Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a month-to-month column that unpacks moments of film magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains how they shot Burt Reynolds’ waterfall stunt in John Boorman’s 1972 film Deliverance.
In his director’s commentary, John Boorman describes Deliverance as “a narrative a couple of river that’s going to be killed.” It’s a telling synopsis that hints at each Boorman’s political allegiances in addition to the movie’s inherently ghoulish premise: that 4 males have come to bop on the Cahulawassee’s grave, unaware of their fake pas.
4 “metropolis boys” from Atlanta — Ed, Lewis, Drew, and Bobby — have arrived to canoe down the river earlier than it will get dammed and tamed right into a hydroelectric reservoir. Of the foursome, Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is probably the most seasoned outdoorsman. And but, for all his package and confidence, his enthusiasm reeks of a sinister over-eagerness: the type of prepper mentality that yearns for the apocalypse partly as a result of it could open the door to permissible manslaughter.
Certain sufficient, when tragedy befalls the group, Lewis’ itchy set off finger is there to avoid wasting the day. He’d by no means say as a lot however buried deep inside his spinal column, he harbored a morbid have to take a human life. They have been at risk and he acted, proper? He saved his associates and that’s good, proper? And so, the group finds themselves within the thrall of a corrupting affect: the enchanting thought that this crime, your crime, was justified.
It’s a disgrace that Deliverance’s cultural repute fails to do justice to its thematic subtleties. The movie’s notorious rape scene and Southern caricatures are inclined to overshadow what’s, at its coronary heart, a damning doc of the violence effervescent beneath the floor of a particular breed of domesticated masculinity.
Thus far, it’s unattainable to overstate how well-cast Deliverance is. Jon Voight is completely convincing as Ed, who should carry out psychological backflips to make peace together with his heel flip into savagery. Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, plucked by Boorman from the stage, are good as rage-filled Bobby and moralistic Ronny, respectively. But it surely’s Reynolds, as Lewis, who feels probably the most at dwelling in his character’s pores and skin. Although, as we’ll see, Reynolds’ affinity for Lewis’ reckless bravado didn’t come with out consequence.
The Deliverance waterfall stunt
With their sufferer swiftly buried, the lads urgently resume their journey. However whereas the others paddle swiftly, keen to place this horrible factor behind them, the identical can’t be stated for Drew.
Slumped on the bow, face drained of coloration, it’s clear that one thing isn’t proper. As Ed urges his good friend to placed on his life jacket, Drew lurches wordlessly ahead and disappears. In considered one of Deliverance‘s most ambiguous moments, it’s unclear if Drew was (as Lewis later insists) shot by an unseen marksman … or if he determined he couldn’t stay with the group’s darkish secret.
Within the ensuing chaos, the three remaining males capsize on the mouth of a violent waterfall. Disoriented, gasping for breath, and frantically pawing at slick rocks within the hope of slowing their descent.
Within the frothy chaos, we see Lewis rocket down the waterfall. He careens downwards, bouncing erratically in a means that may solely be described as “uncontrolled.” And also you’re by no means going to imagine this, however it was precisely that.
How’d they try this?
Lengthy story quick:
Burt Reynolds launched himself down an actual waterfall and instantly broke his tailbone.
Lengthy story lengthy:
Deliverance was shot on the Chattooga River, which bisects South Carolina and Georgia. Whereas the movie’s legacy within the area is sophisticated, the manufacturing’s presence within the latter state was accountable for the creation of the Georgia Movie, Music, and Digital Leisure Workplace, which is, if something, a enjoyable cultural wrinkle. The raging waters our protagonists discover themselves in after Drew goes overboard belong to Tallulah Falls, a dam-controlled drop that anticipates a large 1,000-foot (300 m) deep gorge.
Considerably infamously, Warner Bros. tried their darndest to kill Deliverance by slicing off its blood provide to its funds. Amongst Boorman’s many cost-saving measures was the choice to not insure the manufacturing. This lack of a monetary security internet led to the meta-line, paradoxically delivered by Reynolds: “Insurance coverage? Shit. I by no means been insured in my life. I don’t imagine in insurance coverage. There’s no threat.”
When it got here time to movie the pictures of Lewis plummeting down the falls, Boorman wished to make use of a dummy (which, per Reynolds’ autobiography, was nicknamed “No Balls” by the crew). In what the actor would later dub “a dumb macho factor to do,” Reynolds satisfied Boorman to let him go over for actual, ostensibly as a result of it could look higher. And hey, there was a internet on the mouth of the gorge (to keep away from anybody going over the subsequent waterfall). What’s the worst that would occur?
“That they had management over the water [from a dam upriver],” Reynolds recalled to The Hollywood Reporter. “They shut it down and I went out they usually had pushed a spike into a giant rock and I used to be holding onto it. Then they let the water go and I heard this sound — I dream generally of the water coming — I seemed round and there was a tidal wave coming at me.”
As Boorman stresses within the movie’s director’s commentary that they hadn’t deliberate on releasing that a lot water: “[We] had a whole lot of offended actors right here as a result of it actually was an excessive amount of water and it was raging … I really feel horrible guilt that I put these males into extra hazard than they need to have performed.”
When Reynolds went over the falls, he instantly hit a rock and cracked his tailbone, an harm the actor claims by no means totally healed. When he lastly reached the underside of the falls, Reynolds discovered himself trapped in a whirlpool. Heeding the recommendation of a crewmember, somewhat than wrestle in opposition to the present Reynolds swam downwards. This prompted him to slingshot towards the floor. When he emerged, his garments had been torn off. “I had no footwear, socks — the falls tore them off. It was a fairly furry stunt,” Reynolds recalled to Enterprise Insider. There are differing accounts of simply how undressed Reynolds was when he surfaced. Over the a long time, misplaced footwear has inflated to tales of full-blown nudity … which can or is probably not associated to the actor’s standing as a intercourse image.
There’s a conspicuous lower throughout Reynold’s stunt within the ultimate edit of the movie. And whereas it appears unlikely that Reynolds would have been instantly recreation to reshoot, given his shattered coccyx, it’s clear that we’re being denied some a part of the disaster (be it Reynolds in some state of undress or a painful ready interval between pictures).
American Cinematographer’s Herb A. Lightman occurred to go to the Deliverance crew on-location not lengthy after Reynolds’ accident. “I slid down a 40′ waterfall the opposite day,” Reynolds instructed Lightman. “It seemed easy sufficient, however I lit proper on my tailbone, on a submerged rock, and bounced about 5 ft within the air. Man, did that harm. I might hardly transfer for a number of hours afterward.”
As part of their pre-production coaching, all the actors have been taught methods to canoe (solely Beatty had prior expertise). In the meantime, it’s unclear simply how a lot path the gang had with respect to happening rapids with out a paddle, because it have been. Each Reynolds and Claude Terry, a whitewater marketing consultant and Jon Voight’s stunt double, do much more flailing than is mostly advisable. Ideally, in these conditions, you need to hold each your nostril and toes out of the water, together with your ft pointed downstream to keep away from entrapment or a head harm. In case you watch the footage, Terry seems far flatter (for lack of a greater time period) than Reynolds, who’s in additional of a v-sit place. Terry does lose factors for happening head-first at sure factors, although it’s attainable this was a creative selection on Boorman’s half.
Legend has it that when Reynolds approached Boorman after the incident, he requested: “how’d it look?” To which Boorman replied: “It seemed like a dummy falling over a waterfall.” This quip is oft-repeated and is finest instructed by preeminent Burt Reynolds impersonator Norm Macdonald, who supposedly heard the story from the horse’s mouth. (Macdonald additionally misremembers the director of Deliverance as John Frankenheimer, so who’s to say if his reminiscence will be trusted). Then once more, it’s an incredible set-up/pay-off — so who cares.
In all equity, Reynolds wasn’t the one actor (or crewmember) to maintain accidents due to the Chattooga River. At one level throughout the shoot, Beatty fell into the drink and obtained caught in a hydraulic (a river function the place water falls from an obstruction into deeper water, making a pullback in direction of the obstruction). Fortunately, Beatty managed to flee, however not earlier than having an underwater existential disaster. “I believed, ‘That is the place I die,’ and my spouse was pregnant, and I considered how mad she could be that I died in a river in Georgia,” Beatty instructed The Palm Seashore Publish. Beatty survived, in contrast to the 5 wood canoes that have been destroyed over the course of the manufacturing, per Boorman’s commentary.
