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Deliverance turns 40

Will the South ever live down 'Squeal like a pig'?

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Ned Beatty (from left, standing), Jon Voight, Ronny Cox, and Burt Reynolds are four Atlantans who pit themselves with and against nature in Deliverance. - COURTESY WARNER BROS.
  • Courtesy Warner Bros.
  • Ned Beatty (from left, standing), Jon Voight, Ronny Cox, and Burt Reynolds are four Atlantans who pit themselves with and against nature in Deliverance.

On the banks of the Chattooga River, on the border of Georgia and South Carolina, an attempt to make a wild scene tame spawned one of the most notorious moments in movie history.

Irish director John Boorman spent part of 1971 in Rabun County, Ga., to film an adaptation of Deliverance. Poet James Dickey's bestselling first novel followed four Atlanta businessmen on an attempt to survive the Appalachian wilderness. Boorman found what he called a "tangled wood with acid-green laurels" for the movie's most charged sequence, in which a pair of mountain men sexually threaten and assault Jon Voight and Ned Beatty's unarmed travelers.

On his Deliverance DVD commentary, Boorman describes how Warner Bros. required he shoot two versions of the scene in which Bill McKinney's hostile hillbilly rapes Beatty's hapless salesman. "The studio demanded that I shoot alternative scenes for television. Bad language, 'fucks' couldn't be shown on television, so we had to think of alternatives on the spot." According to Boorman, crew member "Rospo Pallenberg came up with 'Squeal like a pig!' to take the place of more colorful language. It was so good that I decided to keep it in the main version." On film, the rapist and victim squeal in call and response, adding a surreal note of dehumanization to already emasculating imagery.

Sometimes it seems like the South will never live down "Squeal like a pig." The phrase has become shorthand for a specific kind of cultural condescension as well as male sexual anxiety, like the way prison references often include a "don't drop the soap" gag. The sequence's depravity infects the entire movie. Deliverance opens on a note of musical accord, when Ronny Cox's guitar-playing Atlantan and Billy Redden's banjo-picking local extemporize on "Dueling Banjos." After seeing Deliverance, however, it's hard to hear the bluegrass jam session without flashing back to That Scene. Sporting goods stores even sell T-shirts that say "Paddle faster, I hear banjos."

Deliverance turns 40 this year, and not counting the many films that depict slavery or Dixie's racist legacy, it contains the most harshly negative and enduring portrayal of Southerners in cinema. Former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller has long been one of Deliverance's most vociferous critics. In his 2009 memoir Purt Nigh Gone: The Old Mountain Ways, Miller says, "the false portrayal of mountain people as depraved and amoral cretins by writers like James Dickey in his popular novel Deliverance, have done lasting harm in how the mountaineer is portrayed."

Paradoxically, Deliverance may be the best film ever made in and about the South. The epic Civil War romance Gone With the Wind is undeniably a crowning achievement of Hollywood's Golden Age, but it was shot in California. Deliverance was not only filmed in Georgia, but it also led directly to the establishment of Georgia's film industry. While unquestionably an inflammatory movie, Deliverance proves much more complex than its reductive redneck rape image would suggest. And measured against the films of today, Deliverance reveals even more urgency and relevance than it did 40 years ago.

Today ATLWood is in full flower, with Tyler Perry Studios cranking out feature films and celebrities like Sandra Bullock and Jonah Hill gracing our streets with their presence. It seems impossible that the local film industry barely existed in Georgia before Deliverance. "The state had no real feature film or TV film production, just local, regional producers doing things for TV," says Ed Spivia, former chairman of the Georgia Film Commission.

For Ned Beatty (front, with Jon Voight), the famous rape scene was a blessing and a curse. - COURTESY WARNER BROS.
  • Courtesy Warner Bros.
  • For Ned Beatty (front, with Jon Voight), the famous rape scene was a blessing and a curse.

Hollywood turned its attention to North Georgia in 1970 after Dickey published Deliverance, a Southern survivalist equivalent to Heart of Darkness. In keeping with the ecological concerns of the time, the book reveals that a dam will flood the river to power Atlanta's air conditioners, and the four Atlantans take one last chance to explore it before it vanishes. Deliverance vied with the likes of The Godfather and Love Story on the bestseller lists and raised Dickey's profile with plenty of moments in the spotlight, including an interview on "The Today Show."

Boorman prevailed over The Wild Bunch director Sam Peckinpah, Hollywood's then-maestro of bloodshed, as Deliverance's director and made uncredited rewrites on Dickey's adapted screenplay. Boorman got the green light on the condition that he reduce costs as much as possible. Instead of an A-list cast, he tapped then Oscar-nominee Voight, cinematic newcomers Beatty and Cox, and struggling movie/TV actor Burt Reynolds.

Boorman eliminated the Atlanta-based scenes and shot Deliverance primarily in Rabun County, along with scenes in North and South Carolina towns. Jimmy Carter, Georgia's governor at the time, visited the set. "Other movies had filmed in the state before," says Greg Torre, current director of the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office. "But for Deliverance, the governor was impressed by all the levels of the production, the sheer number of vehicles, people, props, costumes involved on a movie set."

