The Making Of 'Deliverance' Was Even More Horrifying Than The Film's Backwoods Locals

The making of Deliverance was a survival story to rival the one on screen. The 1972 movie, based on James Dickey's novel of the same name, is about four friends - Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Ed (Jon Voight), Bobby (Ned Beatty), and Drew (Ronny Cox) - who take a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River. Rapids are the least dangerous thing they have to face. After an unpleasant encounter with aggressive hillbillies, the men find themselves running for their lives. 

Director John Boorman insisted on making his film feel as authentic and real as possible, and his efforts made Deliverance one of the scariest movies ever. The following anecdotes will take you behind the scenes of Deliverance to show you how he accomplished that mission. During production, all the main actors nearly perished, and there was a fair amount of drama off-camera, as well. Deliverance is to wilderness survival movies as Goodfellas is to mob movies - a prime example of a film that gets every last detail exactly right. More than 45 years later, it still retains its raw, unforgettable power. 

  • The Banjo Kid Couldn't Really Play The Banjo

    Billy Redden wasn't an actor. He was an average kid who was picked to play Lonnie (also known as "Banjo Boy") during a casting call at a local elementary school. Because Redden couldn't play the banjo, John Boorman had to find a way to make it look like he could on screen.

    To achieve the effect, a child who played the banjo sat hidden behind Redden, his hand stuck through the actor's sleeve to reach the fretboard. He did the fingering while Redden pretended to strum.

  • The Movie Was Filmed In Order In Case One Of The Actors Perished

    John Boorman wanted his actors to do their own canoeing. He believed the lack of stuntmen would make for a visceral viewing experience. He got around the fact that the stars were novices by shooting in sequence.

    Ronny Cox recalled: 

    The easy rapids were at the beginning of the film, and the rapids get harder and harder as we go through the film. So by the time we got to the really hard rapids, we had had canoe practice and had been on the water for five or six weeks of six or seven, eight hours a day. So by that time, we were all really good canoers.

    Burt Reynolds, meanwhile, claimed Boorman told him there was a second motive for shooting in sequence: "If one of you drowns, I can write that into the script."

  • Burt Reynolds Actually Went Over The Waterfall In The Canoe

    Burt Reynolds was known as a tough guy, and he reveled in the reputation. So for a scene in which Lewis goes over a waterfall in a canoe, he rebuffed John Boorman's plan to use a dummy. Reynolds said he'd do it himself. That was a big mistake.

    The actor told The Hollywood Reporter:

    I went over the falls and the first thing that happened, I hit a rock and cracked my tailbone, and to this day it hurts. Then I went down to the water below, and it was a whirlpool. I couldn’t get out and a guy there said, "If you get caught, just go to the bottom. You can get out, but you can't swim against it." So I went down to the bottom. What he didn’t tell me was it was going to shoot me up like a [geyser]. So I went out.

    Adding embarrassment to injury, the force of shooting up out of the water caused Reynolds' costume to be completely torn off. He emerged from the water bare. 

  • Reynolds Brought In The Actor Who Delivered The Infamous 'Purdy Mouth' Line

    Because it took place in real backwater locations, Deliverance needed people with unusual looks to play the villainous hillbillies who pursue the heroes. Of them, the most well-remembered is the "Toothless Man" who utters the immortal line, "He got a real purdy mouth, ain't he?" Burt Reynolds was personally responsible for finding the actor. 

    Knowing they needed someone to fulfill the small but pivotal role, Reynolds remembered Herbert Coward, a guy he once worked with at Ghost Town in the Sky theme park in North Carolina. Coward played a gunfighter there. Since parts of Deliverance were being filmed at the park, Reynolds recommended his old pal for the job, then helped him prepare his lines before filming. 

  • Jon Voight Almost Plummeted Off A Cliff

    Jon Voight wanted to make sure the perils faced in Deliverance were palpable for the audience. This quest for authenticity nearly caused him to plummet off a cliff. The actor told The Guardian he wanted a rock-climbing scene filmed in close-up, which would prevent the use of a stuntman.

    "I was about 10 feet up on the face, which was slippery and almost perpendicular," he said. "I told the two grips below me: 'If I start to fall off, I’m going to push off the rocks. And you’ll catch me.' I started to slip, called out and one of them caught me."

    The danger was worsened by the fact that a sharp rock was mere inches from the actor's head when he was caught. 

  • Ronny Cox Dislocated His Shoulder On Purpose 

    One of the most difficult-to-watch scenes involves the discovery of Drew's body. His arm is twisted up around his head, which can make even the most steadfast viewer queasy. That effect was not achieved through make-up or prosthetics. It's Ronny Cox's real arm. 

    The actor told The Wrap he contracted a mild case of polio as a child. This left him with an ability to "do this thing where my shoulder comes out of place and just completely dislocates." During production, he mentioned this fact to Boorman, who thought it would be great for Drew's demise. Cox agreed, intentionally dislodging his shoulder for the sequence.