It’s the way people say “that scene” when they’re discussing “that scene” from Deliverance. There’s an extra emphasis on “that,” as if they’re handling noxious chemicals, with heavy-duty gloves and held as far away from their face as possible.
Nearly 50 years after its release, Deliverance remains a compelling, riveting film. When its stars appear on talk shows, even decades later, any mention of the thriller garners applause. But there’s always been a disconnect between Deliverance’s cultural standing and the ugliness of its most infamous scene, in which Ned Beatty’s Bobby is raped by Georgian mountain men. The blunt impact of plenty of older movies has diminished over time. But not the rape scene from Deliverance. It still has the power to unnerve — in large part because we’ve never, as a society, completely grappled with it. That’s why we make jokes about it. That’s why we refer to it as “that scene.”
Deliverance came out in the summer of 1972 and was the year’s fifth-highest-grossing movie, ahead of the Oscar-winning Cabaret and behind the porn drama Behind the Green Door. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture — the year’s biggest hit, The Godfather, took home the prize — and was generally well-reviewed by critics. But as with so many iconic films, Deliverance has been boiled down in the culture’s consciousness to a few memorable lines and indelible moments, which have come to stand for the movie as a whole. In this case, it might be “Squeal like a pig.” Or perhaps it’s the instrumental “Dueling Banjos.” Either way, we now think of Deliverance as the movie about inbred Southern hicks — as that movie where the guy rapes the other guy. And because that’s how we’ve reduced Deliverance, popular culture keeps regurgitating those bits, parodying and mocking them.
“The thing that fascinates me the most is how people who haven’t actually watched the film immediately get those references,” says Isabel Machado, whose 2017 essay “Revisiting Deliverance: The Sunbelt South, the 1970s Masculinity Crisis and the Emergence of the Redneck Nightmare Genre” is a superb analysis of the film’s sexual, social and gender politics. “A few notes from ‘Dueling Banjos’ is enough to conjure what I call the Redneck Nightmare in people’s minds.”
First, a quick plot description: Deliverance is the story of four Atlanta friends — Ed (Jon Voight), Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Bobby (Beatty) and Drew (Ronny Cox) — who decide to hit the great outdoors in order to canoe down the gorgeous (and fictional) Cahulawassee River. The buddies aren’t too impressed by the local-color bumpkins they meet, but their air of superiority is punctured when, during the journey down the river, Ed and Bobby are accosted by some vicious hillbillies, who force Bobby to strip and then sodomize him. The only thing that saves Ed from a similar fate is Lewis killing the rapist with his bow and arrow. The friends bury the rapist and make a run for it, frantic to escape this picturesque hellhole alive.
Deliverance’s screenplay was written by James Dickey, based on his novel. The rape scene originated in the book — in a 1993 interview, Dickey explained the importance of such a shocking sequence:
“What I wanted to do was to have a scene which would bring into focus the most abiding and the deepest fear of people in our time, in our century, which is the fear of being set upon by malicious strangers, to be assaulted by people who would just as soon kill you as look at you. … That’s the fear of our time, and I wanted to use that motif as a lead-in to what happens in the rest of the story.”
Ed narrates the book, noting in anguished detail his reaction to his friend’s rape:
“A scream hit me, and I would have thought it was mine except for the lack of breath. It was a sound of pain and outrage, and was followed by one of simple and wordless pain. Again it came out of him, higher and more carrying.”
And even though Bobby is eventually rescued, his friends’ feelings toward him are changed because of what occurred:
“Bobby got off the log and stood with us, all facing Lewis over the corpse. I moved away from Bobby’s red face. None of this was his fault, but he felt tainted to me. I remembered how he looked over the log, how willing to let anything be done to him, and how high his voice was when he screamed.”
