Chattooga River Festival to mark 40 years since ‘Deliverance’

Parts of "Deliverance" were filmed in Tallulah Gorge, including a particularly harrowing scene in which Jon Voigt's character had to scale a rocky cliff face.



Parts of "Deliverance" were filmed in Tallulah Gorge, including a particularly harrowing scene in which Jon Voigt's character had to scale a rocky cliff face.

RABUN COUNTY — Most of the time, this ruggedly beautiful region some two hours north of Atlanta represents the happy flip side of that whole “death and taxes” thing. For all the unavoidably bad stuff life can be counted on to dish out, Rabun’s reliable natural charms help even the score.

The Blue Ridge Mountains offer a breathtaking backdrop everywhere one looks. Major thoroughfares are swaddled in the lush Chattahoochee National Forest. Charmingly rustic signs point the way to the nearly 1,000-foot-deep Talullah Gorge and outclass — and seemingly outnumber — the more garish roadside billboards for buying cars or selling gold.

Even the air feels different up here. Fresher, and — these days, anyway — laced with deja vu.

In the summer of 1972, “Deliverance” introduced the outside world to Rabun County. The film version of Atlanta native James Dickey’s novel about four guys from the big city getting much more than they bargained for while canoeing on the fictional Cahulawassee River had been shot here the previous year.

Not everyone would be thrilled with the way the R-rated film turned out.

“It portrayed the county as backwards, uneducated, scary, deviant, inbred hillbillies,” current Rabun County Commission Chairman Stanley Darnell said, summing up many locals’ reaction to the movie in 1972. “There are still many, many people in Rabun County who would be happy to never hear the word ‘Deliverance’ again in their lifetime.”

Too late.

Next weekend ushers in the inaugural Chattooga River Festival, a high-profile event celebrating both the federally protected river that’s the emotional and economic heart of this tourism-dependent region — and the movie that even its detractors are forced to concede almost single-handedly put Rabun on the map.

This year — and only in this first year of its existence, organizers stress — the three-day festival will have as its theme the 40th anniversary of “Deliverance.” The movie, which starred Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight, was nominated for three Academy Awards, introduced unforgettable music (“Dueling Banjos”) and phrases (“Squeal like a pig”) to our shared cultural soundtrack, and turned paddling the Chattooga into a multimillion-dollar industry in Georgia and South Carolina (the river, which “played” the Cahulawassee in the movie, serves as a boundary between the two states).

Along with more standard fare — including a fun run, live music, artisans village and river cleanup — the festival to take place in Rabun and Oconee County, S.C., will feature such deliberately “Deliverance”-oriented activities as a guided hike down Talullah Gorge to several iconic filming sites, a “Dueling Banjos” musical competition and a book-signing by Ronny Cox, who made his movie debut as “Deliverance’s” doomed paddler Drew.

Organizers last week were still holding out hope that Reynolds, Voight and Ned Beatty, the fourth member of the on-screen quartet, might decide to join Cox here for the festival’s high point: On Saturday night, the 40th Anniversary edition of “Deliverance,” which Warner Brothers hasn’t even released yet, will have its glittery premiere screening at the Rabun County Civic Center. It opens at the nearby Tiger Drive-In the following night.

‘Agree to disagree’

Yet once again, not everyone in Rabun County is thrilled to have “Deliverance” back on its turf.

Some residents complained loudly to the County Commission, which rejected a $1,000 funding request for the festival (Darnell says the commission turns down all such requests and didn’t single this one out because of its theme). Soon after, the local newspaper rather harrumphingly weighed in:

“There is not much Rabunites can do if some harebrained outsiders want to base their characterization of people here on a 110-minute movie,” The Clayton Tribune editorialized. “Locals can, however, laugh all the way to the bank while appreciating the positive effects of the movie.”

The festival’s supporters tend to agree with those sentiments, although few put it quite so bluntly. Instead, organizers have retained the “Deliverance” theme while tweaking the lineup somewhat to appease wounded sensibilities here.

In a county where everybody seems to know everybody else, or is related to someone who worked on the movie in some capacity, “Deliverance” is unofficially a member of the family, too. And in the end, Rabun has decided to treat the return of its celulloid prodigal son much as a family would.

“I went and talked personally to everyone who was upset,” said Pete Cleaveland, the Rabun County Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director, who’s vice chairman of the festival’s executive committee. “In every instance, we ended up saying, ‘We’ll agree to disagree.’”

A tourism boost

To outsiders, the decision to celebrate the 40th anniversary of “Deliverance” is a no-brainer. The movie was an enormous critical and financial success, finishing No. 5 at the box office in 1972 and losing the Best Picture Oscar to none other than “The Godfather.” Even Georgia’s present-day multibillion-dollar movie and TV industry traces directly back to “Deliverance” and Rabun; impressed by the scope and success of that project, then-Gov. Jimmy Carter established the Georgia Film Commission in 1973.

