A friend of mine who lives in Murphy, N.C. recently traveled to Tallulah Falls in North Georgia and posted about it on social media. Tallulah Gorge State Park is located in Rabun County, about 70 miles south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I don’t hear many people in the area in which I live talking about this area as a place to travel for a short vacation, but it’s a gorgeous weekend destination.
Seeing the pictures in my friend’s post spurred some memories for me. I visited the area a number of years ago in 2003, when I spent a three-week writing residency working on my writing and convening with other artistic fellows at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts in nearby, ultra-rural but beautiful Rabun Gap. As a 2010 Georgia Post-Gazette article points out and a fact to which I can also personally attest, “it is 750 steps down to the bridge and another 450 steps to the bottom. It is a steep climb to the top.” The gorge stretches out for two miles at about a 1,000-foot depth.
What many of a certain age or interest – anyone of adult age in 1972 or fascinated with classic film or the writer James Dickey – may not know is that the movie Deliverance was filmed in this area. More people are likely familiar with the movie than with the writer. I came to know Dickey on the page as a poet as an undergraduate at The University of Memphis in the 1990s. I was fascinated by his work. In a 2010 book review titled ‘Deliverance’: A Dark Heart Still Beating, writer Dwight Garner of The New York Times captured his verse well when he said, “His roomy, loquacious poems spill down the page in a waterfall style and in a voice he called ‘country surrealism.’ ”
In 1970, however, Dickey published his first novel, based loosely on canoe trips he had experienced with friends. It is the story of four middle-class men who hearken from suburban Atlanta and travel to the Georgia wilderness ultimately to battle the formidable rapids and the dark heart of humanity which they encounter in two mountain men. What ultimately survives is a complex tale of carnage, assault, and a stripping away of the polished veneer of the superficial trappings that may come with modern life.
What survived, of course, was a pervasive Southern stereotype of inbred, backward, and outright dangerous denizens of Appalachia, a stereotype that has been conflated with all Southerners from all regions for some people not from the region. Was there any truth to the story? Dickey hinted at such, but director John Boorman denied it. It did, however, help immortalize several actors in the canon of fine acting for viewers, including Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, and Ned Beatty, along with the lesser-known Ronny Cox.
Perhaps one of the most memorable characters, thinking back especially to those Southern stereotypes furthered by the film, was that of the unnamed hillbilly banjo player, a role played by then 16-year-old Billy Redden, an area local who was plucked out of his elementary school classroom. He was selected especially due to his appearance, as he was skinny, with a slightly large head and almond-shaped eyes, a demeanor which gave him an “inbred” appearance, thought casting directors.
Redden actually possessed no banjo-playing ability, so an actual banjo musician had to be cast as well, and he wore a specially designed shirt that allowed the player to stand in behind him and slip his hands around his waist in order to look as if it were Redden playing the instrument. Strategic camera images offered sleight-of-hand cinematography in order to fool the viewer.
While most have not read the novel, the film remains to this day an iconic piece of Southern culture. Besides the setting, perhaps part of the appeal was its rough-and-tumble unapologetic depiction of both the wilderness and human nature, both of which are quite similar in their roughness in the movie, although nature is obviously the more objective figure, without the knowledge or malicious intent. Former student and accomplished writer Pat Conroy described Dickey himself as “the kind of man who made Ernest Hemingway look like a florist from the Midwest,” according to a 2015 Garden and Gun magazine article.
My friend’s post and a visit to the area in which the iconic film derived from Dickey’s novel has spurred me to think about the book, movie, and the area in which it was filmed. Perhaps I should revisit the first two and then make a return visit to the area and hike down the gorge again. It is a difficult journey but one with worthy, picturesque scenery – and views that have been captured in our mindset of Southern culture, for better or worse, by novelist James Dickey.