On May 1, 2013, Vice President Joe Biden delivered the keynote speech at the Voices Against Violence event in Washington, D.C. Even though the VP had written the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, and therefore had the authority to speak about the subject, he decided to add a clumsy personal touch to his address:
You often hear men say, “Why don’t they just leave?” [. . .] And I ask them, how many of you seen the movie Deliverance? And every man will raise his hand. And I’ll say, what’s the one scene you remember in Deliverance? And every man here knows exactly what scene to think of. And I’ll say, “After those guys tied that one guy in that tree and raped him, man raped him, in that film. Why didn’t the guy go to the sheriff? What would you have done? “Well, I’d go back home get my gun. I’d come back and find him.” Why wouldn’t you go to the sheriff? Why? Well, the reason why is they are ashamed. They are embarrassed. I say, why do you think so many women that get raped, so many don’t report it? They don’t want to get raped again by the system.1
The plot of Deliverance (1972) is relatively simple and so familiar that the vice president of the United States used it as shorthand to convey the humiliation and horror of sexual assault in the celebration of the anniversary of an institution dedicated to help victims of domestic abuse. (In the film, four middle-class suburban men paddle down the Cahulawassee River to explore the Georgia Mountains’ wilderness before it is flooded by the construction of a dam. Their adventure turns into a nightmare when they come across two “inbred hillbillies” and one of the canoeists is violently raped. In order to survive the southern “heart of darkness,” the suburbanites must give in to their primal instincts and break a series of laws and moral codes.) But what exactly does Vice Pres. Biden’s reference to the film mean? Is Deliverance a story about survivalism? An ecological cautionary tale? An allegory of the rise of the Sunbelt? A thinly veiled homoerotic fantasy?
Since its release, the film has provoked passionate critiques, inspired different analyses, and has become a cult phenomenon. The imagery, stereotypes, and symbols produced by the film still inform popular perceptions of the US South, even by those who have never actually watched it. Readings of Deliverance have tended to privilege one particular interpretation, failing to fully grasp its relevance. The movie is a rich cultural text that provides historians with multiple ways to analyze the South, particularly concepts such as southern identity and masculinity.
What makes a film an important, iconic, cultural text? It is not simply a matter of popularity at the moment of its release. Deliverance premiered in New York on July 30, 1972, and was quite successful that year, but so were Deep Throat and What’s Up Doc? And it did not even closely approach the box office numbers achieved by The Godfather. The Blaxsploitation classic Super Fly (1972) premiered the same week and, by August 9, had made $145,000. Deliverance earned almost a third of that, making $45,023.2 The initial Variety review described it as a “heavy” and uneven version of a novel that would “divide audiences, making promotion a major challenge” for Warner Brothers.3 The two New York Times critics who reviewed Deliverance appear to have watched different films. Although Vincent Canby had some kind words about the film’s cinematography and performances, he calls it a “an action melodrama that doesn’t trust its action to speak louder than words.” Stephen Farber, however, saw an “uncompromising adventure movie” that “also happens to be the most stunning piece of moviemaking released this year.”4
This essay argues that an important cultural text needs to fulfill three criteria: 1) It reinforces or reworks ideas, images, and stereotypes of the past. 2) It captures the sociocultural spirit and anxieties of the present. And 3) it leaves a legacy that informs future representations. Deliverance accomplishes all of those. It dialogues with past representations of underclass white southerners; reflects and questions the historical moment in which it was produced and consumed; and, to this day, affects the way the region and its inhabitants are perceived and depicted. It can be read as a reflection of the reconfiguration of southern identity during the rise of the Sunbelt, but also as an expression of the perceived masculinity crisis of the 1970s. In addition, although other, more positive images of working-class white southerners were also emerging in the 1970s, the “ redneck nightmare” trope popularized by Deliverance became iconic and enduring.5
In general, studies of the South in film tend to either focus on a specific period and analyze how a particular set of films represent certain views or ideas, or to survey a larger time frame and show how images and perceptions have changed.6 This article proposes instead to analyze a single film, trying to glean from it the sociocultural climate of the period in which it was produced and consumed. Yet, it also connects Deliverance with past stereotypes, archetypes, and discourses, while considering how it affected future representations of underclass white southerners. It is not the objective of this study, however, to argue that this was the only portrayal of the South in celluloid in that period. Other contemporary texts presented very different images of the region.7
In his seminal 1985 article about horror movies, film critic Robin Wood discusses how “the Other” in those texts has to be rejected and eliminated or rendered safe by assimilation. Wood contends that Otherness “functions not simply as something external to the culture or to the self, but also as what is repressed (but never destroyed) in the self and projected outwards in order to be hated and disowned.”8 He uses the depictions of Native Americans and white settlers in classical Westerns as examples of this process. Yet, strong parallels also exist in relation to representations of the South.
