ed, while Boorman wanted his “Point Blank” star Lee Marvin for that part, with Marlon Brando for Lewis. But Marvin, on reading, told Boorman he thought they should go for younger actors. Jack Nicholson was actually announced as starring in the film by the LA Times (as Ed), but ultimately proved too expensive, Robert Redford was also considered, while Charlton Heston and Donald Sutherland both turned down Lewis (Sutherland considered it too violent at the time), and Henry Fonda, George C. Scott and Warren Beatty were also possibilities at some point. Eventually, Boorman got Burt Reynolds (in the film that made him a star), Jon Voight, and relative newcomers to film Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty, the latter of whom had been a stage actor for 25 years, but here made his first film appearance .
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2. James Dickey and John Boorman allegedly got into a fistfight on set, in which the writer broke the director’s nose and knocked out his teeth.
Dickey was a contradictory figure, a man of letters who served in the air force in both World War Two and the Korean War, an ad man who was also a college professor as well as a poet laureate. “Deliverance,” which the writer hinted was based on real events (although few believe him; Boorman says “nothing in that book actually happened to him”) was his first and only experience in the film industry (although after his death, the Coen Brothers tried to make a silent version of his final book, “To The White Sea,” with Brad Pitt). Dickey, who was also an alcoholic, clashed heavily with Boorman throughout the shoot, particularly after the director cut the first 19 pages of the shooting script. According to Jon Voight‘s body double on the film, Claude Terry, Dickey would sit in a bar saying to all and sundry “God, they’re ruining my fucking movie, ain’t they? They’re not doing my book,” while Boorman says that Dickey was drunk on set, and became “very overbearing with the actors.” According to legend, things reached a peak when director and writer got into a fistfight which left Boorman with a broken nose and four teeth knocked out. Dickey was ejected from the set, but was allowed to return to film a cameo as the Sheriff in the film’s conclusion (although contrary to popular opinion, it’s not Ed O’Neill as one of the other cops).
3. Although it became a worldwide hit, the composer of “Duelling Banjo” sued Warner Bros for using the track without permission.
One of the film’s least likely and longest lasting gifts to popular culture (beyond the line “squeal like a pig,” which Ned Beatty claims he came up with while improvising the scene with his tormentor, Bill McKinney, while Dickey’s son Christopher says it was a suggestion from a crew member) was the scene where Ronny Cox duets with an inbred hillbilly boy, played by local Billy Redden. The young man actually didn’t know the banjo — a local musician played with his arms through the young boy’s sleeves while crouched behind him (Redden would, however, later play the instrument, in a cameo in Tim Burton‘s “Big Fish,” in 2003 — see the clip below). A year after the film’s release, a version of the track, entitled “Duelling Banjos,” by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell — the one used in the film — became a huge international hit, spending four weeks at #2 in the Billboard Hot 100 (behind only Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song”). But there was only one problem — Weissberg had pinched the track from South Carolina musician Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith, and failed to credit him. Smith sued, and won, and was awarded ashare of the profits, and the credits of the film were amended to include him.
4. Boorman’s “Duelling Banjos” gold record was stolen by Irish thief Martin Cahill, who the director would later make a film about.
Boorman was awarded a gold record for the success of “Duelling Banjos,” but it was later stolen in a break-in at the director’s home in Ireland. It would later emerge that the culprit had been Martin Cahill. Cahill was a Dublin criminal, known locally as The General, who became infamous after a series of burglaries, peaking with a $2 million dollar jewellery heist in 1983, and a major art heist. In the aftermath of a failed kidnapping of the head of the National Irish Bank, Cahill was assassinated, seemingly at the behest of one of his lieutenants, John Gilligan, working together with the IRA. Journalist Paul Williams wrote a book about Cahill, and Boorman, intrigued by his own connection to him (the director told Salon “He robbed my house in 1981. At that time, he was really just a cat burglar — he wasn’t doing any of these big things, but he was very audacious then, and provocative. The police recognized his modus vivendi, but also he always wanted to be known when he pulled off these things”) optioned it, turning it into the 1998 film “The General,” starring Brendan Gleeson as Cahill, with Jon Voight reuniting with his “Deliverance” director to play his police nemesis Ned Kenny. Boorman included a scene where Cahill steals a gold record, only to discover that it’s really made of plastic, as “revenge.” The black and white picture proved to be Boorman’s most acclaimed film in years, and won the director his second Best Director award at Cannes.
5. An alternate ending to the film was shot
Despite Dickey’s objections, the film does stick relatively closely to the book, although the novel (which is narrated by Ed) goes into more detail about the home lives of its protagonists: Ed is a graphic designer, Lewis is a landlord, Drew works for a soft drinks company, and Bobby sells insurance. It also features more of an epilogue, with Ed and Lewis buying neighboring cabins next to a lake, and losing touch with Bobby, who, in Ed’s words “would always look like dead weight and like screaming, and that was no good to me.” None of this made it to the shooting script, but there was a slightly different ending. Instead of the hand rising out of the water in Ed’s nightmare, he imagined himself, Lewis and Bobby meeting Dickey’s sheriff, who’s discovered a body, and shows it to them. The scene was shot so that the audience didn’t know which of the three characters killed in the film — Drew, rapist Mountain Man or the Toothless Man — it was, with Ed waking before the face was revealed. For the shoot, the body was played by Christopher Dickey, James Dickey‘s 20-year-old son, who would go on to be a journalist for Newsweek and The Washington Post, and wrote a memoir, “Summer Of Deliverance,” about his time on the film’s set, and his relationship with his father.