The "squeal like a pig" scene from Deliverance is one of the most harrowing ever committed to film. Even people who have never seen the movie know what happens and what that particular line of dialogue means. The impact cannot be understated.
John Boorman's 1972 thriller tells the story of four friends - Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Ed (Jon Voight), Bobby (Ned Beatty), and Drew (Ronny Cox) - who take a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River before a dam is built, making any future excursions impossible. They anticipate some of the dangers, such as white water rapids. What they don't expect is to encounter nasty hillbillies. The guys soon find themselves fighting for their lives. Things reach a horrific peak when two of those hillbillies, "Mountain Man" (Bill McKinney) and "Toothless Man" (Herbert Coward), tie Ed to a tree and make Bobby disrobe. Mountain Man then proceeds to violate Bobby, demanding that he "squeal like a pig" during the attack.
Filming such a disturbing and provocative scene was not easy. The cast and crew faced challenges not just in putting it together, but also in making sure it achieved the desired effect within the story. They pulled it off, resulting in an iconic sequence that continues to be discussed, debated, and written about more than four decades after Deliverance was first released.
"Squeal like a pig" is a demented and disturbing expression in the context of the scene. Interestingly, it's unclear who came up with that famous line of dialogue. Some say Boorman's frequent writing partner Rospo Pallenberg thought it up. Still others insist that McKinney ad-libbed it.
Boorman has his own account. In the DVD audio commentary, he claims that the studio insisted he film a profanity-free version of the scene so that the movie could play on television. Everyone was standing around trying to think of something Mountain Man could say when a crew member randomly chipped in with that suggestion. The director thought it was better than what was on the page, so he decided to keep it.
What's the true origin of the phrase? We'll probably never know for sure.
Actor Bill McKinney plays Mountain Man, the guy who defiles Bobby. He apparently knew their big scene together would be more effective if Ned Beatty was legitimately afraid of him. According to Burt Reynolds, McKinney attempted to intimidate Beatty behind the scenes for that very reason.
"I just remember [McKinney] would sit three tables away from us during lunch, just staring at Ned," Reynolds explained. "Later I asked Bill why he was doing that. He said he was taught by Bruce Dern. And Bruce Dern said your main thrust, pardon the pun, should be to scare the hell out of Ned Beatty. And he did."
Performing such a heavy-duty scene is perhaps the most difficult thing an actor can do. They have to get themselves into a certain headspace so they can project trauma, even though they aren't being traumatized for real. Ned Beatty told Garden & Gun that he used an unpleasant memory from his adolescence during the sequence.
As a high school student in Kentucky, Beatty got a job working for a farmer. His primary duty was to round up wild hogs and boars for castration. The actor explained:
Because I was a football player, I was given the job of hitting the boar with all my strength up on the shoulders and knocking him down on the correct side, like I was doing a block. As fast as possible, I had to get some rope around his feet and nostrils so he wouldn’t bite me. This older man who was well into his sixties would grab the correct hind foot that we had to lay over. I had to sit on the boar’s head while they performed this awful operation on him. That really came back to me [during the performance].
Watching the "squeal like a pig" sequence is nerve-rattling. Filming it certainly must have been, too. In 2008, Burt Reynolds told Maxim that he thought the scene crossed a line while it was being filmed, so he stepped in to stop it. The star said:
All that "squeal, piggy, piggy" stuff was not in the script. Two camera operators looked away during the scene because it was getting so hairy. Finally it went too far, and I ran into the shot. I asked John Boorman, the director, "Why did you let it go that long?" He said, "I wanted to take it as far as I could take the audience, and I figured you’d run in when it got too far."