By DOUG WOODWARD
The movie, “Deliverance,” starring Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Jon Voight, and directed by John Boorman, was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1972 including Best Picture and Best Director. Based on the novel of the same name by Georgia native James Dickey, Deliverance movie location was on the Chattooga River in northeast Georgia. Georgia Canoeing Association members Doug Woodward, Claude Terry and Payson Kennedy served as technical advisors for the movie and Woodward and Terry served as doubles in the film.
See an interactive Chattooga River Map that includes specific locations on the river that were included in Deliverance as well as all of the named rapids on the river.
The movie “Deliverance” belongs as much to the Georgia Canoeing Association as it does to Warner Brothers. Filmed on our home turf, the Chattooga and Tallulah rivers, three longtime GCA members served as stunt men and technical advisors one golden summer. It was a bit sobering to realize that many of today’s GCA members were not even born in 1971 when the filming took place. I’m sure some could care less. But for the few who might like to reminisce, I though I’d put pen to paper – or finger to computer – before any more years slip by and all of this disappears into the mist of legend. If Claude (Terry) or Payson (Kennedy) has a slightly different perspective of these events – with which our lives in the 1970s were so entwined – then so be it. This is mine.
Back in 1969, when I was living in Maryland, a book had just been published that caught my eye because it appeared to be a story of wilderness river running: James Dickey’s Deliverance. It wasn’t quite an uninhabited wilderness as it turned out, and the action wasn’t all of the whitewater variety. But I read it through at the time, not having the slightest inklings of how involved I would become with the story.
Among the many GCA paddling friends that I made upon moving to Atlanta in the summer of 1970 were the families of Payson and Aurelia Kennedy and Claude and Betty Terry. Payson was librarian of data processing at Georgia Tech and Claude was a microbiologist at Emory University. That fall they asked me if I had read Deliverance. “Well,” they said, “Warner Brothers is going to film that story down here, and they’re looking for a river. There’s a chance, too, that we might get involved in some way. Can you make it to dinner this Friday?”
I could. In fact, the Dog River running at three feet couldn’t have kept me away! The dinner, as it turned out, was at the home of Lewis King, a good friend of Payson’s. Besides Claude, Payson, and myself, there was one other guest: James Dickey. Lewis King is the real-life Lewis of Dickey’s novel. With a tough, wiry body, piercing blue eyes and sliver hair, King bore little resemblance to Burt Reynolds, who portrayed the film’s Lewis character. But Lewis King was a man of many skills – a number one tennis player for Georgia Tech, an accomplished chess opponent, a canoeist … and a champion archer.
Dickey and King grew up together in Buckhead and took a memorable canoe trip on the Coosawatee in Northwest Georgia. Recollections of their trip helped form the basis for the novel. The part of the river they canoed now lies deep underwater behind Carter’s Dam. The pair had considerable difficulty in the rapids and ran into moonshiners when trying to leave the river. But, far from being drawn into the web of fear and murder that the story portrays, the two were actually helped out of their troubles by the mountain folks.
We talked whitewater all evening, making equipment and location suggestions. Our first river choice was the Little River Canyon in Alabama, but in the end settled on the Chattooga and Tallulah. We emphasized that our whitewater experience on area rivers was available should Warner Brothers need further advice. Would they?
As fortune would have it, they did. The film crew had been shooting since mid-May of 1971 before contacting us in July. With much of the cabin, camping and archery scenes behind them, Warner Brothers was concentrating on the river scenes. Mishaps had occurred already at Rock Jumble and Deliverance Rock on Section IV, where film equipment was lost to the River.
In Tallulah Gorge, where in the story, the rope breaks and Ed (played by Jon Voigt) plunges from the cliff face to the river, a local man had agreed to take the fall. After viewing the spot from below, he told the chief cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond that he needed to see it from the top of the cliff. Three days later, when the film crew finally tracked him down, the local claimed to have “remembered some errands that my wife asked me to do that day.” He was replaced by Ralph Garrett, a professional stunt man.