Scholars from different disciplines have demonstrated how the South and southerners have played the fundamental role of the “Other” in the establishment of an elevated national identity. Historian James Cobb has pointed out that the tendency to compare South and North “and to see the latter as the normative standard for the entire nation” can be dated at least as far back as to the earliest days of US independence.9 Geographer David R Jansson sees this process as “internal orientalism.”10 Film critic Godfrey Cheshire places Hollywood in the role of colonizer, while Southern Cultures editor Larry Griffin argues that there are as many different “Americas” as there are “Souths,” therefore, we need to question why a particular paradigm is chosen and think about the implications of that choice.11 In “The Quest for the Central Theme in Southern History,” David L. Smiley, suggests: “Perhaps a more fruitful question for students of the American South would be not what the South is or has been, but why the idea of the South began, and how it came to be accepted as axiomatic among Americans.”12 The same advice can also be applied to analyses of representations of Dixie in popular culture.
The stigmatization of a group as “the Other” always implies a relation of power.13 The negotiation of power in Deliverance happens not only on an interregional level, but also between classes. The new, educated, and “redeemed” Sunbelt white South needed to construct its own “Other.” In the post–civil rights era, African Americans, the other “Others,” seemed to be off limits. Hence, what better demographic group to serve this function than the historically stigmatized poor white southerners?14
They are “crackers,” “hillbillies,” and especially “rednecks,”‑all pejoratives bestowed by representatives of a long succession of southern hegemonies, then consumed and broadcast by Yankees who share hegemonic understanding and control communications media.15
Poor white trash, not a nickel in my jeans
Poor white trash, don’t know what lovin’ means
Poor white trash, never had no fun
Poor white trash, ain’t got no one.
In the swamp I live, in the swamp I die.
For poor white trash no one will cry.16
Underclass southern whites complicate our understanding of US racial dynamics by challenging two important concepts: white supremacy and white privilege. The novel Deliverance describes the North Georgia region as “the country of the nine-fingered people.”17 James Dickey’s son, Christopher, says that this is “because there’s so much inbreeding and so many bad accidents (in the region) that everybody’s missing something.”18 In the film’s DVD audio commentary, director John Boorman notes that the people he encountered in the Georgia Mountains were “all hillbillies” whose “notorious” inbreeding he maladroitly explains: “The reason, I discovered up there, is that these are the descendants of white people who married Indians, and they were then ostracized by the Indians and the whites, and so they had to turn in on themselves, and this strange, hostile, inward-looking group grew up around that history. And you can see, in some of those people’s faces, traces of the Indian.”19 Although it is unclear where the director got this information, he is inadvertently employing the same rationale used to stigmatize and oppress underclass white southerners in the past.
