Forty-five years after the publication of James Dickey’s acclaimed novel, an oral history of one of the most unforgettable Southern movies of all time
James Dickey was the kind of man who made Ernest Hemingway look like a florist from the Midwest, says his former student the writer Pat Conroy. And forty-five years ago this summer, Dickey’s book Deliverance was one of the hottest things on the stands, a literary triumph. The novel tells the story of four Atlanta suburbanites and “the weekend they didn’t play golf,” as one of the movie posters later said. Instead, they decide on an excursion into the North Georgia wilderness that changes their lives. A canoe trip down the white waters of the fictional Cahulawassee River puts them smack-dab in the middle of backwoods hell. They have to fight their way out, but not before one of them is raped and another dies. When Hollywood released the movie version in 1972, for which Dickey also wrote the screenplay, it became one of the signature—and most shocking—films of the decade.
Author James Dickey at work in his study. Courtesy of Dickey papers, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University
Dickey’s poetry made him famous, the nation’s poet laureate. But Deliverance catapulted him into the stratosphere, where he was toasted all the way from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in Hollywood to the presidential inauguration in 1977. For decades, the themes of the story had haunted the native Georgian. It started with canoe and hunting trips in the 1950s. “I love the woods and I love wild nature,” he said in a short studio documentary produced to accompany the film’s release. He envisioned a battle between man and nature in which man summons within himself courage he never knew he had.
During the summer of 1971, Deliverance came to life just a little more than a hundred miles northeast of Atlanta. There in Rabun County, an adventurous director and cast plunged into the rapids of the Chattooga River to capture Dickey’s masterwork. But our story begins in 1961, when Dickey was working at the Atlanta advertising agency Burke Dowling Adams. When he wasn’t writing, he was at the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center.
I. THE NOVEL
John Logue (a friend of Dickey’s and former managing editor of Southern Living): I was a sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal, making seventy-five dollars a week. In my off hours, I was looking for a game, and here comes this husky guy—James Dickey. We began to play tennis. One day he said, “I’m quitting my job.” I said, “What are you going to do?” He said, “I’m going to be a poet.” And I said, “Dickey, I’m not buying the tennis balls.”
JAMES DICKEY*: I do feel what the French writer Henry de Montherlant says, “If your life ever begins to bore you, risk it.”
*All quotations from the late James Dickey taken from Bill Moyers' Journal: A Conversation with James Dickey, aired January 25, 1976, on PBS (produced by South Carolina ETC).
JOHN LOGUE: The guy who got him going down rivers played tennis with us. His name was Albert Braselton, and he always had old worn-out shoes. I thought, Either he’s a guy who was working for the government and could get off anytime he wanted, or he didn’t have much money. It turns out that he had a ton of money.
JAMES DICKEY: The affluent society has created a state of boredom, which can only be characterized by the word crushing. People will do anything to get out of it.
JOHN LOGUE: [Dickey] got a Guggenheim Fellowship to Italy, and while he was over there, he was writing all the time.
A first edition of the novel. Courtesy of Paige Knight
CHRISTOPHER DICKEY (James Dickey’s oldest child and the author of the memoir Summer of Deliverance): He first got the idea beneath the cliffs of Positano [in Italy] in the spring of 1962. He would watch in envy as a couple of proto-hippies would free-climb the cliffs there. A young literary agent named Theron Raines sent him a letter asking whether he thought he could write a novel drawing on the setting and imagery of his prize-winning poem “Springer Mountain,” and he started turning over in his head the basic narrative.
PAT CONROY (writer and Dickey’s student at the University of South Carolina): I got into his class the year after Deliverance came out. He was so smart and erudite he made you want to go out and eat a book of poetry. I thought Deliverance was one of those perfectly made novels. He seemed to bind up and connect his talent for poetry. I remember the scene where Ed climbs up to try to encounter the mountain man at night. I’m thinking, You can’t write much better than this.
T. C. BOYLE (novelist and short-story writer): Deliverance was brilliant. It’s influenced me thematically because I’m often writing about man and nature, man against nature, and this whole atavistic spiral that Dickey shows us.
PAT CONROY: My friend Terry Kay is a novelist from North Georgia, and he was furious with Dickey’s book. He said, “He didn’t write about your people, Conroy. He’s writing about my people.” I said, “Look, all he said was your people had no teeth, they were dumb as shit, they never bathed, they were all retarded but could play the banjo. Otherwise, he didn’t say anything bad about your people. They’re just like you, Terry. I recognized them immediately.” So Terry, who’s got this great Churchillian voice, replied, “Conroy, let me tell you one thing: You can go up to the mountains with my people and we may kill you, but we’re not going to f*** you.”
II. HOLLYWOOD COMES CALLING
In 1970, a former student of James Dickey’s named David Giler was working at Warner Bros. He got an advance copy of Dickey’s novel and encouraged studio executives to acquire the film rights, which they did, paying “an absurdly high figure for it,” as Dickey wrote to a friend in April 1970. The overall deal—worth more than $100,000 ($610,000 in today’s money)—also permitted Dickey to write the screenplay and interview filmmakers. He cooled on The Wild Bunch director Sam Peckinpah and Rosemary’s Baby’s Roman Polanski. But when he met the Englishman John Boorman, he believed he’d found his man. In December 1970, Dickey wrote to Boorman, “We are going to make a hell of a movie.”