Deliverance earned $46 million at the box office, and its success inspired Carter to found the 10-member state film commission in 1973 (now the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office). "Deliverance exposed the fact that Georgia film productions could make a lot of money in areas other than industrial films and commercials," says Spivia. He and his fellow commissioners worked to attract Hollywood and train local businesses on how to accommodate film productions. Voight's Conrack and Reynolds' The Longest Yard became two early successes.

Deliverance indirectly boosted Georgia's fledgling film industry by elevating Reynolds from B-player to matinee idol. Reynolds spends most of the film in an unzipped wet-suit vest and gives a charismatic performance as Lewis, the group's overconfident Alpha male. As Lewis tests himself against the wilderness and asserts the law of the jungle, Reynolds seems capable of making a career of authoritarian antiheroes, à la Charlton Heston. Instead, Reynolds repeatedly returned to Georgia for lighter fare, including crowd-pleasing chase comedies like Smokey and the Bandit and detective thrillers like Sharky's Machine, which accelerated local filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s. He even opened a short-lived Atlanta nightclub, Burt's Place, in the 1970s.

Despite the attacks and misfortunes that plague the film's heroes, Deliverance also gave an enormous boost to North Georgia tourism and outdoor sports like whitewater rafting. "I made the river look as dangerous and life-threatening as possible, so anyone who tried it would know what to expect," says Boorman, who shot the scenery with desaturated color to make the lush greenery look gray and ominous.

"The film created tourism in Rabun County," says Pete Cleaveland, executive director of the Rabun County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We now have three rafting companies and a $20 million-a-year business that was created because of Deliverance." The film's 40th anniversary even provided the theme for the inaugural Chattooga River Festival in Clayton. An estimated 1,500 people attended the festival from June 22-24, which included a "Dueling Banjos" competition and two screenings of the film (but apparently no "Squeal Like a Pig" barbecue cook-off).

Some locals opposed the film's inclusion in the festival. "We had people who were not pleased about the movie and what its connotations were 40 years later. But it wasn't a significantly large part of the population," says Cleaveland, who offers two arguments to Deliverance detractors. "Number one, it's a movie, and I think most people understand that. Two, we want to people to come here so we can prove the stereotype wrong."

Dickey's son Christopher, now an esteemed journalist at Newsweek, worked on the set of Deliverance as a 20-year-old, and served as Beatty's stand-in for the infamous scene. "I didn't have to take off my clothes. No one led me by the nose, or rode me like a sow," Christopher wrote in his memoir/blog "James Dickey: Deep Deliverance." Nevertheless, simply going through the motions on all fours struck him as a humiliating experience. As he watched the actual actors at work, he suspected that the two-page scene in the book would have much greater impact on the big screen.

"In the book you can read the rape scene and know it happened, but you get around it and go on, and get other things out of the novel," Christopher said. "In the movie — it was becoming what the movie was about. It was the thing everybody was going to remember. 'Squeal like a pig!' Not Lewis' survivalism, not the climb up the cliff, not Ed's conquest of his own fear. It was all going to be about butt-fucking."

Jeff Marker, a film professor at Gainesville State College, says Deliverance provides a problematic image of the Piedmont region and its inhabitants. "The rape scene is intentionally exploitative," says Marker. "It can overshadow the rest of the movie and raise the ire of politicians who have a vested interest in the state's tourist appeal. On the other hand, the movie and book, as whole texts, present a more even-handed depiction of Southerners. Not all the characters are stereotyped as radically and awfully as the redneck rapists." In the film's last act, the surviving Atlantans finally receive some of the small-town Southern hospitality that's been notably absent.

The city slickers treat the rural folk with open condescension in the film's first scene. Beatty's character remarks, "Talk about genetic deficiencies," after glimpsing the banjo boy. But the visitors clearly don't deserve what they get from their two assailants. Played by McKinney and Herbert "Cowboy" Coward, the mountain men could be cousins to the truck-driving, shotgun-toting rustics of 1969's Easy Rider who kill Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper's long-haired hippies.

Why do the mountain men do it? One justification for Deliverance's sexual assault lies in plain sight as a metaphor. The film opens with Lewis and the other characters' voices talking over shots of the flooded river. Lewis remarks on the new dam's impact: "Dammit, they're drowning the river, man ... Just about the last wild, untamed, unpolluted, unfucked-up river in the South. We're gonna rape this whole landscape. We're gonna rape it."

Deliverance doesn't show the urban benefits of the dam, just its rural costs, including dynamited hillsides, half-submerged trees, and displaced communities forced to move churches and relocate corpses from cemeteries. In effect, the backwoods assailants do to the Atlantans what Atlanta's doing to their community. As Boorman says in the DVD commentary, "This was kind of nature's revenge on the people of Atlanta that were killing the river."

