One of the assistant directors called me from the sidelines and had me follow the actors through the scene. I was going to stand in for Ned while they set up the lights and the track for the camera. I didn’t have to take off my clothes. All I had to do was go through the general motions, standing on the marks set up during the rehearsal, crawling as if in slow motion up the steep bank covered with leaves. No one led me by the nose, or rode me like a sow. But I had to lie down over the log, with the wood pressing into my stomach, and there were no jokes that could be made, there was nothing for anyone to say, that could keep me from feeling humiliated. I couldn’t wait for this day to be over. But it was only beginning.
For the break-up of the canoes, special effects man Marcel Vercoutere devised a catapult to launch Reynolds thirty feet in the air, hurling him toward the pool. He was well padded, but he was still pretty badly beaten up on the rocks. Jon Voight took to climbing the lower levels of the cliff, sometimes fifty feet or more, without any safety equipment. Boorman let him. Jon was about twenty feet above the crew when he lost his hold and tumbled back off the rocks. A prop man was able to break his fall, barely, but stood frozen for a few seconds before he let Voight go. Everybody was frozen. The exposed blade of a hunting arrow on Jon’s bow quiver was a breath away from the prop man’s throat.
At the top of the gorge, 150 to 250 feet above the rocks, the risks were even greater, and everybody played. As they searched for the best camera angles, Boorman and Szigmond leaned way out over the edge of the precipice, and only rarely put on safety harnesses. Lives were risked to position lights, or to saw off a twig that blocked the lens.
Members of the crew and the artificial family at Kingwood began to go home. An assistant producer, both assistant directors, a camera operator and two nurses left for reasons of health, or weariness or frustration. Burt’s Numero Uno left, too, during the most dangerous part of the filming. But it was so important to him to be seen with a woman, even if no woman was at hand, that one day he came to the set in Tallulah gorge with a handful of love-letters written to him by women who’d slept with him. He passed them around to the crew for their reading enjoyment. One collection was from a pair of girls who called themselves Franny and Zooey. Another more depressing set of letters was from an exotic dancer in a Newport News service club who was trying to launch her son's career as a musician by having him play backup during her routines. Burt was going to be her ticket out of all that, she thought.
It was about as close as I’d ever come to dying, at least at that point in my life, and that evening I tried to tell my father all about it. But he seemed to have other things on his mind. He was back on the scene. Back in the movie.The shooting was almost over and he’d been given a part to play on screen. He was going to be Sheriff Bullard, who doesn’t really believe the story these city fellas tell him about what happened on the river -- “How come you boys to have four life jackets?” – but who lets them go anyway. My father had never acted before. Not as such. And it embarrassed me, then, to watch him on the set. When I watch the movie now and see those scenes I think he was just about perfect: he is big and menacing, and there is a little of the Winslow sheriff in him; but there is also this genteel insecurity as Bullard tries to cope with the hinted atrocities taking place in his county, and there are several times in his brief appearance when he is just so much like my father, even the best of my father, sober and thoughtful and picking his words with real care, that I am glad just to be able to see him. We were into the last days on the set there was a last scene to shoot in which my father and I appear together, although it was later cut from the movie. Ed and Bobby and Lewis are called back up from Atlanta to the dam at Aintry. Lewis is on crutches. All of them are wearing business clothes, all have come to see a corpse on a stretcher covered by a sheet. Sheriff Bullard reaches down and lifts the shroud to show them the body of – you’re not sure. It could be one of the mountain men. It could be Drew. You don’t know and you never do see. Ed wakes from the dream.