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40 years later, 'Deliverance' causes mixed feelings in Georgia

Crossing the South Carolina-Georgia border which is formed by the Chattooga river. The movie "Deliverance" starring Burt Reynolds was filmed near here.

Tess Vigeland: When big movies are filmed in small towns, they can pour money into the local economy. Crews need to be fed, housed, moved about and entertained. Productions need extras, and every once in awhile a local gets cast in a speaking part. Some movies even leave a footprint long after the cameras are gone. Santa Barbara Wine Country saw a huge influx of tourists after "Sideways."

But not every production leaves a sweet taste in locals' mouths. Film producer Cory Welles and director Kevin Walker decided to make a documentary about one such movie, and the people it portrayed. Cory filed this story about her own film, "The Deliverance of Rabun County."


Cory Welles: The folks in Rabun County, Ga., put on the Chattooga River Festival this past June to encourage people to visit and take care of their river. But it wasn’t the moonshine tastin’ or banjo pickin’ that got me out to this lush, green mountainous part of the state. It was “Deliverance.”

The movie was shot on and around the Chattooga 40 years ago this year, and they were using that as the hook for the festival.  What Sarah Gillespie and others who helped put the event together didn’t count on was how it would split the community.

Sarah Gillespie: We had a commissioners meeting, and someone stood up and was very emotional -- very real feelings -- and said that the movie had ruined her life.

I heard stories of people being passed up for jobs because they came from Rabun County. And those negative images have been reinforced by 40 years of “Deliverance” jokes.

But not everyone around has bad feelings about “Deliverance.” And that includes Billy Redden, the backwoods-looking boy who played Dueling Banjos with Ronny Cox in the film. Billy’s 55 years old now, and he says “Deliverance” was the best thing that ever happened to him. But that doesn’t mean he saw much money from it.

Billy Redden: I’d like to have all the money I thought I’d make from this movie. I wouldn’t be working at Walmart right now. And I’m struggling really hard to make ends meet.

Billy didn’t make alot from “Deliverance,” but Rabun County did. Before the movie came out, the number of people who visited the Chattooga was in the hundreds. Afterwards, it was in the tens of thousands. Rafting is now a $20 million industry here and tourism is the area’s number one source of revenue.  So you can understand why the organizers of the Chattooga River Festival decided to highlight the film.

But you can also understand the objections.

Tammy Whitmire: A lot of people tried to talk me into supporting this and so they justified it and said, "Tammy, but it’s making money, it’s tourism, it’s bringing people to the county, why does it matter how they get here?"

Tammy Whitmire is a county official who’s lived in the area since she was nine and married a man whose family has been here for 15 generations. But she refused to support the Chatooga River Festival because of “Deliverance.”

Whitmire: As long as they get here and spend their money, and my thought to that particularly is, you know you’re gonna sell what are you selling, to get those few dollars? Is it worth a few dollars? For people around the world to think that’s what we are here? No. Or for me, it is not worth it. 

But it’s more than just a few dollars. Then-governor Jimmy Carter established a film commission in Georgia after “Deliverance” came out.  And since then, the state’s become one of the top five production destinations in the U.S. And it’s not just movie money that’s been drawn to this part of the state, it’s people with money. These days, million-dollar vacation homes line the shores of the area’s lakes.

You can understand why city-folk might want to have a place in these parts. The Chattooga is beautiful -- unbelievably beautiful. On a raft ride down the river, our guide pointed to a tree-lined bank and said “That’s where the rape scene was filmed!” And 40 years after “Deliverance” hit theaters, that’s still the issue: Can this gorgeous river and the disturbing scenes that were filmed here ever be separated? Do they need to be?

Sarah Gillespie: “Deliverance” is a significant part of our history, good or bad. It’s a significant part of the river's history.  It was filmed here. Stereotypes are stereotypes -- they’re in every single movie that you’ll see in your life.

For what it's worth, my partner Kevin and I found the stereotypes to be anything but true. We met so many great people in Rabun County -- especially Billy Redden, the “banjo boy.”

Redden: We’re not a bad people up here, we’re a loving people. Rabun County is a pretty good town. It’s peaceful, not a lot of crime going on, just a real peaceful town. Everybody pretty much gets along with everybody. 

I'm Cory Welles for Marketplace.

About the author

Cory Welles is a documentary film producer and contributor to Marketplace.

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