Even prior to the Civil War, abolitionists and proslavery groups portrayed poor southern whites as people outside of a respectable white society.20 Both Harriet Beecher Stowe’s A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1854) and white supremacist Daniel R. Hundley’s Social Relations in Our Southern States (1860) have chapters entitled “Poor White Trash.” Stowe believed that slavery not only corrupted the “black working classes,” but also produced “a poor white population as degraded and brutal as ever existed in any of the most crowded districts of Europe.” She notes that this “inconceivably brutal” group of whites resemble “some blind, savage monster, which, when aroused, tramples heedlessly over everything in its way.”21Hundley sees underclass southern whites as the “laziest two-legged animals that walk erect on the face of the Earth” whose appearance was: lank, lean, angular, and bony, with . . . sallow complexion, awkward manners, and a natural stupidity or dullness of intellect that almost surpasses belief.”22 The focus on the appearance of poor whites is indicative of the association between poverty and physical deformity and the tendency to see poor whites as practically an inferior race. This rationale allowed southerners to ignore the structural barriers to upward mobility in a slave society. Hunley blames “bad blood” and not the “peculiar institution” for the degeneracy of poor whites.23
In 1926 Arthur H. Estabrook and Ivan E. McDougle published Mongrel Virginians: The Win Tribe, which examined a mixed-population group in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Virginia, not all that far from Deliverance country.24 According to Eastabrook and McDougle, “the white folks look down on them, as do the negroes, and this, with their dark skin color, has caused segregation from the general community.”25 As we have seen, Deliverance director John Boorman gave a similar explanation to the strange appearance of the people he used as extras in his film.
The general acceptance of eugenics laws and involuntary sterilization in the early twentieth century informed public perception of poor whites as potentially dangerous.26 Yet, the stigmatization of underclass whites also had some relatively positive outcomes. In 1909 John D. Rockefeller Sr. granted $1,000,000 to the creation of the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease. Although they did not necessarily represent underclass southern whites negatively, hookworm crusaders provided one more instance in which this group of people would be perceived as a socially marginal “Other.”27 During the New Deal, another benevolent stereotype of underclass white southerners captured the country’s imagination as Rexford Tugwell instructed Roy Striker “to tell people about the lower third‑how ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-housed they are.”28 In the hands of talented Farm Securities Administration (FSA) photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein, southern tenants and sharecroppers were transformed into icons of New Deal populism, but the headlines accompanying the powerful images highlighted their exoticism: “Poverty’s Prisoners,” “Uncensored Views of Sharecroppers’ Misery,” or “Is This America?”29
Social realism in the US was not only manifested in the FSA photographs. The Depression also generated socially engaged literature, also known as “sharecropper realism,” which offered dignified depictions of southern sharecroppers.30 At the same time, however, poor southern whites were popularized by a different set of novels: the Southern Gothic literary tradition, which influenced the perception of poor white southerners not only on the printed page, but also on movie screens.31 It can be argued that the work of Flannery O’Connor, Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, among others, provided a more direct antecedent for the redneck nightmare genre.
These images, archetypes, and stereotypes, some dating back to the nineteenth century, have served as a template for the haunting images of the mountain people in Deliverance. The “creepy banjo boy” played by Billy Redden provides one of the most iconic images of the film. The scene is praised in the Variety review as a “very touching banjo and giutar [sic] duet between [Ronnie] Cox and a retarded.”32 According to J. W. Williamson, some of the local people “felt queasy about the filming of Mrs. Webb’s retarded granddaughter and the use of Billy Redden, who played the inbred banjoist.”33 Redden was a special-education student at the time of the shooting who would later enjoy the status of a local celebrity, having his picture taken with tourists and even resuming his “Hollywood career” three decades later by making a cameo playing banjo on Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003).34 Much has been said about the “authenticity” of the scene, but little attention has been paid to the fact that the character is described in a second draft of film’s screenplay as “probably a half-wit, likely from a family inbred to the point of imbecility and Albinism.”35 Redden’s “face was powdered and his head was shaven for the part” to accentuate his exoticism.36 In the audio commentary over the scene with Mrs. Webb and her grandchild, director John Boorman states: “Look at this character now, this woman, look, the way they live there, that was just absolutely how it was. No set up in any way. It was just us peering through a window with a camera.”37 He ignores the process of pre-production that selected people and locations that fit the screenplay’s descriptions, the ideas and ambiance the filmmakers wanted to convey, and their assumptions about underclass rural southerners.
