The Deliverance Stigma

Foxfire mentors, back in the early ’70s encouraged graduating students to step out of high school doors with a passion to become involved in social and environmental issues affecting our people and our mountains.

With the help of grant money, Foxfire was able to launch our own social and environmental team. I, along with two other students researched  local impacts suffered by the filming of the movie Deliverance.

Our then Governor, Jimmy Carter, encouraged movie makers to use Georgia: some did exactly that. Hollywood filmmakers traveled three thousand miles to the  North Georgia Mountains, looking for depraved hillbillies. They came with dollars and cameras in one hand and a copy of James Dickey’s novel, Deliverance in the other.

After reading only a few descriptive words about our beloved people from Dickey’s book, we were outraged and breathing fire. “The sort of men you mock, but at the same time are relieved to be rid of (pg.64) The sort of men that are ‘creatures’ (58) from whom you expect nothing but mean words and know if you see them in the woods are tending their still (44). The sort of men who jump like dogs on their hind legs (54), or who are ‘albino’ or splay-eyed or ‘demented’ or worse (54-55). A land of men, “…ignorant and full of superstitions and bloodshed and murder and liquor and hookworm and ghosts and early deaths…” (46). A land so depressingly base that the “I” of the novel can say, and believe, “Nobody worth a damn could ever come from such a place” (51)

Their cameras rolled right here in our county and the surrounding area, capturing the adventure of four city slickers who come to the mountains looking to prove their manhood on the wild and scenic Chattooga River, only to run head long into hillbilly hell.   Hollywood did not intend for America to see their movie as science-fiction. It was essential viewers be caught up breathlessly in the story and believe “the land of nine-fingered people” is real. The damnable stereotyping of Appalachian people, depicted as sub-human and repulsive, graphic scenes would make any viewer leery to venture onto mountain paths.

About half a dozen local people were enlisted to play small, demeaning roles. Our research and interviews revealed Hollywood used and tossed them like menstrual cloths.  Most didn’t have a clue what was done to them as cameras rolled, sucking out good souls.

Area resident, Nell Norton, known as “Whispering Nell” because she was a very vocal gal, appeared in a dining room scene. “They didn’t tell me what the movie was about. They said they’d like to take my picture. They said they would like to have me in the movie. They didn’t tell me nothing.”

Another mountaineer, Ed Ramey, played a gas station attendant. “I think it ought to be a violation of the law  to show pictures like that in the act. Them people stripped off down yonder on the river…” Ed knew nothing of the homosexual rape scene showing movie star, Ned Beatty, being abused by wild, toothless hillbillies.  The scene was beyond smoke in our nose.

The famous dueling banjo scene was filmed at the home of Mrs. Webb, a chief Foxfire contact. The young banjo picker was not chosen because of talent. Billy Redden fit the novel’s descriptive bill as ‘splay-eyed’. The novel reads, “There is always something wrong with people in the country with their missing fingers. (pg. 51) I never saw a farmer who didn’t have something wrong with him, and most of the time obviously wrong…from the country of nine-fingered people. (52)”

Mrs. Webb was shown in a disturbing scene as a tattered old woman sitting near a hopelessly deformed child. She survived her early years in much the manner movie actors could only imagine ‘survival.’ Mrs. Webb was a mid-wife who delivered a whole mountain full of people without ever losing a child, and who, from the time her paralyzed granddaughter was born, never left her side. This faithful old woman’s deep compassion and commitment were ignored as movie makers portrayed her and others as utter mountain freaks.

Her property was altered for filming. “I had a little patch down there planted with potatoes. They was just a-coming up and they wanted to put a road through there, and they plowed them up. They paid me for them, but not what they ought to. You know a patch of potatoes like that is worth something, but I didn’t grumble. I ain’t here for long and, when I leave here, I want to go in peace. Craving money-I don’t do that.”

