When it came time to translate erstwhile poet James Dickey's 1970 best-seller to the screen, Dickey himself was put in charge of writing the screenplay for Deliverance, something rarely done in Hollywood. In fact Dickey managed to get himself cast in a minor part as well, as Sheriff Bullard.
This suspenseful beautifully photographed film about four Atlanta businessmen off on a weekend of pitting their skills against nature is hardly a joy cruise. Their survivalist-man-against-the-elements whitewater canoeing trip turns to tragedy and death while the river flows angrily, noisily onward. It is almost as if the visitors to this pristine wilderness have themselves raped the virginal forests and landscapes. There is also a profound sense of sadness pervading the latter half of the film, one that lingers even after the lights come up.
The drama is riveting, and audiences obviously related to the gang of four in the film, projecting themselves into each treacherous situation from the safety of their theater seats. John Boorman's first venture into this all-location film would certainly not be his last, and the style of Deliverance in which the trees and river become theaters themselves — is one Boorman would again draw upon for The Emerald Forest (1985).
Location shooting used up half of the films extremely low $2,000,000 budget. Boorman selected a northern Georgia county bisected by the Chattooga River. The location crew filmed there for two months, with most of the budget going to local carpenters, truck drivers, food and lodging. Boorman filmed in sequence, which is rarely done in film making, and the four stars Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty (in his screen debut) and Ronny Cox (ditto) did all of their own, sometimes very dangerous, stunts. Following the release and ultimate success of Deliverance, Rabun County had a sudden influx of tourists, eager to see the film's location with their own eyes, and three companies began running guided canoe tours down the river. In order to lure more movie companies and their dollars to avail themselves of the locations, the state of Georgia promptly set up a Film Commission something virtually every state in the Union has today.
Burt Reynolds may have been one of the main reasons so many people came to see Deliverance. Only three months before the film's release, the handsome Floridian had posed in the buff for Cosmopolitan magazine and the publicity hadn't exactly hurt him at the box office. (His other feature of 1972 was Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. As far as one can tell, there was no intended correlation lion between his centerfold and the film's title). One of the best-remembered scenes in this movie is the musical interlude of "Dueling Banjos", a lively bluegrass number. Released as a single, the tune became a pop hit, climbing into Billboard's top ten.
Director John Boorman's son Charley Boorman appears near the end of the movie as Ed's little boy.
According to Turner Classic Movies, John Boorman wanted Lee Marvin and Marlon Brando to play Ed and Lewis, respectively. After reading the script, Marvin suggested that he and Brando were too old, and that Boorman should use younger actors instead. Boorman agreed, and cast Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds.
Ned Beatty was the only one of the four main actors to ever have paddled a canoe prior to shooting the movie, which is ironic since his character is the most inept and clumsy. The others learned on set.
Donald Sutherland turned down a role in this film because he objected to the violence in the script. He later admitted to regretting that decision.
In his memoirs Charlton Heston mentions that he declined the role of Lewis due to his commitment to filming Antony and Cleopatra (1972).
Ronny Cox's shoulder is double-jointed and it was he that suggested to director John Boorman that his arm appear twisted around his neck when his body is discovered. No prosthetic was used.
Lewis: Sometimes you have to lose yourself 'fore you can find anything.
GOOFS AND BLUNDERS
While they're dredging the river for the canoe / bodies, you can see the microphone pack visible under Sheriff Bullard's shirt.
During the Aintree dinner scene, when the lady is telling the story of the huge cucumber, lights and other equipment can be seen in the reflection of the lady's eyeglasses.
The boy's banjo is an open-back model used in old-time music. He plays without picks in the claw-hammer style, or drop-thumb. The famous "Dueling Banjos" tune is played on a resonator banjo using finger-picks, in the more modern three-finger bluegrass style.
Best of all are the performances—by Jon Voight, as the thoughtful, self-satisfied businessman who rather surprisingly meets the challenge of the wilderness; Burt Reynolds, as the Hemingway hero who fails, through no real fault of his own, and Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, as their two city friends whose total unsuitability for such a weekend venture is just one of a number of unbelievable and unexplained points in the Dickey screenplay. I wouldn't get into a Central Park rowboat with either one, but then Dickey's story is schematic, and to make his points about the nature of man he had to deny the very realism that the film pretends to deal in. Reviewed by: Vincent Canby of The New York Times.
The adventures that occur in the film belong in Freudian dreams, and many of the exploits (particularly Voight's scaling of a cliff) are so incredible that we are back in a James Bond universe (2 1/2 stars). Reviewed by: Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times.
It's got the most memorable opening on movie history -- 'Duelling Banjos' speaks for itself after 30 years -- and one of the cinema's most horrifying rape scenes as well (most recently aped in Pulp Fiction). This tale of 'city boys' taking a weekend trip by canoe down a soon-to-be-dammed river is about primitivism of both the all-talk and the real kind, and how desperate circumstances can make real men out of the weakest of wills. A landmark in movie history. Reviewed by: Christopher Null of Film Critic.