Ellen Glasgow criticized the Southern Gothic School for its exclusive focus on negative aspects of life in the South and for presenting its Gothic elements as pseudo-realism.38 Similar criticism has been made of Deliverance’s portrayal of the Georgia mountain folk. Former mayor of Clayton, Georgia, Edward Cannon Norton, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1990 that he “despises Deliverance” for the way it depicted his people, noting the film is “too filthy” and it “pictures us as a sorry lot of people.” S. K. Graham, who wrote the article quoting Mr. Norton, also notes that the film “played to every stereotype the mountaineers have tried to live down.”39
The “rise of the Sunbelt” brought Dixie economic and political power, creating a need for the reconfiguration of the traditional North vs. South identity dynamic. World War II government defense spending led to an impressive economic development of the region. The New South economy and the migration of people and jobs below the Mason-Dixon line produced rapid urbanization and industrialization, contributing to the rise of education and income levels and an upheaval to the system of racial segregation.40
Nevertheless, as Bruce J. Schulman has argued, the process that transformed the US South from the Cotton Belt to the Sunbelt did not affect the whole section equally: the Sunbelt had its “shadows.” In the decades that produced this drastic change, the coexistence of extreme poverty and prosperity led commentators to criticize the moniker.41 Federal intervention, Schulman notes, “ignited growth at the top,” neglecting “the poverty smoldering at the bottom.” Southern politicians and elites used their influence and supported federal programs for industrial development and agricultural subsidies, while opposing welfare programs.42 Therefore, the Sunbelt did not shine equally to everyone. In the 1970s as the New South reconstructed the image of a region “too busy to hate,” uneducated, underclass whites represented an unredeemed link to the section’s troublesome past. As Christopher Dickey notes, Deliverance “played with the tension between the new South and the old South. The new South was Atlanta. The old South up in the mountains was a whole different world. You didn’t have to drive far to hit it.”43
Jimmy Carter’s inauguration seemed to affirm the acceptance of the New South into the national fold.44 In 1976, the year Carter took office, a captivating representation of the southern redneck conquered the nation when Burt Reynolds’s Bo “Bandit” Darville charmed audiences in Smokey and the Bandit and a number of subsequent “Good Ol’ Boy” movies. Yet, Reynolds’s charming outlaws were not the only images of working-class white southern masculinity to emerge in that decade. If the 1970s delivered films and television series that presented southern white working-class men as charming rebels, it also solidified the image of a degenerate “race” of underclass southern whites, marking the rise of the redneck nightmare movie. Unlike previous films that associated southern evilness with racism, redneck nightmare films generally ignored the social context in which these terrifying “natives” exist. There is no reason why they are the way they are, and their deviance appears to be something congenital or fostered by the evil environment they inhabit. Early prototypes of the subgenre include the adaptation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931), The Story of Temple Drake (1933) and the exploitation cult classic Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964). The subgenre is solidified in the 1970s with films such as Easy Rider (1969), Deliverance (1972), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Macon County Line (1974), and Southern Comfort (1981).
Derek Nystrom argues that Hollywood’s white working-class southern men in the 1970s can only be understood in the context of the Sunbelt industrialization and urbanization. Nystrom analyzes the “move from redneck to the good ole boy” in representations of white working-class southern masculinity, placing Deliverance as a precursor to what he calls the “southern cycle” or as “an allegory of the Sunbelt’s rise.”45 Along with the transfer of economic and political power to the region, the rise of the Sunbelt also meant a shift from the unionized North to the antiunion South, a process that also contributed to the rise of the New Right. According to Nystrom, the role of class identity in the film’s “allegorical structure” must be considered in order to fully understand “the social history” of its production, identifying Deliverance as a key part of the period’s “larger cultural rearticulation of the South.” His analysis explains the “good ol’ boy” movies, but by placing Deliverance as an anomaly he obscures the film’s true legacy. Boorman’s film actually engendered a host of similar texts, affecting the way that poor southern whites are portrayed and represented.