DAVID GILER (former student of Dickey’s and a film writer and producer): I first heard him when he was teaching at San Fernando Valley State College in the 1960s, and was blown away by his lecture. He was a force in person—a giant, and not just physically. He told me about Deliverance, and I thought it would make a good motion picture.
JOHN BOORMAN (producer and director): I had made Hell in the Pacific with Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune under very difficult circumstances in the South Seas. We lived on a ship anchored off this island where we shot it, so I think Warner Bros. felt I was the kind of man to take on a very physical picture.
Producer and director John Boorman. Courtesy of Everett Collection
The first place I met Dickey was at his house. He said, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told a living soul, and I want you to promise not to mention it to anybody: Everything in that book happened to me.” Of course, I couldn’t wait to tell someone. I was there with my associate producer, Charles Orme, and as soon as we left the house I said, “Do you know what he told me? That everything in the book happened to him.” And Charles said, “Yes, he told me the same thing.” Dickey told everybody that story.
JOHN LOGUE: Dickey was mischievous from the first day I ever knew him. We went to eat at a Japanese restaurant, the kind where they chop everything up. The chef chopped-chopped-chopped right near Dickey and, all of a sudden, it looked like the end of Dickey’s finger popped into his vodka, bleeding. Dickey screamed and the chef almost fainted. Well, Dickey had taken a shrimp and dipped it in ketchup and just as the guy chopped near him, Dickey flipped it in his drink. That was typical Dickey.
CHRISTOPHER DICKEY: Dad wanted to write screenplays that could be published as books, or at least in books, as some of [the writer] James Agee’s had been.
JOHN LOGUE: I was visiting and sleeping in his guest room and he stuck his head in and threw this manuscript on my bed. It was the screenplay. I sat up and read the whole thing.
JOHN BOORMAN: It wasn’t a screenplay as what we think of as a screenplay. He’d just filleted the book.
RONNY COX (actor, Drew Ballinger): Apparently the screenplay is like seven hundred pages long.
JOHN BOORMAN: The first third of the book describes the four men in Atlanta, living comfortable lives. Dickey felt that the film should spend the beginning depicting that. I took the view that you can’t do that in a film. Through action and behavior they define themselves. That’s the nature of film—character, action, definition. That was our first big disagreement—and I prevailed.
GORDON VAN NESS (Dickey scholar and friend; professor of English, Longwood University): Jim was far more concerned with lighting and the angle shots, to give the film a poetic quality. Action was important only so far as it reinforced themes. Boorman was not going to do that at all.
CHRISTOPHER DICKEY: Boorman had a much better sense of how to put a film together.
III. ASSEMBLING THE CAST
Several actors were discussed to play the leads, including Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman. But Boorman eventually focused in on two names.
JOHN BOORMAN: Warner Bros. wanted two major stars, so I went to Jack Nicholson [to play Ed]. He agreed to do it and asked, “Who will you get to play Lewis?” I said, “I don’t really know yet.” He said, “What about Brando?” So I went to see Marlon Brando—spent the day with him. Finally, he said he’d do it. I asked, “Who’s your agent?” He said, “I don’t have an agent.” I said, “Well, what’s your price?” And he said, “I’ll take the same as you pay Jack.” I went back to Nicholson’s agent and said, “What do you want for Jack?” He said, “Half a million.” Now, Nicholson had never got more than $75,000. So I told studio head Ted Ashley. “Brando? Oh, God. He doesn’t mean anything anymore—he’s box-office poison.” Well, I thought Nicholson and Brando would work very well together. Ashley asked, “What does Jack want?” I said, “Well, he wants half a million.” “Half a million?!” Ashley almost went through the roof. Then he kind of calmed down and said maybe they would pay him that money because everyone in town wanted Nicholson. He said, “What does Brando want?” “I agreed to pay him the same as Jack.” Ashley then exploded, “I’d be laughed out of this town if I paid half a million for Brando.” I said, “Look, you asked me to get two stars. I got them. Now you’re saying you don’t want to pay them. What happens now?” He said, “Well, you make it for a price, go with unknowns, and let’s see what happens.”
The four canoeists, played by Ned Beatty, Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox, and Jon Voight, before they depart. Courtesy of Everett Collection
RONNY COX: I was in New York, struggling as a stage actor. They came to town looking for unknown actors and, God knows, I was unknown.
LYNN STALMASTER (casting director): The first person we cast was Ronny to play the character of Drew. Ned Beatty was performing at the Arena [Stage] theater in Washington, D.C., and I called him and said, “You’ve got to make yourself available.” We wanted him for the character of Bobby, who gets raped. Ned had no problem with the sodomy aspect—some actors did.
NED BEATTY (Bobby Trippe): I was talking to John Boorman, who was in England, and I said, “Are we going to fake it or are we going to do it?” And he said, “We’re going to act it. It’s going to be an acting thing.” I said, “Fine, I can do that.” That was the entire conversation about that as far as I can remember.
RONNY COX: It was not only my first film, but my first time in front of a camera. It was Ned’s first film, too. We had done like twenty-some plays together. They didn’t even know we knew each other.
LYNN STALMASTER: Ultimately, John Boorman zeroed in on Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds for the leads.
JOHN BOORMAN: Burt Reynolds had done three unsuccessful TV series. I wasn’t aware of this because I didn’t live in America. Warner Bros. threw up their arms in horror.