40 years later, 'Deliverance' still draws tourists, stereotypes

Actor Ronnie Cox, left, and banjo boy Billy Redden together again, 40 years after their duet in "Deliverance."

Story highlights

  • The 1972 movie "Deliverance" was shot in Rabun County, Georgia
  • The film spurred hard-to-shake stereotypes of "ignorant" and "deviant" mountain dwellers
  • "Deliverance" also generated huge tourism dollars for the northwest Georgia county
  • Real estate agent: "Once people come to Rabun County, they don't want to leave"
One look at the landscape and you know why people come here -- running white water, along a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
This is Rabun County, Georgia. It was the residents' own best-kept secret until the world discovered it by way of a 1972 movie.
The movie, "Deliverance," made tourist dollars flow into the area, but there was one memorable, horrifying male rape scene that lasted a little more than four minutes, but has lasted 40 years inside the hearts and minds of the people who live here.
Locals say the film painted the county's residents as deviant, uneducated mountain folk.
"We were portrayed as ignorant, backward, scary, deviant, redneck hillbillies," said Rabun County Commissioner Stanley "Butch" Darnell.
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"That stuck with us through all these years and in fact that was probably furthest from the truth. These people up here are a very caring, lovely people."
This weekend, the film's 40th anniversary will be celebrated at the Chattooga River Festival. A re-release of the iconic film on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video will play at the local drive-in on Saturday.
The film tells the story of four big-city guys who take a drive up to northern Georgia to canoe the white water of the Chattooga River that separates Georgia from South Carolina. It's remembered for the dueling banjo scene at the beginning of the film, where one man, played by Ronnie Cox, plays a duet with a local teen, who is portrayed as inbred and mentally challenged.
"Dueling banjos, of course, was iconic, but then there's the rape scene, too," Cox said. "And for a lot of people it became a tough pill to swallow.
"Some people, I think they missed the artistic essence of it (the film), the value of it."
But it's the rape scene that seems to dominate any conversation about the film.
"You were in the middle of the Bible Belt, the biggest thing we had gong back then is we had square dancing at the Mountain City Playhouse," said Darnell, the county commissioner.
But many people, like Billy Redden, say the local folks should put this behind them. The 40th anniversary means a lot to him. He's 56 now, but 40 years ago, he was a student who was asked to play the "Banjo boy" after the film's producers found him on a visit to his high school.
"I don't think it should bother them. I think they just need to start realizing that it's just a movie. It's not like it's real," said Redden, who still lives in Rabun County.
But despite any negative stereotypes, the Rabun County Convention and Visitor's Bureau says more than a quarter-million people flock to the area each year to shoot the same rapids they saw come to life on the big screen.
"It essentially started the white-water rafting industry in the Southeast, " said Larry Mashburn, who owns Southeastern Expeditions, a rafting company.
County officials say tourism brings in $42 million a year in revenue, which makes for a huge surplus for a county whose operating budget is about $17 million. These days, the county has an 80% high school graduation rate, and its average home price is more than $300,000.
"It's allowed us to do things with our education system, with all these different services that we offer, we could not have offered," Darnell said.
The area has become a playground for high-end homeowners with lakefront property in the multimillion-dollar range on places like Lake Burton, which has 62 miles of shoreline.
"Once people come to Rabun County, they don't want to leave," said Debra Butler, a real estate agent. "This is a lifestyle that you have here. It's a way of life. 'Deliverance' depicts a backwoods, inbred kind of community. That is not Rabun County."
Indeed, downtown shops and art galleries convey an image far from anything portrayed in the 1972 film. Jeanne Kronsoble's Main Street Gallery in Clayton shows off a wide range of contemporary folk artists, many self-taught. She's been open for 28 years.
"I became interested in contemporary folk art because of the things I'd seen up here," she said. "When people build houses and they come here, they need art on their walls."
Most believe "Deliverance" got it all started.
But despite this prosperity, the 40-year pain has managed to hang on, because so many people saw a fictional film.
"There are lots of people in Rabun County that would be just as happy if they never heard the word, 'Deliverance' again," Darnell said.