Deliverance is a complex text, created by skillful artists, which complicates any easy reading of it as just a product of Sunbelt sociocultural angst. Although it has undoubtedly contributed to the stigmatization of underclass southern whites, it refuses to make the suburbanite protagonists the heroes of the story. The film’s opening sequence makes it very clear who attacks first. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) tells his companions that after the dam is built “there ain’t gon’ be no more river. There’s just gonna be a big, dead lake. . . . You just push a little more power into Atlanta, a little more air-conditioners for your smug little suburb, and you know what’s gonna happen? We’re gonna rape this whole god-damned landscape.46 We’re gonna rape it.” It can be argued, then, that the suburban Sunbelt is violating the wilderness and the “savage locals” are only retaliating. The plot also does not make it clear if the canoers’ actions are based on actual threat. Nevertheless, by producing the ultimate emasculating humiliation in the harrowing homosexual rape scene, the film essentially justifies any act of violence committed by its protagonists. When Christopher asked his father why was that scene in the story, James Dickey replied he “had to put the moral weight of murder on the suburbanites.”47
Although Deliverance refuses to have straightforward heroes and villains, the film’s publicity material clearly establishes with whom the audience should identify. Here is how the theatrical trailer introduces the characters: “These are the men, nothing very unusual about them. Suburban guys like you or your neighbor. Nothing very unusual about them until they decided to spend one weekend canoeing down the Cahulawassee River. . . . These are the men who decided not to play golf that weekend. Instead they sought the river.”48 Although the trailer proposes a more generically suburban identity for the protagonists, the film does not shy away from their “southerness.” A few years before the symbol had been reconfigured to symbolize carefree rebelliousness in good ol’ boy movies and television series, Lewis drives a car with a Confederate flag license plate. The trailer emphasizes the canoers’ middle-class suburban identity and contrasts them with the local rednecks, but it also makes it very clear that these are “men,” these are “guys.”
A few weeks after the film’s release, Life published an article about Jon Voight’s participation in Deliverance. The article has four images of the actor on the set. One larger, dominant image shows Voight climbing a cliff and describes the actor’s “nerve” to shoot the scene without a double. The smaller, central, picture shows him and Reynolds wrestling in the river and discusses their on-screen rivalry, noting how both men “pride themselves in being athletic.” The image on the lower right side shows “a dramatic white-water scene from the film.” The other small image, however, seems slightly out of place. It is a photo of Voight “relaxing with Marcheline Bertrand, the gentle, storybook pretty girl” he had recently married.49 Marcheline’s lovely, peaceful smile contrasts with the other images of intense male action. She is there to comfort her man. She presents no threat to his masculinity. And she is obviously not a part of the men’s sphere. If after some unforeseeable catastrophe that article were the only surviving artifact left of the 1970s, future investigators would have a hard time guessing that women were agitating for equality and against the patriarchy in the 1970s.50
Suburbanization and a pattern of domesticated consumer-oriented masculinity emerged by the 1950s, spawning the notion that US masculinity was in crisis. The social movements of the 1960s intensified that process, and by the 1970s a rhetoric proposing the emasculation of the white male was consolidated.51 The three cores of masculine identity‑breadwinning, soldiering, and heterosexuality‑were no longer guaranteed.52 Women started to gain prominence in the public sphere and to demand equal rights.53 As Steve Estes notes, the civil rights and Black Power movements defied the exclusion of African American males “from claiming their stake in American manhood.”54 The Gay Liberation movement defied heterosexual normalcy, counterculture challenged moral standards and family “values,” and the antiwar movement questioned the military service.55