Warner Brothers envisioned using Ralph, teamed with a Rabun County fisherman, for canoeing stunts as well. Though the fishermen knew the Chattooga, neither had ever paddled in moving water before. When they finally emerged at Earl’s Ford after a disastrous day on Section II, it was Ralph who demanded “whitewater experts” be brought in. We later became good friends, and he learned enough to add canoeing to his portfolio of stunts.
And so, we found ourselves in the right place at the right time. On some days – at First Falls, Corkscrew, Jawbone – we were called on to be stunt doubles, Payson and I for Ned Beatty, Claude for Jon Voigt. We would report to the makeup station at 7a.m., dress appropriately, have our hair colored, and then have “cuts and bruises applied.” Instead of Burt Reynolds lying in the bottom of our Grumman, it was his dummy. On other days, we acted as demonstrators, running the easier rapids several times until the principals felt they could do the run themselves. In addition, we were called on for other advice, such as, “Where can we find a rock face with a swift current running past that Jon Voigt can claw at for a finger hold – where we won’t lose him down river!” Thus the naming of “Deliverance Rock.”
Our advice, however, was not always accepted. Claude and I were made up as doubles for Jon Voigt and Ned Beatty, respectively, and had just paddled a green Old Town canoe through several rapids, fighting with the flat-water keep and a load of waterlogged gear to keep the boat on track.
“What they ought to do,” Claude expounded, “is rip the keel off this canoe, substitute Styrofoam for the camping gear, cover it with a tarp and stick the bow and arrows on top.” It was a suggestion of an experienced and frustrated canoeist.
Burt Reynolds swiveled around in the stern of this Grumman canoe, fixed his eyes on Claude and snapped, “Look, Candy-ass, you don’t go into a scene driving a greyhound bus and come out riding a bicycle!” The silence that followed was one of the few times I’ve seen Claude at a loss for a reply.
Later that same week, I received my comeuppance in Jaw Bone Rapid. Ferrying the Grumman and dummy to the next shooting site, I dropped into the large top eddy on river left. However, I had violated a cardinal rule of paddling: Never take to the water with loose rope in your boat. There was a tangle of perhaps 80 feet of one-eighth-inch line in the bottom of my canoe, tossed in with unnecessary haste.
As I peeled out into the surging current, I leaned hard on a left draw and …my paddle snapped completely in two, plunging me headfirst into the water, the canoe on top of me. In the next moment, as I was taking my lumps from the rocks, I realized that the Grumman, the dummy, and I were all connected by rope.
Fortunately, we passed to the left of Hydroelectric Rock, but the canoe was still hell-bent on running Sock-Em-Dog Rapid! It was only through a well-timed assist from Claude in the eddy above that I was able to slip the coils of rope from my ankle.
The Warner Brothers crew was very safety-conscious as well. They were handpicked for their fitness and desire to work in a remote setting. When we made hazardous runs, there were always alert eyes and ready arms tucked out of the camera’s view. A character named “Jimmy the Fish” was particularly alert.
Not all days were as long or as tedious as those at Five Falls. Often we would sit for an hour or two while Zsigmond and director John Boorman decided how to shoot a particular scene. If the day ended at a reasonable hour, we were invited to Kingwood Country Club to see the “rushes” (the previous day’s filming).
It was interesting to see other folks worked into the film, too. James Dickey, a large imposing figure, plays the sheriff. A Rabun County man who was hired to drive cast and crew caught Boorman’s eye and was slipped into a deputy’s role. Louise Coldren, who fed paddlers for so many years at her Dillard Motor Lodge, played a similar part, serving food to guests near the end of the film.
And in the “Dueling Banjos” scene, the boy, Billy Redden, was found waiting tables locally. The scary mountain men, Herbert Coward and Billy McKinney, came from the ghost town at Maggie Valley, North Carolina, where they performed as gun-slinging cowboys.
