An enlightening story in Garden & Gun, I finally brought myself to watch the entire movie last month. It’s just touch to get past the Ned Beatty scene, but hey, he was only acting – right?
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.
Read the remainder of this interview here.