These radical changes inspired the emergence of scientific, academic, and popular literature trying to deal with the perceived emasculation of American men. Magazines catering to this distressed male audience grew popular in the 1970s. A good example of this rhetoric in action is the advertisement for the revamped TRUE magazine: “One word describes the new TRUE magazine: MACHO. The honest-to-God American MAN deserves a magazine sans naked cuties, Dr. Spock philosophies, foppish, gutless ‘unisex’ pap, and platform shoes.” The ad advocates for the liberation the American male from the “sterile couches of pedantic psychiatrists” and from “the frivolous skirts of libbers.”56 In 1974 Ann Steinmann and David J. Fox published The Male Dilemma: How to Survive the Sexual Revolution. The book tries to find solutions for the crisis faced by American men in a rapidly changing society, in which for every gain made by women, “there is a corresponding loss of male power and prestige.”57 Sexual ambivalence, the authors argued, was affecting every aspect of men’s lives. Steinmann and Fox denounced the “highly mechanized, highly specialized society of the midcentury” in which males’ physical strength, individual expression, and moral codes are not appreciated, compromising their manhood.58 Furthermore, they contend, this world in which “the once clear-cut distinctions that separated men from women in their sexual and social roles have began to blur and break down” was not only detrimental to men. It caused constant marital conflict, venereal disease epidemics, “soaring” divorce and illegitimacy rates, and “the less identifiable atmosphere of object love, of sex for sex’s sake.”59
Deliverance is a crucial text to consider these issues, not only because of the onscreen story, but also because of how it was promoted, discussed, and criticized upon its release. Much of the film’s publicity revolved around the personalities of the men involved in its production. The set of Deliverance was a man’s world. According to Christopher Dickey, “It was like the whole film was becoming some kind of macho gamble in which each man had to prove he could take the risks the characters were running.”60 In promotional materials and interviews, cast members often complimented each other’s manly attributes: There are constant praises to Burt Reynolds’ physicality, Jon Voight’s courage and focus, and director John Boorman’s pushing them all to their limits. James Dickey’s persona also provided an important subtext for the film’s reception. Part suburbanite, part rugged outdoorsman, he was, according various commentators, a combination of the four protagonists’ qualities and defects. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution refers to him as “an almost mythical macho man in the Hemingway mold.”61 While describing the men involved in the picture, the documentary promo for the film’s release exudes testosterone. Dickey is as a man who “leaves his imprint on everything, and everybody he meets.” An accomplished college professor, he is “one of the major American poets of his generation” but also someone who has a “striking physical presence,” with the authority conferred by personal experience to write about “raging white water in a frail canoe, or hunting deer with a bow and arrow in the wilderness.” In the promo, Boorman compliments Reynolds’s “magnificent physique” and Dickey raves about the cast: “All I can say about these actors, Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight, and Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox is that every one of them’s got more guts than a burglar.” Even the film’s production is portrayed as a battle of wills between two powerful dominant males: the director and the author/screenwriter. Boorman describes his relationship with Dickey as “turbulent,” but boasts that he maintained his ground: “I can say that I went fifteen rounds with a champ and I’m still on my feet.”62 There were even rumors that they actually engaged in a fistfight that left the director with a broken nose and minus four teeth.63 The intense level of competition and conflict resolution through homosocial bonding was an important subtext in both the film’s plot and publicity.