In his book Male on Male Rape: The Hidden Toll of Stigma and Shame, author and sexual abuse educator Michael Scarce points to Deliverance as symptomatic of how society — and men in particular — view male rape. “We like to believe that men are capable of defending themselves physically,” he writes, “and if a man is raped, he must have somehow allowed it to happen. This classic blame-the-victim mentality is accompanied by a feminization of Bobby. Having been forced into a sexually submissive role, he is somehow less of a man, signified by the focus on his high-pitched screams.”
As Scarce points out, the film, which was directed by John Boorman, never mentions the rape afterward — never allows for Bobby or his friends to discuss the horrible act that has occurred. It’s the bad thing that shouldn’t be mentioned.
“The whole film revolves around masculinity,” says Machado. “It begins as this journey of self-discovery and defining one’s manhood. Although many of the details about the rapists’ identities and motivations are somewhat ambiguous, the [rape] scene is set in a way that depicts the sexual act as a way of humiliating and emasculating another man. So much so, that the only way to redeem that lost manhood is to kill another man, never speak about the rape and literally bury the past. So it’s quite possible that the stigmatization of ‘losing one’s manhood’ if a man reports sexual assault has stopped some men from sharing their experiences.”
Our society still doesn’t want to talk about male rape — at least not directly. But Deliverance has birthed a long line of pop-culture references and cultural totems, often jokey, that allude to the film’s rape scene. But rape itself is almost never part of the reference — the parodies and homages speak in catch phrases and musical allusions. Nobody comes right out and mentions rape, but we can read between the lines.
One of the most common references is “Dueling Banjos,” a tune written in the 1950s and then adapted by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell for the film. Deliverance made “Dueling Banjos” a radio smash in 1972, as well as a Grammy winner, and its distinctive, deliberate opening riff — followed by its sped-up, back-and-forth between the two stringed instruments — became an aural trademark for the film and a symbol of the white-trash Southerners who torment our big-city heroes.
When “Dueling Banjos” shows up anywhere in pop culture, it’s normally an indication that the South is about to be mocked. Two representative examples are from Family Guy and The Simpsons. The former turns “Dueling Banjos” into a symphony of fart noises from two dudes next to each other in a public bathroom, while The Simpsons (in the episode “Boy-Scoutz ’n the Hood,” about a camping trip gone awry) uses the song (and the outdoors-y setting) to suggest that the characters could face an unspecified but disturbing fate. But whether through juvenile scatological humor or impish parody, it’s clear that the South (and what people are apparently capable of doing there) is worth scorning.
Not that every “Dueling Banjos” reference is so snide — the song occasionally gets repurposed into other genres, shedding some of its baggage but retaining its insidiousness. The remix of The Orb’s “Perpetual Dawn,” a groovy piece of early 1990s chilled-out electronica, buries a little “Dueling Banjos” deep into the blend of keyboards, sound effects and drum machines. (You hear it first at about the one-minute mark, but you’ll have to be listening for it.) Then there’s rapper Lady May’s 2002 single “Round Up,” which could be thought of as a precursor to this year’s country-meets-rap smash “Old Town Road,” nicking the opening lick for some Southern-fried hip-hop. The strategy is to do a little good-natured cultural appropriation and enjoy, as guest vocalist Blu Cantrell says, some of that “country shit.”
But in the case of both songs, the insertion of “Dueling Banjos” is meant to be shocking — an unorthodox inclusion of the most stereotypically “down south” music into aural environments thought to be too sophisticated for such backwoods signifiers.
As for “that scene,” Deliverance wasn’t the first Hollywood film to depict male rape. The Best Picture-winning Lawrence of Arabia, from 1962, features a passing reference to T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) being captured by Turkish forces and presumably raped. (The incident was based on Lawrence’s own account of what happened, although some scholars now dispute his veracity, accusing him of inventing the assault.) But Deliverance made viewers confront male rape in all its violence and cruelty. Never mind that the movies have had little issue depicting female rape. Films like 1933’s The Story of Temple Drake and 1945’s My Name Is Julia Ross were pioneers of displaying what Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién calls “the sexual violence white men inflict upon women.” The descendants of Deliverance, however, didn’t necessarily build on the frankness that Boorman’s film confronted audiences with.
