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Deliverance turns 40 

Will the South ever live down 'Squeal like a pig'?

Ned Beatty (from left, standing), Jon Voight, Ronny Cox, and Burt Reynolds are four Atlantans who pit themselves with and against nature in Deliverance. - COURTESY WARNER BROS.
  • Courtesy Warner Bros.
  • Ned Beatty (from left, standing), Jon Voight, Ronny Cox, and Burt Reynolds are four Atlantans who pit themselves with and against nature in Deliverance.

On the banks of the Chattooga River, on the border of Georgia and South Carolina, an attempt to make a wild scene tame spawned one of the most notorious moments in movie history.

Irish director John Boorman spent part of 1971 in Rabun County, Ga., to film an adaptation of Deliverance. Poet James Dickey's bestselling first novel followed four Atlanta businessmen on an attempt to survive the Appalachian wilderness. Boorman found what he called a "tangled wood with acid-green laurels" for the movie's most charged sequence, in which a pair of mountain men sexually threaten and assault Jon Voight and Ned Beatty's unarmed travelers.

On his Deliverance DVD commentary, Boorman describes how Warner Bros. required he shoot two versions of the scene in which Bill McKinney's hostile hillbilly rapes Beatty's hapless salesman. "The studio demanded that I shoot alternative scenes for television. Bad language, 'fucks' couldn't be shown on television, so we had to think of alternatives on the spot." According to Boorman, crew member "Rospo Pallenberg came up with 'Squeal like a pig!' to take the place of more colorful language. It was so good that I decided to keep it in the main version." On film, the rapist and victim squeal in call and response, adding a surreal note of dehumanization to already emasculating imagery.

Sometimes it seems like the South will never live down "Squeal like a pig." The phrase has become shorthand for a specific kind of cultural condescension as well as male sexual anxiety, like the way prison references often include a "don't drop the soap" gag. The sequence's depravity infects the entire movie. Deliverance opens on a note of musical accord, when Ronny Cox's guitar-playing Atlantan and Billy Redden's banjo-picking local extemporize on "Dueling Banjos." After seeing Deliverance, however, it's hard to hear the bluegrass jam session without flashing back to That Scene. Sporting goods stores even sell T-shirts that say "Paddle faster, I hear banjos."

Deliverance turns 40 this year, and not counting the many films that depict slavery or Dixie's racist legacy, it contains the most harshly negative and enduring portrayal of Southerners in cinema. Former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller has long been one of Deliverance's most vociferous critics. In his 2009 memoir Purt Nigh Gone: The Old Mountain Ways, Miller says, "the false portrayal of mountain people as depraved and amoral cretins by writers like James Dickey in his popular novel Deliverance, have done lasting harm in how the mountaineer is portrayed."

Paradoxically, Deliverance may be the best film ever made in and about the South. The epic Civil War romance Gone With the Wind is undeniably a crowning achievement of Hollywood's Golden Age, but it was shot in California. Deliverance was not only filmed in Georgia, but it also led directly to the establishment of Georgia's film industry. While unquestionably an inflammatory movie, Deliverance proves much more complex than its reductive redneck rape image would suggest. And measured against the films of today, Deliverance reveals even more urgency and relevance than it did 40 years ago.

Today ATLWood is in full flower, with Tyler Perry Studios cranking out feature films and celebrities like Sandra Bullock and Jonah Hill gracing our streets with their presence. It seems impossible that the local film industry barely existed in Georgia before Deliverance. "The state had no real feature film or TV film production, just local, regional producers doing things for TV," says Ed Spivia, former chairman of the Georgia Film Commission.

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