Widely acclaimed as a landmark picture, the film is noted both for the music scene near the beginning, with one of the city men playing "Dueling Banjos" on guitar with a banjo-playing country boy, that sets the tone for what lies ahead—a trip into unknown and potentially dangerous wilderness—and for its visceral and notorious male rape scene. In 2008, Deliverance was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Four Atlanta men, Lewis Medlock, Ed Gentry, Bobby Trippe, and Drew Ballinger, decide to canoe down a river in the remote northern Georgia wilderness, expecting to have fun and witness the area's unspoiled nature before the fictional Cahulawassee River valley is flooded by construction of a dam. Lewis and Ed are experienced outdoorsmen, while Bobby and Drew are novices. While traveling to their launch site, the men (Bobby in particular) are condescending towards the locals, who are unimpressed by the "city boys".
Traveling in pairs, the group's two canoes are briefly separated, with Ed and Bobby getting stranded on the riverbank. They encounter a pair of local men with a shotgun, who force them into the woods at gunpoint. Ed is tied to a tree, while Bobby is forced to strip and raped by one of the men while being forced to "squeal like a pig". As the men prepare to sexually assault Ed, Lewis sneaks up and kills the rapist with an arrow from his recurve bow while the other escapes. After a brief but heated debate between Lewis and Drew about whether to inform the authorities, the men vote to side with Lewis' recommendation to bury the dead man's body and continue on as if nothing had happened.
The four continue downriver but encounter a dangerous stretch of rapids, during which Drew suddenly falls into the water and disappears. The other three crash their canoes into rocks, which results in Lewis breaking his leg. Encouraged by Lewis, who believes Drew was shot by the rapist's partner and they are now being stalked, Ed climbs a nearby rock face with the bow while Bobby stays behind to look after Lewis. Ed hides out until the next morning when the stalker appears on the top of the cliff with a rifle; Ed clumsily shoots and kills the man, while accidentally stabbing himself with one of the spare arrows. Ed and Bobby weigh down the body in the river to ensure it will never be found, and repeat the same with Drew's body which they encounter downriver.
Upon finally reaching the small town of Aintry, they take Lewis to the hospital. The men carefully concoct a cover story for the authorities about Drew's death and disappearance being an accident, lying about their ordeal to Sheriff Bullard in order to escape a possible double murder charge. The sheriff clearly doesn't believe them, but has no evidence to arrest them and simply tells the men never to come back, to which they agree. The trio vow to keep their story of death and survival a secret for the rest of their lives. Later on, Ed awakens, startled by a nightmare in which a bloated human hand rises from the lake.Jon Voight as Ed Gentry
Burt Reynolds as Lewis Medlock
Ned Beatty as Bobby Trippe
Ronny Cox as Drew Ballinger
Ed Ramey as the Old Man
Billy Redden as Lonnie, AKA the Banjo Boy
Bill McKinney as Mountain Man
Herbert 'Cowboy' Coward as Toothless Man
James Dickey as Sheriff Bullard
Macon McCalman as Deputy Sheriff Arthur Queen
Belinda Beatty as Mrs. Martha Gentry
Charley Boorman as Charlie Gentry, Ed and Martha's son
Deliverance was shot primarily in Rabun County in northeastern Georgia. The canoe scenes were filmed in the Tallulah Gorge southeast of Clayton and on the Chattooga River. This river divides the northeastern corner of Georgia from the northwestern corner of South Carolina. Additional scenes were shot in Salem, South Carolina.
A scene was also shot at the Mount Carmel Baptist Church cemetery. This site has since been flooded and lies 130 feet under the surface of Lake Jocassee, on the border between Oconee and Pickens counties in South Carolina. The dam shown under construction is Jocassee Dam.
During the filming of the canoe scene, author James Dickey showed up inebriated and got into a bitter argument with producer-director John Boorman, who had rewritten Dickey's script. They had a brief fistfight in which Boorman's nose was broken and four of his teeth shattered. Dickey was thrown off the set, but no charges were filed against him. The two reconciled and became good friends, and Boorman gave Dickey a cameo role as the sheriff at the end of the film.
The inspiration for the Cahulawassee River was the Coosawattee River, which was dammed in the 1970s and contained several dangerous whitewater rapids before being flooded by Carters Lake.
The film is infamous for cutting costs by not insuring the production and having the actors do their own stunts (most notably, Jon Voight climbed the cliff himself). In one scene, the stunt coordinator decided that a scene showing a canoe with a dummy of Burt Reynolds in it looked phony; he said it looked "like a canoe with a dummy in it". Reynolds requested to have the scene re-shot with himself in the canoe rather than the dummy. After shooting the scene, Reynolds, coughing up river water and nursing a broken coccyx, asked how the scene looked. The director responded, "like a canoe with a dummy in it."