A prime example is 1981’s Just Before Dawn, a slasher film about a group of teens venturing into the Oregon woods, only to be hunted down by a woodsy serial killer. Director and co-writer Jeff Lieberman used Deliverance as his inspiration, casting Deborah Benson to play Connie, who stands up to the menace. “I set out to make the Jon Voight character from Deliverance a woman, Connie, who would make the same character arc from helpless milquetoast to animalistic survivor,” Lieberman wrote in the foreword to Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films From Frankenstein to the Present. “So my political statement, if you will, was a radically feminist one, to show that when humans are reduced to their animalistic genetic baseline, there was little difference between male and female.”
Yet Lieberman’s nod to gender equality couldn’t negate the fact that, in horror movies like 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, Deliverance’s “normal people who stumble into the land of freaks and weirdoes” plotline often contained a scene of the predators raping a woman. In exploitation and horror movies, men were killed, while women were raped (and maybe also killed).
If movies like Just Before Dawn capitalized on Deliverance’s depiction of the woods as a terrible place where unspeakable horrors occur, it’s fascinating that, if anything, those portrayals have only made some people more excited to visit Rabun County, Georgia, where Deliverance was shot. According to a 2013 CBS News report, approximately 30,000 people visit the Chattooga River (the real-life stand-in for the Cahulawassee) each year, resulting in a $20 million tourism industry. Doug Woodward, a technical advisor and stuntman on Deliverance who lived in the area when the film crew arrived, says that the rush of tourists prompted people like him to make sure the river was protected.
“[Back then] there were a few access points where people would camp, and you’d have trash, dirty diapers and things around,” he tells me. “Now there’s none of that. The river became wild and scenic in May of 1972. A lot of us worked a long time to see that happen — Jimmy Carter was one of the key players in seeing that it got wild-and-scenic status.”
It’s a strange contradiction: Adventurers have flooded the area for years thanks to a movie in which an adventure turns deadly. In a 2007 New York Times piece about the Chattooga’s popularity, a river-rafter told the reporter, “Deliverance. That’s why we’re here.”
And Rabun County’s natural beauty — not just rivers, but waterfalls, lakes, woods and mountains — has made it an ideal filming location. Pam Thompson is a liaison for Rabun County to the film and television industry, part of Georgia’s Camera Ready initiative, which (along with hefty tax incentives) has helped make the state an attractive location for Hollywood productions. “Rabun County is in the northeast corner of Georgia,” she tells me. “We’re about two hours north of the Atlanta airport. We’re actually in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Our county is 75 percent either national forest or Georgia Power-owned, which also makes us very appealing as a film location destination because we’re in the mountains.”
Thompson says that you won’t find any Deliverance shrines on the river — no markers to indicate where the movie was shot — but the film remains a landmark in the community. Special anniversary screenings take place in Rabun — Ronny Cox spoke at one. Thompson saw the movie as a teenager when it first came out, and has good associations with the film. “For me, it represents the beginning of a great tourism movement,” she says. “Some of the people that worked on the film ultimately came back and started the river-rafting businesses that are still operating now. That has brought a tremendous boost to our tourism industry in this county.” In fact, tourism is Rabun’s No. 1 industry — not necessarily because of Deliverance, but because the infrastructure it helped create.
Rabun still brings in big productions, too: Thompson recently worked with Oscar-winner Ron Howard for his forthcoming adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy. She still hears “Dueling Banjos” a decent amount, which makes her think of the film. But she’s not sure how many new film crews are even familiar with Deliverance before they arrive. “It’s not really mentioned that much anymore,” she explains. “I mean, people know that this is where the movie was filmed, but it’s not something that’s really talked about. The people that are actually working in the industry now are young enough that they’ve heard of Deliverance, but a lot of them have never even seen the movie.”
Such is the power of Deliverance’s cultural legacy that we now associate iconic lines to the movie, when they in fact never appeared. Much like some people think Humphrey Bogart said, “Play it again, Sam,” in Casablanca — actually, Ingrid Bergman tells
Dooley Wilson’s piano player, “Play it once, Sam, for old times’ sake” — Deliverance gave the world, “Paddle faster, I hear banjos.” It’s a line — and its popular variation, “Paddle faster, I hear banjo music” — that shows up on all different kinds of T-shirts, some of which were made by companies that offer canoeing packages down the Chattooga River.
One of those, Southeastern Expeditions, was co-founded by Woodward. All these years later, he still laughs about that shirt. “Most of the time banjo music or Deliverance [comes up],” Woodward tells me, “somebody will say, ‘Squeal like a pig!’ [James Dickey’s son] Chris had a few arguments with his dad about it: ‘The [movie’s legacy] is going to be about butt-fucking!’ His dad would say, ‘No, no. It’s going to be about the wilderness experience.’”
Woodward is an avid outdoorsman, but even he acknowledges that Chris was partly right: “People who have seen the movie think, ‘Oh, the rape scene.’”
That connection between hillbillies, Deliverance and male rape is only strengthened by the comedic 2010 bluegrass song “Paddle Faster I Hear Banjos” by Jim Powers, who imagines a scenario in which a guy decides to go on a canoeing vacation in Tennessee, encountering some scary locals along the way. Here’s the chorus:
I hear banjos
What they’re after
It’s not clear
But to paraphrase ol’ General Beauregard
Advance, but always protect your rear
The phrase is so well-known, in fact, that it’s not uncommon for kayakers and others to tag their Instagram posts #paddlefasterihearbanjos as they journey down a lovely river. The dark implications of the line are still there, although it’s become mostly a sly but harmless reference to the relaxing vacation the Deliverance men were initially seeking.
Even Boorman is aware of the phrase. In 2015, he noted, “Just the other day someone sent me a T-shirt with two Peanuts characters on it paddling a canoe, and one says to the other, ‘Paddle faster! I hear banjos!”’
I couldn’t find such a shirt, which makes me wonder if Boorman actually meant a Family Guy shirt with the phrase — after all, Brian and Stewie sorta look like Charlie Brown and Snoopy. “It’s a curious thing,” Boorman added, “if a film connects to the zeitgeist and locks in with an audience. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, that movie becomes part of the culture.”
And when that happens, the references start popping up in the strangest places. In 2015, a video went viral from the Franklin Half Marathon in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee. Married couple Red Duck Cantrell and April Cantrell decided it would be amusing to park a beat-up truck along the race course, dress up like mountain men and play a little “Dueling Banjos,” all the while occasionally yelling, “What’re y’all running from?” to confused joggers as they ran by. Also, there were pre-recorded sounds of pigs squealing.
“In Leiper’s Fork, we’ve kind of become known to do quirky things,” April Cantrell said at the time. “We prefer to entertain ourselves as much as we do others. … The first runners came through and they were looking at us like, ‘We’re not sure about you, but the music seems pretty good,’ and as the race went on, the runners stopped and took pictures.”
Other attempts at parody, however, have backfired badly. In Male on Male Rape, Scarce points to a 1996 radio promotion in Columbus, Ohio, which was tied to a pig race at the Ohio State Fair. The contest involved calling the station in order to become a sponsor for one of the pigs — if your pig won, you’d receive a trophy and “$500 worth of Dinner Bell pork products.” But you could only call when you heard Beatty’s Deliverance character squealing like a pig. Offended at the insensitivity of the promotion, Scarce told a local reporter, “It’s sort of like using the clip of Jodie Foster being gang raped in the movie The Accused to sell pinball machines,” a reference to the fact that her character is assaulted on a pinball machine.
Going on, he added, “I’m outraged as a sexual assault educator and as a male rape survivor. I think it’s completely inappropriate. It trivializes the rape of adult males.”