Pretty heady stuff for a county with a total population of about 8,330 at the time. And make no mistake about it: Georgia and South Carolina might share the Chattooga River, aka the “Cahulawassee.” But Rabun alone has always “owned” the “Deliverance” association, in ways good and bad.

In both the book and movie, the story — “A fictional story set on a fictional river in a fictional town,” emphasized Ken Sloan, the South Carolina-based chairman of the festival board — took place in remote North Georgia. Consequently, nearly everything was shot in Rabun. The cast and crew stayed there, too, making jobs and celebrity sightings commonplace, if never exactly routine.

“I was at a fish fry and Ronny Cox was there with his guitar playing James Taylor songs,” Cecile Thompson, a ninth-grader at the time, recalled almost dreamily. “The first time I ever saw a Porsche, a photographer on the movie came right up [U.S.] 76 in a bright yellow one.”

The positive impact on the hotel/motel and restaurant trade stayed around even after the film crew left town. Moviegoers who’d swooned for Rabun’s gorgeous scenery on screen came to see it for themselves. Others who’d fallen in love with the idea of a “Deliverance”-type adventure — if not the fate that awaited Reynolds, Voight, et al. — began beating a path to the banks of the Chattooga.

“The canoeing, kayaking, rafting, camping and outdoor adventure business — that all came about and got started and got the wind under its sails here because of the movie ‘Deliverance’ and the scenic beauty of Rabun County,” said commission chairman Darnell.

Added fellow commissioner Katheryn Granberg, who introduced the funding motion that failed: “That movie birthed the white-water industry here and led directly to our beautiful Chattooga getting its ‘Wild and Scenic Rivers’ [federal] designation. That movie caused people to move here.

“Since the building industry bottomed out, tourism is our only industry. Without it, we’d be up the Chattooga River without a paddle.”

Line between fact, fiction

Yet “that movie” also caused plenty of pain and embarrassment here when people found out everything that was in it. Everything. The truly terrifying moment when Beatty’s character is violently sodomized by a hillbilly who orders him to “squeal like a pig” — folks here still simply and sadly refer to it as “the ‘scene’” — was bad enough as far as the locals were concerned.

“I remember coming home [from the Atlanta premiere] and my mom and dad were like, ‘What did you think of the movie?’” said Kathy Blalock, a festival organizer whose farmer father moonlighted as a night watchman for the production company the year she was a high school senior. “I was like, “Well, it’s not anything I would want a young child to see.’ I left it at that with them.”

Worse still was the fear that no one outside of Rabun would be able to separate fact from fiction.

“People there were more involved in the making of the movie, so they took it much more personally,” said Ed Land, whose rolling Chattooga Belle Farm just across the river in Long Creek, S.C., is the setting for most of Saturday’s festival events.

“It was sort of a double-edged sword for them in a way,” Cox, 73, said by phone recently about the Rabun he’ll return to for the first time since filming ended. “In some ways, it did do things like showing the kindness of people and the beauty of the place. But in some ways it also reinforced that whole redneck mentality in people’s minds.

“I don’t know where the cards eventually fall on the two sides of that.”

Residual hurt

Festival organizers say they were aware going in what they might be up against. Particularly on the Georgia side, some have family history going back 100 years or more in Rabun. So they were already well acquainted with the complicated feelings that “Deliverance” has always raised here.

Yet they also knew that this anniversary was too good an opportunity to pass up. Rabun CVB executive director Cleaveland thinks the Chattooga River Festival could become one of the biggest, most important annual events in the tourism-rich region; plans call for it to have a different theme each year, with 2014’s — the 40th anniversary of that all important “Wild and Scenic River” designation — already having been identified.

But for a number of reasons, this first year cried out for “Deliverance.”

“When we started putting this idea together, of course we wanted to use the popularity of ‘Deliverance’ to bring attention and excitement to the festival in its first year,” said Sarah Gillespie, 40, a ninth-generation Rabunite who happens to be related to five people who appeared in “Deliverance.” “We also thought if we didn’t recognize the movie in this anniversary year, it would be 10 years before we could do it again and some of the actors and other key people might not be around.”

And as it turns out, there are still some important things left to say about “Deliverance” in Rabun County after all.

Thompson, a member of the festival board, found out as much when a “great friend” confessed to her that after all these years she could never forget how much the movie had hurt her “daddy.” Another “wonderful person” she knew had tears in her eyes as she expressed similar sentiments.

“I thought, ‘OK, this movie hasn’t hurt me, but it’s really hurt some other people,’” Thompson said recently. “I wanted to do something to bring some sense of healing to people here that I know and love and admire. And even to people I don’t know.”

Organizers had decided not to go forward with a Burt Reynolds Lookalike Contest and some other lighthearted ideas they’d been kicking around for the festival’s lineup. Instead, there will be a juried art show at Thompson’s Timpson Creek Gallery in Clayton beginning Friday night.

The title: “deliverance. redemption. salvation.”

It may be happening already. Since January, Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro and John Travolta have all come to Rabun to shoot movies.


Event Preview

Chattooga River Festival

June 22-24. $35-$150. Clayton, Ga., and Long Creek, S.C.