GREAT WHITE DEATH
Pros: Some incredible and/or shocking scenes
Cons: Tone of the narration is all over the place; very dated and of little interest today
Even if it does contain some pretty wild footage – including the aftermath of a great white shark attack, the 1981 Canadian production Great White Death plays today as the dated and somewhat sensationalized documentary that it is: a film that’s quite possibly more similar to the many outrageous (and heavily staged) mondo films than the typical National Geographic special. Slow-moving and fairly redundant, this program offers up precisely nothing for the viewer who is at least vaguely familiar with sharks, serving mainly as a platform by which writer/director Jean-Patrick Lebel (speaking through the mouth piece of narrator Glenn Ford) can propose his theories about how the shark as a species fits in the bigger scheme of life on earth. As this program tells a viewer (again and again and again…), the shark is the “ultimate exterminator,” cleaning up the refuse in the ocean – Ford’s narration repeats this catch phrase or another similar one multiple times throughout the film. The piece as a whole could possibly be subtitled as The Many Faces of Shark since according to the film, sharks are (among other things) demons, gods, pirates, scavengers, villains, and heroes. Eventually though, one of the few things a viewer is likely to take away from this production is that circa 1981, damn little was known about sharks in general, but particularly the great white.
As expected, there’s plenty of footage of sharks in action – at least once the documentary gets going. It takes awhile.
Playing somewhat similarly to the types of educational film strips high school students are shown in science class (are these goofy things even shown anymore?), Great White Death is a rather comprehensive examination of what was known about sharks in the years immediately following the release of Jaws. This examination starts off with (what else?) a(n ill-advised and ridiculous) fifteen minute “history of mankind” section, just in case there was any question or confusion about where mankind’s relationship with the world around him and specifically the oceans came from. Through the rest of the picture, there’s some description of shark behavior and biology (segments that prove just how primitive mankind’s understanding of these creatures was at the time), and a discussion about how sharks are viewed by different cultures. While most humans have some innate fear of the creatures (I dunno – that whole “they could eat me alive” thing tends to ruin the appeal of large predatory animals), sharks are idolized both as gods or as demons in some cultures – cue the staple footage of nearly naked native people engaging in some sort of “ritual.” Later on, the documentary details methods used to deter sharks from coming in contact with people in the first place and documents a camera crew’s attempt to capture footage of large white sharks in their natural environments.
The fact that this production didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know is something I was willing to overlook with regard to its overall quality – this film was after all made nearly three and a half decades ago and science has learned quite a bit over that period of time. What is not so easy to ignore was the fact that this film’s tone is wildly inconsistent. The film preaches conservationist ideals one second (for instance, the idea that sharks provide a valuable service to the earth’s oceans and should be left alone), then presented the creatures as dangerous “man-eaters” the next. I really wasn’t sure what the point of this film was: Lebel’s haphazard script could talk a big game of “save the sharks” all he wants, but if the next scene shows an angry Australian abalone diver talking about how sharks are evil and deserve to be killed while he describes his death-defying encounter with a particularly aggressive white shark, the message of tolerance is probably immediately forgotten. This whole documentary rambles, rants, and raves, all the while seeming to double back on itself numerous times in terms of the information and message it’s trying to get across. The sense of repetition in the narration is bad enough, but when the repeated messages aren’t even the same as what was being stated earlier, the whole of the film just seems like a mess.
If looks could kill…
As would be expected from any number of the rather dubious, Italian-made “mondo” documentaries of the 1960s (films like Mondo Cane which offered up a mix of authentic scenes with obvious fabricated footage), Great White Death showcases a phony sequence of a shark attacking a pair of female bathers right off the bat. This (hopefully at least) establishes that a viewer has to take everything he sees here with a grain of salt. A scene in which a human skull is retrieved from the gullet of a dead shark just “to prove to doubters” that sharks do in fact occasionally eat people is one scene where there seems to at least be some level of manipulation of facts going on in the way the film is constructed. Honestly, who in 1981 would have “doubted” that sharks do indeed sometimes devour human beings? Jaws alone would have reinforced that point!
Ah, the old human skull in the shark routine…
That said, Great White Death does include some genuinely shocking, unnerving, and/or amazing scenes. One such sequence involves an attempt to capture a live white shark by using the Jaws technique of wearing him out with barrels. When this huge creature is finally lifted out of the water by use of a winch, narrator Ford triumphantly declares “we have conquered the great white,” but is this actually the case? I was rather astonished by footage of a great white caught on rod and reel being devoured by an even bigger great white as it’s being hauled in and footage that details the habit of some sharks to be “uterine cannibals,” i.e. literally eating their way out of their mother during gestation. More harrowing are scenes involving the positively brutal (for sharks anyway) net systems that have been installed around the beaches of South Africa. Though these nets have lowered shark attack numbers (the history of South African shark attacks is long and rather gruesome, culminating in the “” period of 1957-58), watching slowly dying sharks desperately struggle to free themselves from the netting is pretty awful and potentially upsetting. I’m honestly not entirely convinced that the “alternate method” of being stabbed to death in the head is all that bad in comparison – at least the sharks stabbed to death die quickly.
Footage of sharks desperately struggling in nets is rather distressing.
Finally, it’d be impossible to ignore this film’s obvious WHOA moment: authentic footage of a 1964 great white attack off the coast of Australia in which diver Henri Bource’s leg was taken off slightly below the knee. Though Bource survives and actually explains in the documentary his side of this story, this footage is incredibly graphic, showing efforts to apply a tourniquet to Bource (going into full-shock mode and twitching violently as he’s hauled from the sea) before he bleeds out all over the deck. Needless to say, Great White Death (which also includes for your viewing pleasure some goopy dissection footage) is not for the squeamish even if Amazon does label it as (inexplicably) being rated PG.
Rescuers work to save Bource’s live – miraculously, he survived this attack.
At the end of the day, Great White Death would be only moderately interesting even for those who are fascinated with the ocean’s ultimate predators. Told from the perspective of an underwater photographer (which seems odd considering that actor Glenn Ford narrates the film), the documentary takes a LONG time to get going, is slow-moving and repetitious when it does, and really doesn’t include any information that most viewers wouldn’t already know. The underwater scenes deliver the goods, and there are some cool images of sharks in action – but footage like this can be seen almost anywhere anymore, and the entire picture looks very drab due to the soft picture quality of any surviving print of the film. Though the antiquated Great White Death is decent for what it is, viewers that want to catch a vintage shark documentary would be better off tracking down 1971’s excellent.
Though released several times over in different DVD packages (a limited edition disc from Troma as well as ones from Westlake Entertainment and CFS releasing), none of these offers anything other than a full-frame print of the film.
5/10 : Makes up for the relatively scarce glimpses of gore with some VERY intense scenes, including an actual shark attack and animal deaths. This film is not for the easily offended.
0/10 : Goofy narration – check! Anything offensive – nope!
1/10 : A few scantily clad women and glimpses of “tribal nudity.” Surely, you know what to expect there…
3/10 : This shark documentary offers up a wealth of information that most viewers would already be familiar with. Thus, it’s somewhat pointless today.
Pseudo-profound rambling galore: “…a world where the shark, as a god or diabolical wretch of the sea, has always been, throughout history, solicitor of death…and death of course has always been man’s ultimate sacrifice…”