To minimize costs, the production wasn't insured, and the actors did their own stunts. Jon Voight climbed the cliff.
In the year after the film's release, more than thirty people drowned in the Chattooga River while trying to replicate the characters' adventures.
Burt Reynolds broke his coccyx (tailbone) while going down the rapids when the canoe capsized. Originally, a cloth dummy was used, but it looked too fake, like a dummy going over a waterfall. While Reynolds recovered, he asked, "How did it look?" Director John Boorman replied, "Like a dummy going over a waterfall."
According to Director John Boorman, the gas station attendant's jig during "Dueling Banjos" was unscripted and spontaneous.
To save costs and add to the realism, local residents were cast in the roles of the hill people.
Billy Redden didn't know how to play banjo. To simulate realistic chord playing during "Duelling Banjos", another boy, a skilled banjo player, played the chords with his arm reaching around Redden's side while Redden picked. Musicians Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel played on the soundtrack.
Much of the film had to have its color desaturated because the river looked too pretty.
"Dueling Banjos" was the first scene shot. The rest of the movie was almost entirely shot in sequence.
While filming the white water canoeing scene, Ned Beatty was thrown overboard and was sucked under by a whirlpool. A production assistant dove in to save him, but he didn't surface for thirty seconds. John Boorman asked Beatty, "How did you feel?", and Beatty responded, "I thought I was going to drown, and the first thought was, how will John finish the film without me? And my second thought was, I bet the bastard will find a way!"
According to Turner Classic Movies, John Boorman wanted Lee Marvin and Marlon Brando to play Ed and Lewis, respectively. After reading the script, Marvin said he and Brando were too old, and suggested that Boorman use younger actors instead. Boorman agreed, and cast Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds.
Burt Reynolds breakthrough role, transforming him from an actor to a film superstar.
Even though his character was very clumsy and uncoordinated, Ned Beatty was the only one of the four main actors with any experience in a canoe prior to shooting.
John Boorman wanted Vilmos Zsigmond as Director of Photography because he'd famously filmed the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. Boorman reckoned that anyone who had filmed under the threat of Russian tanks and guns would be ideally suited to an intensive and grueling shoot, which this movie promised to be.
Billy Redden, the boy with the banjo, liked Ronny Cox and hated Ned Beatty. At the end of the duelling banjos scene, the script called for Billy to harden his expression towards Cox's character, but Billy couldn't pretend to hate Cox. To solve the problem, they got Beatty to step towards Billy at the close of the shot. As Beatty approached, Billy hardened his expression and looked away.
Author James Dickey gave Burt Reynolds a few days of bow and arrow lessons. By the end, Reynolds was quite proficient.
Donald Sutherland turned down the role of Ed because he objected to the violence in the script. He later said he regretted that decision.
When John Boorman was looking for an actor to play the toothless hillbilly, Burt Reynolds suggested Herbert "Cowboy" Coward, who had no front teeth, was illiterate, and stuttered. Reynolds had previously worked with Coward in a Wild West show in Maggie Valley, North Carolina.
Ned Beatty's film debut. His voice laughing is the first human sound on the soundtrack.
The cliff climbing scene was shot during the day, and underexposed with a bluish tint added in post-production. "Day for night" shooting was common until the late 1970s because of slow film stocks and anamorphic lenses that didn't let in as much light as spherical lenses, requiring a lot of lights.
Jack Nicholson agreed to play Ed as long as Marlon Brando played Lewis. However, the actors' combined fees added up to more than one million dollars, half the movie's budget, forcing John Boorman to cast cheaper actors.
When John Boorman first tapped Jon Voight to appear in the film, the actor was at a low point. His previous film, The All-American Boy (1973), was deemed an unsalvageable mess. Convinced his career was over, Voight credited Boorman with saving his life, then spending the next few months trying to kill him with extreme stunts during filming.
Author James Dickey would only address the actors by calling them by their character names.
Following the film, tourism increased to Rabun County by the tens of thousands. By 2012, tourism was the largest source of revenue in the county. Jon Voight's stunt double for this film, Claude Terry, later purchased equipment used in the movie from Warner Brothers. He founded what is now the oldest whitewater rafting adventure company on the Chattooga River, Southeastern Expeditions. By 2012, rafting had developed as a twenty million dollar industry in the region.
Regarding the courage of the four main actors in the movie doing their own stunts without insurance protection, James Dickey was quoted as saying all of them "had more guts than a burglar". In a nod to their stunt-performing audacity, early in the movie Lewis says, "Insurance? I've never been insured in my life. I don't believe in insurance. There's no risk."
John Boorman's gold record for the "Duelling Banjos" hit single was stolen from his house by Dublin gangster Martin Cahill. Boorman depicted the crime in his film about Cahill, The General (1998).