In the 1970s, Joan Mellen assessed gender in US cinema with two influential books: Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film (1974) and Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Cinema (1977). Her work shows how Deliverance was already considered an important text for understanding gender and sexuality shortly after its release. Mellen sees the disappearance of women from 1970s films as a punishment for their new demands and gains and as a reflection of “the belief that a relationship of equals would lead to male impotence.”64 Ultimately she reads the film through a logic of repressed homosexual desire, saying that rape scene was “exciting because it evoked an act they would willingly perform on each other were they not so repressed and alienated by the false accouterments of civilization.”65 Yet, the assumption that class and location affect men’s ability to express their sexual desires is latent in her analysis. Mellen mentions “cultures where male physical feeling does not impair masculine identity” without providing any concrete examples, but also describes the suburbanites’ attackers as “two rural degenerates, men primitive enough to act out those forbidden sexual impulses ‘civilized’ men like our heroes deflect into more acceptable manifestations such as hunting and contact sports.”66 Interestingly, she does not mention the regional identity of the characters, talking about them in terms of archetypes of American masculinity or in psychoanalytical terms by interpreting the story as a reflection of repressed desires projected into the “ghoulish hillbillies” (or the men’s “id”), concluding that the film is a “Freudian fable of the dangers of our instinctual life.” Robert Armour provides a similar reading in “Deliverance: Four Variations of the American Adam” (1973), noting that violence of nature and raw sexual instincts are familiar to the “hillbillies,” for whom “sexual acts satisfy natural urges, whether they are committed with a man, woman, cousin, or pig.”67 The film worked so well because for contemporary readers and critics, the role of the “exotic southern Other” was confined to the rural, underclass whites, which meant they could identify with the Atlanta suburbanites.
Stephen Farber’s reading of Deliverance’s depiction of masculinity contrasts sharply with Mellen’s. The New York Times critic sees it as “a devastating critique of machismo.” He compares Deliverance to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), noting that “the heroes of both movies are decent, rather fastidious men forced to confront the violent nature in themselves.” Yet, he argues that whereas Peckinpah “clings to the code of the Old West, implying that in a savage world a baptism of blood is the first step to becoming a man,” Boorman makes “a sardonic comment against the sportsman mystique.” Farber concludes that Deliverance “is a major work, important for the artistic vision it brings to the urgent question of understanding and redefining masculinity.”68 Although Farber and Mellen have different opinions about the movie and come to different conclusions about its representation of masculinity, they both reveal how the film resonated with 1970s audiences and critics trying to deal with a “masculinity crisis.”
Trying to establish a film’s popularity through box office figures and reviews alone can be tricky. It is possible to establish if it was widely seen or favorably reviewed, but that does not necessarily tell us who related to the film or how. What makes Deliverance such a relevant text is that it helped establish a subgenre (and a few tropes) in US cinema; it had a lasting impact on the people, the region, and even objects related to it; and it still serves as shorthand for poor white, and especially southern, scary backwardness and degeneracy.
Deliverance premiered on August 11, 1972, at the Atlanta International Film Festival. At 2:00 p.m. the following day a “Deliverance Seminar” was held.69 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s review was not exactly raving. Howell Raines called it a “peacock of a movie‑beautiful and proud, but rendered faintly ridiculous by an inflated sense of its own importance.” Raines praised the film’s action and photography, but was less impressed by its philosophical pretention. Nevertheless, he calls it the “most anxiously awaited film here since Gone with the Wind,” noting that more than 1,750 tickets were sold for its first local showing.70 Georgia’s governor, Jimmy Carter, along with the Atlanta’s vice mayor, Maynard Jackson, attended the screening. Also in attendance were James Dickey, Burt Reynolds (who came in a Playboy private airplane), and Hollywood director Otto Preminger. Reynolds was made honorary citizen of Atlanta at the event.71 Deliverance received the festival’s top award, the Golden Phoenix Best of the Festival prize. It also grabbed Best Director, Best Actor (Jon Voight), Best Supporting Actor (Ned Beatty), and Best Editor (Tom Priest).72 It then set in motion four decades of film production in Georgia. For the fiscal year of 2011 alone, the impact of that industry for the state’s economy was $2.4 billion.73 The movie made Burt Reynolds a bankable star, rescued Jon Voight’s career, and introduced two great theater performers to the movie screen: Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox.