Not only did Hollywood make use of an unwitting, too generous group of innocent people; but it also made use of a river, our finest, helpless before its cameras. Part of our research sent us rafting down the mighty Chattooga River. Its beauty was stunning. From our raft, we recognized spots where scenes were filmed. Our guide said, “I get pretty tired of people asking about Deliverance. Some of the rafters start squealing like pigs when we reach the part of the river where the rape scene was filmed.”

As we neared the most dangerous rapids and falls where many thrill seekers have lost their lives, I was happy to walk around them, recalling the words of Sheriff Chester York. “Don’t go down that river. I’ve seen those rafts down there at Woodall Shoals on two occasions caught like flutter mills. There’s hydraulic power in there. I’ve seen life jackets stripped off of the body by the force of the water. You can tell people that and they still don’t believe you. They have to find out the hard way.”  

According to The United States Forest Service reports nearly forty fatalities occurred between 1970-2003. James Dickey tried to warn people. “That river doesn’t care about you. It’ll knock your brains out. Most of the people going up there don’t know about whitewater rivers. They are just out for a lark, just like those characters in Deliverance. They wouldn’t have gone up there if I hadn’t written the book. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t patrol the river. But it just makes me feel awful.”

Most mountain folks have dueled with the negative impacts and scars left behind by the chief of hillbilly horror flicks, Deliverance. Georgia Tourism promoters as well as our own Chamber of Commerce are excited to host a celebration in June commemorating the 40th anniversary of “…the most degrading depiction of southern mountaineers ever put on film…”  The New Georgia Encyclopedia

I’ve heard no objections to celebrate the river; however many feel Deliverance should be left in the past. Salt has been thrown into Hollywood’s deadly wound for the sake of money. Hurtful memories surface of a bunch of strangers who invaded home turf, admired us like gorillas, spent some money, laughed, and left. I have a problem with that.

Deliverance powerfully reinforces a stereotype I have been fighting most of my life: that of the hick with his liquor still, ignorant, depraved, stupid, and laughable. It’s that stereotype that convinces viewers, mountaineers have no worth, have no value and can be taken advantage of without an ounce of guilt.

No other regional, culture of people group in America would sit idly by without feeling wounded by the vile insults inflicted on their character and integrity.

"paddle faster" t-shirtIt’s been 40 years since Hollywood’s invasion of our community, yet scars remain. Occasionally, T-shirts and bumper stickers emerge on canoe laden vehicles.                        

It was Thanksgiving Day as I finished up this very piece. Darkness was falling like a curtain on a lighted stage. The forest floor lay thick and silent with blankets of protective brown leaves. Evening song birds hushed. Kelly’s Creek sang solo over the same spring rocks. The stillness was shattered by our dog, Charlie. Looking up from my text, I saw him streak lightening-fast through the yard like Old Yeller after a bear. I ran outside to investigate the ruckus and glimpsed two lost young hikers and their dog disappearing up a mountain path. We knew they could never make their destination before dark, plus they had no cell phone service. My husband, Larry went to see if he could help. His appearing scared the young hikers stiff. Eventually he was able to convince them to come to our home. They were shaken, but grateful for water and phone service. As they waited to be picked up, the young woman said, “We were really scared; thank you for helping us. My friend and I were just talking about Deliverance country!” I said, “Do you hear any pigs squealing?” Hmmm, and it’s just a movie?

What’s a heritage worth? It’s Not My Mountain Anymore fights stereotyping with truth.

“CBS This Morning” aired this chilling story:


Dear Ms. Woodall: I saw your interview on the news–I think it was CBS news–about the movie Deliverance and I share your sentiments 100%.  As someone who hates ALL forms of bigotry, I find the stereotyping of Southerners/rural people as offensive as racial stereotyping and Hollywood–for all of its political correctness–has been extremely hypocritical in this respect.

Respectfully, Bill Clausen. Solvang, Ca.

Deliverance on the Chattooga

The Chattooga River is a character in the story of ‘Deliverance’

Airtran Go Magazine, August issue: