Blue Water, White Death (Peter Gimbel, 1971)

by Douglas Buck April 1, 2022 4 minutes (997 words) 35mm Nitehawk Cinema, part of the monthly The Deuce series

“Now I want to tell you very quickly, what we’re trying to do off Durban. We’re looking for the animal that I think is considered to be the most dangerous predator still living in the world – the Great White Shark – which attacks the carcasses of killed whales in the Indian Ocean on the whaling grounds off here and, in the last ten days, has taken five Sperm Whales over forty feet in length and removed from them all the meat down to the spine in a matter of six or seven hours.”

And with that pitch, presented by rich bitch adventurer Peter Gimbel (yes, the department store heir), who certainly displays a knack for conjuring up the sensational, he and his hand-picked group of underwater professionals, including husband/wife team Ron and Valerie Taylor, who would soon stake further claim by providing the ‘actual’ underwater shark footage for a certain kinda well known shark movie that featured a barely functioning mechanical shark called Bruce, and a famous folk singer, Tom Chapin (brother of legendary Harry) to croon now and again, perhaps in the hopes of finding an eventual theme song for the doc (it never came), head off on a many-months long mission travelling the Indian Ocean in search of that elusive great beast (you know, that dead-eyed relentless eating machine that Spielberg would elevate into our consciousnesses even further, as a shared symbol of all that’s terrifying, with his one true cinematic masterpiece, the alluded to Jaws) with the goal to dare photograph the (occasional) maneater right there in his own turf – ie, underwater.

So it was back yet again to Brooklyn and the Williamsburg Nitehawk, for another night of the monthly Deuce series, in which those amiable and campy programmers present us yet another celluloid portal back to yesteryear, with the only criteria of that month’s movie being it once had a run in one of the grungy theaters along that danger-laden mythical strip once known as the Deuce (whether first or second run doesn’t matter, just as long as it had even a day projected before the seedy raincoat crowd… though, after more than a decade of doing this, with the pickings growing slimmer, I think the guys are now occasionally even stretching that rule a bit) and that it be shown on 35mm (this second edict is firm no matter how tattered and full commie-red the prints sometimes are… though not in the case of “Blue Water”, where the guys managed to scrounge up a seriously gorgeous print).

While the 2:35 scope cinematography is stunning and the shark scenes are thrilling, including with a number of the players jumping in completely unprotected to shoot in the shark-frenzied waters, with the feverish creatures swarming about feeding on a whale carcass (a nutso feat, with the sharks literally nudging up everywhere around them, clearly sizing them up to see if they’d be worth a bite, an act the group claim as the first time being done, but who knows, as we get to know this privileged lot, you realize this is just the kind of self-aggrandizing claim they’d make) and the final scenes when they finally discover some Great Whites off the coast of Australia, only to learn that those protective cages they decided to shoot those big white mambas from might have been shark-proof to most sharks, but not necessarily Great Whites (think poor Hooper getting tossed about like a rag doll in the cage in Jaws, just not quite at that level… but close), you also have to wonder if they have any idea of how distastefully intrusive – and even destructive — they consistently reveal themselves to be in what they clearly want to believe as some kind of ‘poetic’ (I mean, after all, they brought along a folk singer) bonding with Nature and the Sea.

They follow a Japanese whaling vessel for long stretches, with their displays of thoughtful shock at the ‘horrors’ of the brutal harpoon slaughtering of these intelligent mammals in front of their eyes never preventing them from opportunistically photographing the frenzied masses of sharks feeding off the carcasses of these beautiful sea creatures dangling in the water roped to the side of the ship. Eventually separating from the vessel, we find them somehow granted their very own floating dead whale in which to lure hungry sharks to photograph, leaving one with the unsettling suspicion that rich asshole Gimbel must have paid the ‘offending’ slaughtering Japs for one of the recently butchered. Then lovely Valerie Taylor (the most openly horrified at the whale slaughter) jumps into the drink with the frenzied sharks for photo-op making history… driving the naturally hungry little fuckers back with a makeshift electric cattle prod so powerful it leads to one, jabbed directly in the head and clearly rendered brain damaged, spinning confusedly down, disappearing into the depths to its likely death, punished for the offending sin of daring to approach a two-legged creature that clearly doesn’t belong in its habitat and is decidedly not part of its ecosystem, with the camera coldly capturing the entire event.

Even in the more ‘reflective’ scenes (and you know they’re coming as soon as you hear the first gentle chords of Tom’s guitar), our cast of fortunates often mar the moment, such as when they take a calming walk along the coastal rocks… only to sneak up on a sleeping seal, with our bipeds giggling as they watch the terrified creature wake up with a shock, frantically hopping off, barking in total terror.

As beautiful and evocative as all of the imagery they capture is to witness (and it is), baring witness to our cocksure group trampling their surroundings with such an unaware sense of primacy, I began to imagine a different movie… one in which the Creature of the Black Lagoon showed up to make them pay for their hubris. I would have enjoyed that more.

Blue Water, White Death (Peter Gimbel, 1971)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   documentary   ethnographic   shark movies