But not all locals were cooperative. Warner Brothers found the perfect backwoods cabin and gas pump location for the “That river don’t go to Aintree!” scene. When they returned a week later to start fine tuning the set, they were met by the owners who quickly sent them packing: “I just read the book and you’re not shooting that filthy story on my place!”
One scene filmed in Tallulah Gorge was a tribute to persistence and ingenuity. Besides the cliff-scaling shots, it was here that the two canoes collided and the Old Towne broke apart. Having picked their ideal spot, the crew set about building an artificial rapids of boulders and logs, taking care not to make it a strainer. A track was added so that the Old Town would slide into a broached position in the rapid, the canoe having already been rigged to separate into two halves when a cable was pulled from the shore.
Anyone who has hiked or paddled Tallulah Gorge will appreciate the difficulty of just getting boats, camera equipment, and the related gear to river level – not to mention getting them out again. This was accomplished using a cable and pulleys, with a Grumman canoe serving as the “basket.” The system ran from the top of the climbing cliff down to the south bank of the Tallulah, 300 feet below. It was a slow and physically demanding process, but vastly better than lugging things in and out by hand.
When the artificial rapid was ready and safety crews set in place, the director radioed Georgia Power for a release from the Tallulah Falls dam to make the rapid come alive. “Too much! Too much! Reynolds and Beatty are swamped!” and another bullhorn would go sailing into the river. It took many takes to finally get it right.
Working in the shadow of experienced filmmakers and actors was a good learning experience and a lot of fun. Burt Reynolds was relatively unknown at the time, having just had his first “exposure” as Cosmopolitan’s centerfold. He had a quick wit and plenty of self-confidence. Already an accomplished actor, Jon Voigt was also a caring individual. Ronny Cox was down to earth and a pleasure to listen to with his guitar. Ned Beatty, however, was my favorite.
One weekend, the cast and crew went to visit Underground Atlanta, and Beatty missed the early Monday morning bus back. I was asked to fill in for Ned in a non-canoeing scene following Reynolds and Voight’s jeep in a station wagon with Ronny Cox, along the hairpin turns above Betty’s Creek. When Beatty arrived that afternoon, he took time to track me down and thank me for filling in. It was a heartfelt gesture.
“Deliverance” premiered in Atlanta the next summer (1972), and of course we were there. It soon was in theaters across the country. My mother called from Maryland. “You know, Doug, I’ve been telling friends at church for a year that you’re in “Deliverance.” I just saw it, and I don’t think I’ll tell anybody else.”
Our screen time could be measured in seconds, but the effect it had on our lives was far-reaching. That same summer, Claude and I started Southeastern Expeditions, running folks by raft down the Chattooga while still hanging onto our jobs in Atlanta. Payson and his family took an even bigger leap as they broke all Atlanta ties and threw themselves into transforming the old Tote-N-Tarry Motel and Restaurant into one of the premier whitewater communities in the word, the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The success of the film also helped boost interest in whitewater paddling and membership in the GCA, which remains instrumental in protecting and securing access to Georgia’s waterways.
Read More About the Chattooga and It’s Tributaries
- See an Interactive Map of all Chattooga Rapids CLICK HERE
- Is the Free-Flowing Chattooga the Southeast’s Best Whitewater CLICK HERE
- A Guide to Canoeing and Kayaking Section 3 CLICK HERE
- Paddle the West Fork CLICK HERE
- Canoe or Kayak Warwoman Creek CLICK HERE
- Experience Big Rapids on Overflow Creek CLICK HERE
- Explore the Entire Chattooga River Corridor CLICK HERE
Doug Woodward’s essay on the Chattooga River and the Filming of Deliverance is adapted from Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia by Suzanne Welander and Bob Sehlinger and published here in cooperation with Menasha Ridge Press. Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia covers thousands of miles of Georgia waterways from whitewater to wilderness swamps and everything in between. It’s an indispensable guide to anyone interested in paddling Georgia’s rivers and streams. Order directly from Menasha Ridge Press. See a comprehensive list of other Menasha outdoor publications indexed by title, author, category, and region.
Read more about the Georgia Canoeing Association