Regarding the courage of the four main actors in the movie doing their own stunts without insurance protection, Dickey was quoted as saying all of them "had more guts than a burglar". In a nod to their stunt-performing audacity, early in the movie Lewis says, "Insurance? I've never been insured in my life. I don't believe in insurance. There's no risk."
Several people have been credited with the now-famous line including the phrase "squeal like a pig". Ned Beatty said he thought of it while he and actor McKinney were improvising the scene.
James Dickey's son, Christopher Dickey, in his memoir about the film production, Summer of Deliverance, said that one of the crewmen suggested that Beatty's character, Bobby, "squeal like a pig," to add some backwoods horror to the scene and make it more shocking. According to Boorman's running commentary on the home media releases, the studio wanted the scene shot two ways, one of which would be acceptable for TV. Boorman did not want to do this. He decided that the phrase "squeal like a pig," suggested by Frank Rickman, a Clayton native, was a good replacement for the dialogue in the script. It would work for both the theatrical and TV versions.
The film's soundtrack brought new attention to the musical work "Dueling Banjos", which had been recorded numerous times since 1955. Only Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel were originally credited for the piece. The songwriter and producer Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, who wrote the original piece, "Feudin' Banjos" (1955), and recorded it with five-string banjo player Don Reno, filed a lawsuit for songwriting credit and a percentage of royalties. He was awarded both in a landmark copyright infringement case. Smith asked Warner Bros. to include his name on the official soundtrack listing, but reportedly asked to be omitted from the movie credits because he found the film offensive.
No credit was given for the film score. The film has a number of sparse, brooding passages of music scattered throughout, including several played on a synthesizer. Some prints of the movie omit much of this extra music.
Boorman was given a gold record for the "Dueling Banjos" hit single; this was later stolen from his house by the Dublin gangster Martin Cahill. Boorman recreated this scene in The General (1998), his biographical film about Cahill.
Deliverance was a box office success in the United States, becoming the fifth-highest grossing film of 1972 after grossing a domestic total of over $46 million. The film's financial success continued the following year, when it went on to earn $18 million in North American "distributor rentals" (receipts).
Deliverance was well received by critics and is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1972. The film is in the top tier of films on the critical review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, with a 93% "fresh" rating, despite scoring only 50% based on the six "top critic" reviews.
Not all reviews were positive. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said:
Dickey, who wrote the original novel and the screenplay, lards this plot with a lot of significance -- universal, local, whatever happens to be on the market. He is clearly under the impression that he is telling us something about the nature of man, and particularly civilized man's ability to survive primitive challenges[…] But I don't think it works that way.[…] What the movie totally fails at, however, is its attempt to make some kind of significant statement about its action.[…] [W]hat James Dickey has given us here is a fantasy about violence, not a realistic consideration of it.[…] It's possible to consider civilized men in a confrontation with the wilderness without throwing in rapes, cowboy-and-Indian stunts and pure exploitative sensationalism.
The instrumental piece, "Dueling Banjos," won the 1974 Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance. The film was selected by The New York Times as one of The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made, while the viewers of Channel 4 in the United Kingdom voted it #45 in a list of The 100 Greatest Films.
Reynolds later called it "the best film I've ever been in."Nominated
Academy Award for Best Picture
Academy Award for Best Director — John Boorman
Academy Award for Best Film Editing — Tom Priestley
New York Film Critics Circle for Best Film and Best Director
Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama
Golden Globe Award for Best Director – Motion Picture — John Boorman
Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama — Jon Voight
Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song — Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, Eric Weissberg, and Steve Mandel
Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay — James Dickey
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies—Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills—#15
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
"I bet you can squeal like a pig."—Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)—Nominated
Governor Jimmy Carter established a state film commission to encourage production companies to film in Georgia. The state has "become one of the top five production destinations in the U.S."
The canoes used in the film were displayed at the former Burt Reynolds Museum, located at 100 North U.S. Highway 1, in Jupiter, Florida. One of the canoes used (and signed by Ronny Cox) is on display in the Tallulah Falls Railroad Museum, Dillard, Georgia.
Following the film, tourism increased to Rabun County by the tens of thousands. By 2012, tourism was the largest source of revenue in the county. Jon Voight's stunt double for this film, Claude Terry, later purchased equipment used in the movie from Warner Brothers. He founded what is now the oldest whitewater rafting adventure company on the Chattooga River, Southeastern Expeditions. By 2012 rafting had developed as a $20 million industry in the region.
People have built vacation and second homes around the area's lakes.
In June 2012, Rabun County held a Chattooga River Festival to encourage preservation of the river and its environment. It noted the 40th anniversary of the filming of Deliverance in the area, which aroused controversy.
In 2012, producer Cory Welles and director Kevin Walker decided to make the documentary, The Deliverance of Rabun County, to explore the effects of the landmark film on people in the county. They heard a wide range of opinions, particularly resentment at how the country people were portrayed. Others are pragmatic and look at the benefits of increased tourism and related businesses.