Deliverance offers a harsh depiction of Appalachia's residents, but provides a sharp, relevant perspective on the tension between Southern urbanism and country communities. The book uncannily anticipates Atlanta's "water wars" conflicts with rural areas in the recent drought years, even though the author focuses less on politics than psychology. "James Dickey's favorite theme was man versus nature, nature being a physical manifestation of the characters' own psychology," says Marker. "If Deliverance fails in any significant way, it's that the exploitative elements and the stereotypes distract from that theme. It's a great survival story more than anything else, and would be even without the sodomizers."

Deliverance became both a blessing and a curse for Beatty, who made his screen debut with the film and became an iconic character actor. In 1989 Beatty wrote the New York Times editorial "Suppose Men Feared Rape," and revealed that he never really left the shadow of Deliverance: "'Squeal like a pig.' How many times has that been shouted, said or whispered to me since then?" wrote Beatty, who doesn't appreciate such remarks and tends to reply with, "When was the last time you got kicked by an old man?"

Beatty wrote the editorial amid the outcry of 1989's high-profile Central Park jogger rape case, and offered his experience with the snide catcalls as a teachable moment. "Somewhere between their shouts and my threats lies a kernel of truth about how men feel about rape," he wrote. "My guess is, we want to be distanced from it. Our last choice would be to identify with the victim. If we felt we could truly be victims of rape, that fear would be a better deterrent than the death penalty."

Deliverance doesn't seem to have taken as an anti-rape lesson. To the extent that people think about Deliverance, they quote the squeal scene or hum "Dueling Banjos" to make light of male anxieties or countryside paranoia.

Deliverance terrorizes its male characters in essentially the same way that horror movies treat women. Deliverance establishes the kind of narrative slavishly obeyed by slasher films like Friday the 13th, with a group of city folk isolating themselves in hostile wilderness. The formula has become so ingrained that filmmakers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon ingeniously commented on its ritualistic nature earlier this year in The Cabin in the Woods. The nightmare scene near the end of Deliverance directly influenced the final shock of Brian De Palma's Carrie, and countless "Gotcha!" moments in movies thereafter.

The more fascinating thing about Deliverance, then and now, is how it explodes movie expectations. A typical Hollywood adventure would basically endorse Lewis' worldview: Outside of law and civilization, a man can determine his fate by force of will. It's easy to imagine Lewis and Ed (Voight) prevailing against their attackers and returning to the city with renewed statuses as real men. That's certainly the movie Lewis thinks he's in, up until he breaks his leg going over a waterfall.

To venture into spoiler territory, Deliverance proves much more ambiguous. Christopher said his father justified the rape scene's brutality by saying, "'I had to put the moral weight of murder on the suburbanites.' He had to portray the mountain men as such monsters that the suburbanites would decide not only to kill, but to try to cover up their crime." After Lewis kills the rapist with a bow and arrow, the foursome debates over what to do next: hide the body and pretend like it never happened? Or tell the local authorities, who might sympathize with the mountain folk?

They vote to cover it up against the objections of guitar-player Drew and things get increasingly out of control. When they dig a makeshift grave by hand, they seem reduced to the level of animals. Back on the river, a stunned-looking Drew pitches into the water, but his friends don't know if he was shot, fell in accidentally, or dove in on purpose. With Lewis injured and delirious, Ed takes up the bow and Alpha Male role, climbs a crevasse, and kills an armed mountain man. Afterward, he's not sure if his victim was the squealing rapist's accomplice or a complete stranger. (Boorman's commentary confirms that Coward plays the character, so Ed probably didn't kill an innocent man.) Ed discovers that violence literally has a double edge: He shoots his adversary with one arrow and almost simultaneously falls on another, as if his action bounced back on him.

The three survivors conceal a total of three bodies and stress over the possibility that they'll be found out. In one of the great author cameos, James appears as an intimidating sheriff, but he dislikes the Atlantans because he thinks they're liars, not because they're city folk. Few films attend so closely to the consequences of bloodshed.

Most action movies carry the implication that "Violence is awesome!", particularly the post-Dirty Harry strain of shoot 'em-ups starring Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the like in the 1970s and '80s. Deliverance suggests that rather than bring clarity to a pampered, civilized man, violence makes events increasingly murky for him. Both the novel and the film have been read as a Vietnam War metaphor, and the fog of war notion supports this interpretation.

July 20 will feature a 40th-anniversary screening of Deliverance at the Fox Theatre, which seems at once the most and least appropriate place to see it. An Oscar nominee for Best Picture, Director, and Film Editing, as well as a Grammy winner for "Dueling Banjos," Deliverance was chosen for the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 2008 for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." It's the kind of provocative film that attempts to push cinema as an art form.

Deliverance deserves to be enshrined in a luxurious vintage movie palace like the Fox, even though it's far too subversive and disturbing to be at home there. The film doesn't subject its audience to a fraction of the ordeal faced by the Atlantans, but it still aims to leave us equally haunted. Deliverance's survivors cross their fingers that their deeds stay submerged, and can only hope that what happened on the Cahulawassee, stays on the Cahulawassee.

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