Would you believe me if I told you a nature documentary was responsible for the advent of the summer blockbuster? Common film lore says Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was the first of the now familiar summer smashes. Jaws was based Peter Benchley’s book of the same name. Benchley was inspired by Blue Water, White Death, a groundbreaking documentary film about divers on a nine-month expedition to seek out, film and swim with a Great White Shark.
That’s one reason you should watch Blue Water, White Death. There are easily a hundred more.
Released in 1971, Blue Water, White Death must have been an absolutely incredible viewing experience. 36 years later, your average TV and movie viewer has seen a lot of sharks, especially the Great White ones. We’ve got Shark Week on Discovery, a plethora of thrillers that followed in the wake of Jaws and countless other opportunities to experience these oceanic predators in either vérité or highly fictionalized form. You can even head out for an eco-tour to spend some time in a shark cage and see the sharks up close.
Back in ’71, though, live Great Whites were a relative mystery to experienced divers and researchers, let alone Joe Schmuck from Regina. These sharks had only been caught on film once before Blue Water, White Death, and that footage had never received broad release. So I’m saying these visuals must have been absolutely stunning.
I wasn’t around then, and my first viewing of this doc didn’t happen until yesterday, on DVD. So how does it hold up, decades later when everything has changed? Very, very well. I’ve seen my share of shark weeks in years past, and plenty of those ridiculous thrillers, but I still held my breath for parts of Blue Water, White Death. For example, those 100 reasons I mentioned. About halfway through the film, the crew is following a whale-hunting boat that’s towing a whale carcass. They’re hoping the dead, oily, blubberous mass will attract sharks, because they want to get in the water with dangerous predators. They’re crazy, so what? They know the sharks are coming, but they don’t know whether a Great White will show up. None do. Instead, they attract more than a hundred White Tipped and Blue sharks, which launch into a gigantic feeding frenzy.
That’s when Joe Schmuck from Regina says, “we’re gonna need a bigger boat, eh?” This crew, they lower the shark tanks to get in on the action. No big deal, right? They’re protected by metal cages. That’s true until, one by one, the divers exit the cages to swim in open water with at least 100 hungry sharks, any one of which could end them with a quick snap of powerful jaws and razor-sharp teeth. This sequence is absolutely amazing, and it marked the first known time divers swam with feeding sharks.
There’s a lot more to the film, but I’ll leave it at that. You like this kind of thing? Check outBlue Water, White Death at your earliest convenience.
Presented on a single disc, in 2.35:1 widescreen, this film looks darn good for its age. I was surprised, because this isn’t a terribly high-profile release, and MGM has certainly done worse by more popular films. Not that I’m unhappy about it, just saying. What you need to know is the transfer is very good, with very few issues brought over from the source film, and colours and detail are both fine. Of course, the colours would be much more vibrant if this had been shot digitally two years ago, and the picture would be a lot sharper, but this presentation is plenty good enough to do justice to a remarkable film.
There’s only one audio track, and it’s Dolby Digital mono. It doesn’t sound quite as good as the film looks, but the track is definitely good enough. All dialogue is clear, and the various underwater effects sound fine. The film also has a folk-heavy soundtrack, which makes sense since they just happened to have Tom Chapin, a folk singer, on board as a crew member. The songs give the film a relaxed flow, which is a nice counterpoint to the some of the frenetic diving sequences, and the feeling of wandering and waiting – for the Great White – that permeates the film.
Subtitles are available in English, Spanish and French.
I didn’t expect much in the way of extras for this release, so I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of a highly informative commentary track and a solid, 24-minute featurette.
The audio commentary is by divers Valerie May Taylor and Rodney Fox, and diver-producer Stan Waterman. This trio does an excellent job filling in details and behind-the-scenes anecdotes, making a commentary any fan of the film can enjoy. Want to learn more about the making of Blue Water, White Death? This is your chance.
The featurette, Diving Into Blue Water, White Death, features a cast and crew reunion for a screening of their film at the 2007 Beneath The Sea convention. It’s obvious many of them haven’t seen each other for 30 years, and it’s neat to watch them catch up on old times. They toast to the film’s late producer, director and writer, Peter Gimbel, who passed away in 1987. The 24-minute runtime includes cast and crew interviews recounting their memories, and ends with an impromptu performance by Tom Chapin.
There’s also a four-minute promo for Rodney Fox’s eco-tourism company, which offers vacationing adventurers the chance to cage-dive with Great Whites, and a text-on-screen promo for Waterman’s book, a collection of essays, courtesy of a foreword by Jaws author Peter Benchley.
Jaws, Shark Week on Discovery, and countless other informative and/or entertaining productions owe it all to Blue Water, White Death. This Great White documentary was revolutionary 36 years ago, and is still fascinating on this DVD. Kudos to MGM for giving this film the treatment it deserved.
- Film Junk takes on Blue Water, White Death in a video review.
- DVD Talk’s Ian Jane offers an even-handed take on this Great White DVD.