Rabun County’s spectacular beauty has lured tourists to the mountains for decades, and when Hollywood discovered it, it became a mecca for movie settings.
Numerous movies have been filmed there. Just this year, John Travolta and Robert De Niro were there acting in scenes from “The Killing Season.” Clint Eastwood also has been in Rabun County recently filming a baseball flick, “Trouble with the Curve.”
But no movie involving the county has been as popular or controversial as the iconic “Deliverance,” filmed in 1972 mostly along the rowdy Chattooga River, called the Cahulawassee in the movie.
The plot is familiar. Four city slickers from Atlanta come to the mountains for a little rural recreation — whitewater canoeing in one of the wildest streams in the country. They aren’t too kind with their remarks about some local residents before they get to the river, although one of the most enduring scenes is a banjo duel between a city slicker and a mountain boy. “Dueling Banjos” became a hit record and remains a time-honored bluegrass biggie.
The guys get on the river, struggle their way through the rapids, but run into trouble with a couple of gnarly mountain men. One of the mountaineers rapes one of the canoeists (remember “squeal like a pig”?), played by Ned Beatty, who was making his film debut. That pivotal incident in the plot leads to a chase down the river with both the Atlantans and the mountain men suffering casualties.
“Deliverance” is thrilling, though gruesome in parts. The scenery is outstanding. The movie was successful.
Yet many Rabun Countians at the time didn’t like the way it pictured their county, particularly how some of the mountain residents were characterized. Rather than bringing favorable attention to the mountains as they figured it should, they thought it put the county and its people in a bad light.
So, why, then, would there be a festival to celebrate the 40th anniversary of “Deliverance?” That’s what’s happening June 22-24 in Clayton and Long Creek, S.C., just across the river. And what a festival it will be. Whitewater rafting, music, a dueling banjos contest, nature hikes, an appearance by one of the movie’s main characters and the showing of the movie at the Tiger Drive-In.
Ronny Cox, who played Drew, one of the four canoeists and who engaged in the famous banjo duel with a local near the start of the movie, will perform with his band. Like Beatty, it was Cox’s first movie. An unknown musician and actor, he was chosen out of 18 who auditioned and says it was primarily because he could play a musical instrument. He would be right at home in Rabun County, however, because he once said he was calling square dances at age 10.
Rabun County resident Janie Taylor was in the middle of a teaching career when Hollywood came to film “Deliverance.” She said she was too busy teaching to have any direct contact with the movie crew or its cast. Was the community excited about stars such as Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight hanging out? No more than having Clint Eastwood around recently with his movie, she said.
And Mrs. Taylor’s opinion of “Deliverance?” “Those Atlanta people should have stayed home and not come up here,” she said. “It wasn’t a true blue story at all.”
But as for its impact on Rabun County, she said there were pluses and minuses, the pluses being exposing movie audiences to the beautiful mountain scenery and the economic value. And, of course, the main drawback reflecting an unsavory light on mountain people.
Perhaps it is because the county has changed since “Deliverance” came out that feelings among many aren’t as strong as they once were. Clayton at the time was a typical small town with its main street a major highway. Still small, yet it has exploded with development with restaurants, more industry and businesses that cater to visitors. Mountains and lakes are dotted with fine second homes and retiree roosts.
Then, too, many of the residents back then might have died or moved away, and those that remain seem content to celebrate the film with a festival rather than dwell on wounded feelings so far back in the past. Details about the festival: www.chattoogariverfestival.com.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.