I’m reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, and he mentions Clayton, Georgia, and Billy Redden, who appeared in the film adaptation of Deliverance.
I saw Deliverance only a few years ago, when my cousin’s daughter lived in a converted hunting cabin in Pennsylvania. This seemed appropriate a venue from an aesthetic/ambiance viewpoint — somewhat remote (well, in the woods and a bit of an uphill driveway off the road, with a steep hillside looming immediately off the living room picture window, waiting for a hard or a long rain to have an excuse to knock the house down the rest of the hill into the road).
Not being a fan of suspenseful or violent movies, I couldn’t comfortably sit through it without closing my eyes, wandering to the kitchen, the bathroom, etc. This fit in perfectly with the ambiance of the occasion — it was over the Christmas holidays, and my cousin, his wife, his daughter, her husband, his hound dog (a beagle), and miscellaneous other furry friends were ambling among all the rooms in the same manner I was, so I didn’t stick out too much like the proverbial sore thumb, well, except for constantly saying, “I can’t take suspenseful or violent movies, so I can’t watch this . . .” Deliverance was in the VCR because my cousin’s son-in-law had gotten it as a gift.
Like many, I was struck by the boy who appeared to play the banjo in the “Dueling Banjos” scene. “Appeared” because not only could he not play the banjo, but he could not fake playing the banjo; apparently, there’s another kid’s arm in the sleeve faking the playing.
The face that you don’t forget when you see Deliverance belonged to a backward boy of fifteen named Billy Redden, who had the role of a retarded banjo player. The thin-lidded eyes and simple grin are haunting on film, and they were just as disturbing to see on the set.Summer of Deliverance by Christopher Dickey
A short time later in the movie would appear a woman and child who were equally “disturbing” and underdeveloped. Then there are, of course, the two men who attack the Ned Beatty character.
My gut reaction was to think, “Oh, who would believe this — that this kind of thing existed in 1970s America?” I was a skeptic. I posted my doubts to a mailing list that happened to have a lifelong Georgian on it, and he told me that such people do indeed exist, especially in the northern part of the state, and nothing in the movie was an exaggeration.
I thought back to a young adult book I’d been given years ago named Christy by Catherine Marshall, about a young urban girl, living at perhaps turn of the century or a little after, who is drawn to the Appalachians to serve as a Christian missionary. It’s been years since I read it so I don’t remember details, but Christy is taken aback and unnerved by the poverty, ignorance, and backwardness she sees everywhere. The only person who can really understand her perspective and that of the local people is a Scots doctor who grew up in the area.
There is no such thing as sanitation, so typhoid is rampant. When babies are “tetchy,” the mother shakes them as a “cure” — often resulting in the baby’s death. Trepanning is high-tech surgery. There is an otherworldliness to Christy that is difficult to explain, just as there is an otherworldliness that comes across briefly in Deliverance. The awesome beauty of nature populated by people who are little evolved from ancestors hundreds of years ago — and who clearly suffer the result of generations of inbreeding.
I find this otherworldliness, for all its suffering, brutality, and primitivism, strangely haunting and fascinating. My mind, overwhelmed by urban and suburban sprawl, a mushrooming population, media saturation, the Internet, people and technology and information everywhere until I feel a desperate need to escape at any cost, cannot fathom that there are, or were in the 1970s at least, parts of the country where everything I feel crushed by barely exists.
I would love to see northern Georgia today. Somehow, I suspect I would find satellite and cable/digital TV, an onslaught of advertising, and even a computer or two. I would be disappointed.
You see, Deliverance (and Christy) are trips in time, to a past that we no longer remember or care about, when America was covered in forest and young and brutal and backwards. That time is past, but the snapshot may still be there, and that is surely a wonder.