Despite all that success, according to Christopher Dickey, “the book appeared in the stores in the summer of 1970 and quickly became a bestseller. The next summer, it was made into a movie with Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds. And after that, nothing good was the same.”74 Deliverance has left an ambiguous legacy to the region it made infamous. Environmental historian Timothy Silver notes that the film’s success “spawned a boom in tourism that inevitably led to overdevelopment, pollution, and a host of other environmental problems within the Chattooga watershed.”75 Only 7,600 people had floated down the Chattooga River in 1972. That number almost tripled the following year and reached an astounding 67,784 in 1989.76 The death of twenty-two rafters following the film’s release made the US Forest Services heighten safety restrictions in the area, but rafting has become the cornerstone of the region’s tourism industry.
Doug Woodward, a technical advisor on the set, who later founded Southeastern Expedition, notes that there was some strife in the relationship between cast and crew and the locals. He recalls that when the film’s producers returned to a previously selected location, the owner of the property told them, “I just read the book and you’re not shooting that filthy story on my place!”77 The Rabun County Board of Commissioners, Stan Darnell, had mixed feelings about the film. Referring to the infamous rape scene he remarks: “Everybody up here was kind of up in arms. They didn’t expect that one scene to be in there. But we got the rafting industry, and quite a few other movies came here and helped real estate, and other businesses around.”78 An Atlanta Journal-Constitution piece celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the novel explored this ambiguous legacy, noting that the movie had a positive effect on the region’s economy, boosting its tourism and putting it on the map for future film productions, while stigmatizing the local population. George Reynolds, a folklorist and music teacher who worked in the area, contends that the film affected the way that the people of the region perceived themselves, and how they “perceived the way the world sees them.”79
According to The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, “Deliverance has powerfully shaped national perceptions of Appalachia, the South, and indeed all people and places perceived as ‘backwoods.’”80 It has done so, in no small part, by ushering in a host of similar films inaugurating a new subgenre in Hollywood and independent US cinema.81 Although the redneck nightmare subgenre has antecedents that go as far back as the 1930s, it can be argued that Deliverance established its “semantic and syntactic” elements.82 It has been spoofed, parodied, and referenced in countless movies, TV shows, and cartoons since its release.
Furthermore, references to the film still serve as shorthand for poor white (especially southern) backwardness and degeneracy. On September 18, 2013, The Daily Show presented a sketch about a land dispute on the Georgia-Tennessee border. The clichéd piece interviewed “ignorant hillbillies” and ridiculed them for a quick laugh. When “reporter” Al Madrigal makes a silly Honey Boo Boo joke, one of the interviewees, Dade County, Georgia, executive chairman Ted Rumley tells him the issue is not “something to joke about.” The segment then cuts to five seconds of Deliverance footage with the voice over: “And we all know what happens to funny city people in rural Georgia.” No context is given. No introduction is made. Five seconds of the movie are enough to provide the joke’s punch line.83
One of the most interesting anecdotes about the film’s international appeal comes from anthropologist Jim Birckhead, who studies popular media and minority group identity, focusing on both Appalachia and Aboriginal Australia. Birckhead watched a play in the Australian Outback that had a vignette about southern snake handling, performed by the Wagga Wagga theater company. When the cast and crew realized that he was a “specialist” on the topic, they asked him if snake handlers are “inbred like Deliverance.” After inquiring where the play’s director and cast got information to build their characters, he finds out that they did not find actual literature on Holiness people, but rather relied on media representation of mountain people, especially Deliverance, which “conjured up for them lurid images of bizarre, grotesque, inbred ‘hillbillies.’”84
Deliverance seems to be a curse and a blessing to everyone and everything involved with it. It brought money and tourism to the region, but it also caused ecological problems and the death of several people who tried to emulate the film’s stars. It brought James Dickey fame and fortune but, according to his son, it also caused great personal and emotional damage to him and his family. It simultaneously popularized and stigmatized banjo music.85 And it helped create a fascination with (and prejudices against) poor, rural southern whites. Maybe that is quite fitting for a story that seemed to condemn while being inescapably part of a complicated moment in American history. President Jimmy Carter, who was the governor of the state made infamous by the feature summarized it well: “It’s pretty rough. But it’s good for Georgia . . . I hope.”86