The movie doesn't explain the title, but the book states that what the city boys are trying to find in the backwoods is deliverance from the stress of modern life.
When the Sundance Film Festival first kicked off in Salt Lake City, Utah, in August 1978, this was one of the first selections screened.
Sam Peckinpah wanted to direct the movie. When John Boorman secured the rights, Peckinpah directed Straw Dogs (1971) instead.
The movie was shot primarily on the Chattooga River, which divides South Carolina and Georgia. Additional scenes were shot on the Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, Salem, South Carolina, and Sylva, North Carolina. Shots of the town which did not call for the actors to be present were shot in Monaca, Pennsylvania.
Jon Voight and Marcheline Bertrand were married during filming. John Boorman's five-year-old son, Charley, was the pageboy.
During the filming of the canoe scene, author James Dickey showed up inebriated and got into a bitter argument with John Boorman, who had re-written Dickey's script. They had a brief fistfight in which Boorman's nose was broken and four of his teeth shattered. Dickey was thrown off the set, but no charges were filed against him. The two reconciled and became good friends, and Boorman gave Dickey a cameo role as the Sheriff at the end of the film.
The dream sequence at the end became the inspiration for the end of Carrie (1976), and then countless horror films after that.
Burt Reynolds believed that his nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan Magazine cost the film a Best Picture Oscar.
Burt Reynolds described James Dickey as "a guy who when he's had a couple of martinis you want to drop a grenade down his throat."
John Boorman and writer James Dickey argued constantly. Boorman later referred to making the film as "going fifteen rounds with a heavyweight".
Contrary to popular belief, the deputy at the hospital was played by Lewis Crone, not Ed O'Neill.
The first time Jon Voight watched the finished cut was at Warner Brothers in their screening room, and present were Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, and Jon's father.
During filming, rocks destroyed five wooden canoes and dented the aluminum one severely.
The inspiration for the Cahulawassee River was the Coosawattee River, which was dammed in the 1970s and contained several dangerous whitewater rapids before being flooded by Carters Lake.
Gene Hackman was offered the role of Ed. He wanted to play Lewis, but was turned down.
Henry Fonda turned down the role of Lewis. James Stewart was also considered for the role.
Don Wayne Reno and Arthur Smith are credited with the first recording of "Duelling Banjos" (also known as "Feudin' Banjos" and "The Battle Of The Banjos"). Prior to this movie, both parts were played with banjos, at the same speed all the way through. Almost all modern bluegrass bands play this movie's version in the key of G. In the movie, the guitarist and banjo players play it in the key of A.
Though "Duelling Banjos" won a Grammy Award for Best Original Song, it was written back in 1955 by Arthur Smith and had been used in an October 1963 episode of The Andy Griffith Show (1960).
John Boorman's son, Charley, appeared near the end of the movie as Ed's little boy.
The canoes used in the film are displayed at the Burt Reynolds Museum, located at 100 North U.S. Highway 1, in Jupiter, Florida. One of the canoes used (and signed by Ronny Cox) is on display in the Tallulah Falls Railroad Museum, Dillard, Georgia.
Emory University Chemistry professor Claude Terry consulted on the canoe trip and navigating the Chatooga and other rivers. After the movie's release, Claude founded Southeastern Expeditions, which provided raft trips with trained guides on whitewater rivers. Rafting the Chatooga, the Ocoee River in Tennessee, and other whitewater rivers has become very popular, especially in the summer. Claude is now retired.
Bobby is the only one of the four leads whose occupation is revealed (an insurance salesman). The book reveals that Ed is a graphic designer, Lewis is a landlord, and Drew is a soft drink executive.
In his memoirs, Charlton Heston said he declined the role of Lewis due to his commitment to Antony and Cleopatra (1972).
The aluminum canoe has the blue and white logo of Grumman, the aircraft company that built the F-14 Tomcat and the Apollo Lunar Module.
No credit was given for the film score. The film has several sparse, brooding passages of music scattered throughout, including several played on a synthesizer. Some prints of the movie omit much of this extra music.
Ed's wife was portrayed by Belinda Beatty, who was married to Ned Beatty, who played Bobby.
Bill McKinney first auditioned for the role of Lewis Medlock before being cast as the Mountain Man.
Sales of camping equipment plummeted and the Appalachian camping industry was nearly bankrupted following the film's release.
Included among the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", edited by Steven Schneider.
In early 1971, Los Angeles Times columnist Joyce Haber announced Jack Nicholson as one of the leads.
Included among the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the four hundred movies nominated for the Top 100 Greatest American Movies.
The only Best Picture Oscar nominee that year not to be nominated in any of the writing categories.
The only Best Picture Oscar nominee that year not to be nominated in either of the lead acting categories, or in any acting category.
Amazingly, this seedy Gothic set in the backwoods of the American south was directed by Englishman John Boorman.