The 1988 film won Foster her first Best Actress Oscar, playing Sarah, a woman who claims she was raped at a bar. The Accused was hailed at the time for depicting sexual assault in stark terms, and for illustrating how rape survivors have a difficult time getting justice. When Foster won her Academy Award, she thanked her mom for teaching her that “cruelty might be very human, and it might be very cultural, but it’s not acceptable, which is what this movie’s about.” Strangely, too, The Accused might also connect back to Deliverance: Just a few moments before Sarah is assaulted, there’s a shot of her drunkenly laughing with her soon-to-be-rapist, and behind her in the bar is a street sign that says “Beatty,” which some have interpreted as an homage to Ned Beatty’s rape in the Boorman film.
Whether that’s true or just an internet theory, The Accused’s invisible callback to Deliverance suggests that, for female characters, rape was at last being taken seriously, rather than just used as a plot device. Beatty, who has had to talk about “that scene” for more than 40 years now, early on understood its significance. In a New York Times op-ed published in May 1989, the actor wrote about what it was like to be so bonded to his character in the public’s mind:
“‘Squeal like a pig.’ How many times has that been shouted, said or whispered to me, since then?
“I suppose when someone (invariably a man) shouts this at me I am supposed to duck my head and look embarrassed at being recognized as the actor who suffered this ignominy. But I feel only pride about being a part of this story, which the director John Boorman turned into a film classic. I think Bill McKinney (who portrayed the attacker) and I played the ‘rape’ scene about as well as it could be played.”
Beatty went on to suggest that the reason why passersby love yelling “Squeal like a pig” — and why he gets mad when they do — is symptomatic of men’s uncomfortable relationship with male rape. “We want to be distanced from it,” he wrote. “Our last choice would be to identify with the victim. If we felt we could truly be victims of rape, that fear would be a better deterrent than the death penalty. Let’s suppose men were being raped in great numbers. How would we know? Would men who are raped be apt to report the crime?”
As most findings show, men are less likely to report being raped, for myriad reasons, which is perhaps partly why the Deliverance cast has often talked about the fact that female viewers seemed more equipped to process “that scene” than male viewers. “Women get this movie much quicker than men,” Reynolds, who died last year, once said. “Women also understand. You know, for so many years men threw the word rape around and never thought about what they were saying. And I think the picture makes men think about something that’s very important, that we understand the pain and embarrassment and the change of people’s lives.”
This, of course, hasn’t stopped Hollywood from producing a ton of movies and TV shows in which the possibility of men being raped in prison is supposed to be hilarious. (Machado also argues that Deliverance’s rape scene “perpetuates homophobia and ‘bottom shaming’ by showing that while the man who is penetrated loses his manhood, the man who is penetrating the other apparently retains his.”) Even in certified classics like Pulp Fiction, male rape is portrayed as a beyond-the-pale violation that would only be carried out by the most depraved (and possibly Southern) individuals. Much like “Squeal like a pig,” Pulp Fiction’s “Bring out the gimp” has become a pop-culture euphemism for sodomy — a punch line to a sick, juvenile joke. As a boy, Quentin Tarantino had seen the Boorman picture on a double bill with The Wild Bunch. “Deliverance scared the living shit out of me,” Tarantino later recalled, adding, “Did I understand Ned Beatty was being sodomized? No, but I knew he wasn’t having any fun.”
In recent years, the stigma of male rape has been lifted a little by television dramas hoping to examine the phenomenon from a realistic perspective. The 2016 season of American Crime focused on a young man, Taylor (Connor Jessup), who was raped by his classmates, essentially presenting a male version of The Accused. “I met with a few therapists and counselors who specialize in trauma and some specifically who specialize in male sexual assault — peer-on-peer rape,” Jessup told Variety, later adding, “Despite the fact that it’s not really an issue that’s widely discussed in popular culture, there’s quite a bit of academic and journalistic stuff out there, and it’s really difficult and really fascinating.”
To preserve the realism, the producers cast an actual sexual assault nurse for the scene in which Taylor is examined.
