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A river, a past and a people

40 years later, the battle over ‘Deliverance’ rages on

POSTED: January 7, 2012 11:18 p.m.
/Courtesy Whetstone Photography

The Chattooga River flowing through Rabun County was the backdrop for the 1972 movie "Deliverance." A festival is being planned to celebrate the river as a protected resource. Event planners think tying in the movie's anniversary in with the festival will attract needed tourists to the region, while many local people feel the movie was degrading to the region's mountain culture.

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Being submerged in water symbolically represents purification.

But the history bubbling up from the rapids of the Chattooga River has been tainted for some people since the 1970s.

That's when Hollywood came a-courting Rabun County as the location for the 1972 movie "Deliverance."

The film was based on a book by the same title, written by James Dickey and set along the fictional Cahulawassee River.

"Knowing that he was a South Carolinian, everyone knew the river he was talking about was really the Chattooga," said Sarah Gillespie, a Rabun County resident.

The river creates much of the northeast border between Georgia's Rabun County and South Carolina's Oconee County. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the movie's filming.

Some people would like to link the movie's anniversary with the inaugural Chattooga River Festival, set for June 22-24. The goal of the festival is to educate the public about the importance of protecting the river as a natural resource.

In addition to a screening of the movie, the festival would include guided hikes along the river's banks, rafting opportunities and an adventure race.

As intriguing as that may sound to some, others would like to let sleeping dogs lie and not reconnect the dots between Rabun County, "Deliverance" and its depiction of mountain folk as violent and primitive.

Just as novice rafters often underestimate the strength of the river's rapids, an outsider looking in on this particular community's disagreement may disregard it as a minor bump in the road that can easily be smoothed over.

A cultural touchstone

To get to the heart of the matter, you have to paddle back upstream a few years.

The New Georgia Encyclopedia lists "Deliverance" as one of the top 10 films about Georgia. Others include "Gone With the Wind," "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

The movies on the list were selected because "Georgia's people, history and themes figure prominently" and they provide "culturally important examples of how Georgia has been presented to the world."

The encyclopedia is a project of the Georgia Humanities Council, the University System of Georgia and the Office of the Governor.

The online publication also describes "Deliverance" as an immediate critical and commercial hit. It featured two of the era's top box-office stars, Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight.

"The film became one of the most popular of the year," the encyclopedia's entry states.

"(It) is an adventure story of a three-day canoe trip in the rugged wilderness of southern Appalachia in which four suburbanites are brutalized both by the sheer force of the river and by violent and degenerate mountain men.

"The film in particular stands as the most degrading depiction of southern mountaineers ever put on film and lead to strong protests both by north Georgians and by Appalachian scholars."

‘They sucked the souls out of good people'

"While I admired the beautiful scenery on our mighty Chattooga River in the movie, my admiration stops there," said Barbara Taylor Woodall, a Rabun County native and author.

"Hollywood traveled thousands of miles, smiling with money in their pockets in search of demented hillbillies. They pointed their cameras and sucked the souls out of good people.

"Some people who played small demeaning roles did not even know what the movie was about."

In her book, "It's Not My Mountain Anymore," Woodall describes how one local woman and her paralyzed granddaughter were portrayed "in images that suggested they were mountain freaks."

It is that portrayal that has Laurie Brunson-Altieri on edge about the festival being associated with the movie.

"With regards to James Dickey, I am not a fan. I read the book years ago and I read a little bit of his poetry," said Brunson-Altieri, a Rabun County resident.

"It seems to me he did a lot of wrestling with darkness in his own soul. I would say that the whole scenario he painted (with ‘Deliverance') came out of that.

"Although it is obvious he set it in Rabun County, from what I know, he never stepped up to make clear the distinction from reality and his own artistic representation. It's one thing to artistically represent something you wrestle with, but you don't paint that as reality."

‘I look at it as just a movie'

Gillespie, who is a Rabun County Convention and Visitors Bureau board member, doesn't share the negative views about the movie.

"I know there has been some backlash in the community about the way ‘Deliverance' presented mountain people. I am a mountain person, but I look at it as just a movie," said Gillespie, whose family members were in the movie

"My great-uncle was a location scout for the movie. He and his family played extras in the movie and were portrayed as some of the less-than-desirable mountain people.

"I think there are different kinds of people everywhere, that movie just portrayed a certain side of what people can be. I am a Rabun County (native) and I don't see us that way."

After film crews left, while some residents were left with a bad taste in their mouths, others appreciated the dollars poured into the community.

The Rabun County website states that Hollywood "stimulated the local economy when ‘Deliverance' catalyzed the whitewater rafting industry, which now attracts more than 20,000 tourists and contributes $3 million to the local economy annually."

Gillespie, who is on the festival planning committee, sees the festival-movie tie-in as a way to bring more money into the community and educate visitors.

"The popularity of that movie brought people to Rabun County who had never heard of this place before. With that came a lot of tourism revenue into the community, which had a lot of positive effects," Gillespie said.

"Our goal is to promote awareness of the preciousness of the river as a resource. We are so blessed to have it available to us and we need to protect it for future generations.

"We're utilizing ‘Deliverance' because it does have international appeal and can help attract people here. We're hoping to use the leverage from the ‘Deliverance' anniversary to bring awareness to the festival.

"The 40th anniversary of the Chattooga getting its National Wild and Scenic River designation is two years from now. What we really want is to build momentum for the festival, so that we can have a huge celebration for that anniversary."

Impact on the river

Brunson-Altieri isn't so convinced that the event organizers will get what they hope for. She is concerned that if the festival successfully draws visitors, they might be as disrespectful to the river's banks and as ignorant of its power as visitors were following the film's release.

"I have no personal resistance to the festival itself, but I do have personal concerns about if it will impact the river negatively," Brunson-Altieri said.

"I have concerns about if the festival is really to celebrate the river being wild and scenic, or if it's just about dollar signs."

Woodall sees no reason to celebrate.

"For me, there is no compromise. I'm adamantly opposed to celebrating anything that has connections to that awful movie that was the grandfather of hillbilly horror flicks," Woodall said.

"I am a seventh-generation Appalachian. Much of my life was and is spent dispelling horrible stereotypes of my beloved people.

"I know it has been 40 years, but that movie really did a number on my people. The bottom line is, I don't see nothing to celebrate."



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