“Working on this gorge is fairly powerful,” Boorman confessed to ASC’s Lightman. “The rocks are treacherous and slippery and persons are falling on a regular basis and bruising themselves. We’ve been very fortunate to not have something extra critical. The actors and crew are out and in of the water frequently. They’re moist all day lengthy. I don’t keep in mind when my ft have been dry final. While you take your footwear off at night time, you see this kind of mushy, white, tough pores and skin. Then you definately get up within the morning and your footwear are nonetheless moist … However the crew we’ve obtained is handpicked and is made up of sorts that like this type of factor. They adore it. They’re a terrific bunch — all the time within the water, serving to out with the pictures. We’ve actually obtained an excellent spirit.”
The precedent for the Deliverance waterfall stunt
Anybody accustomed to Burt Reynolds’ entire deal gained’t be shocked that this man insisted on launching himself down a waterfall.
Reynolds was an in depth good friend of legendary stuntman Hal Needham, whose specialty was leaping between varied modes of transportation (together with from an airplane to a horse in an episode of You Requested For It). The pair first met on the set of the Sixties Western TV present Riverboat the place Needham was employed as Reynolds’ stuntman. As Reynolds remembers in a 2015 interview with Selection, after insisting that he didn’t want a stuntman, Needham replied that the majority actors who stated that wound up within the hospital. Evidently, Reynolds realized nothing from this alternate.
“I did all my very own stunts, which is why I can’t stroll very properly now,” Reynolds relayed in a 2015 interview on The Jonathan Ross Present. “At sure instances within the morning, I remorse it, attempting to get off the bed … I can level to sure locations and comprehend it’s from sure footage.” It’s exhausting to learn that and never take into consideration Brendan Fraser’s 2018 GQ interview, the place the Canadian actor made a hanging comparability between bodily damaged motion stars to exhausted draft horses destined for the glue manufacturing unit.
Whereas loads of sensible river stunts predate Deliverance, one of many oldest (and most related) comes courtesy of none apart from Buster Keaton.
Launched in 1923, Our Hospitality follows a younger man named Willie McKay (Keaton) who falls exhausting and quick for Virginia (Keaton’s first spouse Natalie Talmadge) whereas en path to his household’s property in Appalachia. Unbeknownst to the couple, their households are sworn enemies and slapstick hijinx ensue.
Within the movie’s third act, McKay manages to evade Virginia’s murderous brothers solely to dump himself right into a raging river. After calmly paddling away in his sea-worthy boxcar, McKay finds himself drifting in direction of a collection of rapids. Launched out of his makeshift boat, however nonetheless hooked up to a thick line of rope sure throughout his chest, McKay violently sails downstream.
What follows is actually probably the most notorious stunt within the movie: dangling over the ledge of the waterfall due to his trusty rope, McKay swings pendulum-like to clasp Virginia’s outstretched fingers simply as she is about to plummet to sure dying.
Whereas actually spectacular, the “swing-catch” gag wasn’t executed at an actual waterfall. The stunt was carried out below managed circumstances on a synthetic set at Brunton Studio in Hollywood, which conveniently featured a T-shaped concrete plunge pool. The identical can’t be stated of the sooner shot the place McKay bobs down the rapids, which was shot on-location within the Truckee River and practically killed Keaton.
As Marion Meade relays in Buster Keaton: Minimize to the Chase, when the wire restraining Keaton broke, the actor shot down the rapids. Ten minutes later, the crew discovered Keaton mendacity face down and motionless on a riverbank. Relying on who you ask, Keaton’s brush with dying was evaded due to an overhanging department (attracting a horde of water snakes within the course of). The wide-angle shot of Keaton flailing down the rocky rapids was used within the ultimate lower of the movie and is adopted by a collection of pictures of Keaton humorously bouncing off rocks, which have been filmed on a set.
There’s an apparent distinction between Keaton unintentionally getting his ass beat by a river and Burt Reynolds selecting to launch himself down a waterfall. However the final takeaway is similar, and John Boorman says it finest on his Deliverance commentary observe: if a gag is so ridiculously harmful that it requires a stuntman, then possibly you shouldn’t be doing it.
Associated Subjects: Deliverance, How’d They Do That?
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