Then last year, the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why ended its second season with an episode in which Tyler (Devin Druid), a picked-on student, is violently sodomized with a mop handle by his male classmates.
Not surprisingly, the scene drew angry responses from viewers and parents, but 13 Reasons Why creator Brian Yorkey defended the frank depiction to Vulture:
“[T]he fact is that, as intense as that scene is, and as strong as [our] reactions to it may be, it doesn’t even come close to the pain experienced by the people who actually go through these things. When we talk about something being ‘disgusting’ or hard to watch, often that means we are attaching shame to the experience. We would rather not be confronted with it. We would rather it stay out of our consciousness. This is why these kinds of assaults are underreported. This is why victims have a hard time seeking help. We believe that talking about it is so much better than silence. … When we dug into that research, I think we were all astounded to find how many times this happened, this disturbingly similar story of a male high school athlete violating a weaker boy with some sort of instrument like a mop handle or a pool cue.”
One can argue that a program like 13 Reasons Why might be sensationalizing a true epidemic, but the fact remains that, 47 years after Deliverance, we’re only now getting programs that analyze the physical and psychological damage of male rape. But as Machado points out, Deliverance is oddly resonant in our #MeToo era, which in some ways echoes the feminist movement of the 1970s.
“It’s interesting that we’re going through a similar socio-political-cultural context and experience now as the one in which Deliverance was produced and consumed,” she tells me. “Once again, we have a vibrant movement for women’s rights, accompanied by a conservative backlash and a perceived ‘crisis of masculinity.’” Machado sees 13 Reasons Why’s male-rape scene as thematically linked to the one in Deliverance, although she notes, “I didn’t see anyone talk about the sexual violence against girls in the previous season as ‘female rape.’” There’s still a gender gap in our perception of rape — there’s still an assumption that rape is something that happens to women.
When I spoke to Thompson and Woodward, I brought up Deliverance’s rape scene. Thompson was skittish about discussing it. “I’d really prefer not to talk about ‘that scene,’” she says. “I mean, it was unsettling, but I don’t know, that’s the negative side. If there was ever a controversy, that would be the controversial side of the film, and for me, it’s all about the positive aspects that came as a result of the movie being filmed here.”
As for Woodward, who’s written extensively about his experience on Deliverance, he knows that people will want to talk about “that scene” when they meet him. “Most folks are reluctant to come right out and ask about it,” he tells me. But he’s found a disarming way of bringing it up. He’s got a PowerPoint presentation on the history of paddling, and Deliverance, of course, puts in an appearance. In one slide, he has a picture of one of his Southeastern Expeditions partners “who has some very prominent thigh bruises and is taking a break on a log from a canoeing scene. I use that as a lead-in to the next slide. I say, ‘I know you’ve all been waiting for a shot of the rape scene. I’m happy to say I’ve got one,’ but it’s actually two rhinoceroses getting it on. It gets a tremendous laugh.”
At its core, Deliverance is a film about masculinity — how men revel in it, and how they react when it’s threatened. Praising Deliverance at the time of its release, film critic Stephen Farber wrote in the New York Times:
“The film has a ruthless logic that will upset audiences looking for another fable of man against the wilderness. This boyish adventure turns sour when one of the four explorers is sexually assaulted by a couple of hillbillies. The homosexual rape is a black joke on the men’s dreams of camaraderie — the natural conclusion to their woodsie campfire reveries. In Deliverance, for once, man is rape victim as well as rapist; this assault brings into the open sexual fantasies and fears that the characters cannot tolerate. They will go to any lengths to avenge the sodomy, and audiences, equally anxious to exorcise the image of male humiliation, want to accept their vengeance as a necessary tribal ritual.”
Decades later, we still cannot tolerate the image of Bobby, helpless and scared, being raped. And so, we try to nullify its impact through parodies, pop-culture references and funny T-shirts. Turns out, though, none of that works. Watch Deliverance now and “that scene” retains all its horror and power. The characters don’t want to talk about it, and neither do we.
That’s why it still haunts all of us.