70s Rewind: ORCA, The Beached Whale of Killer Shark Movies
In the aftermath of Jaws, many cinematic imitators swam into shore, but few could compare to Orca.
Steven Spielberg's first blockbuster benefited from terrific advance publicity. Peter Benchley's novel, first published in February 1974, became an instant bestseller, casting a large shadow on the forthcoming film, which began production three months later.
According to Wikipedia. Orca was born from the mind of producer Dino de Laurentiis. Supposedly, late one night in 1975 -- perhaps unable to sleep because of his own, ill-fated production of King Kong that would be unleashed the following year -- he called fellow producer Luciano Vincenzoni and told him to "find a fish tougher and more terrible than the great white" shark portrayed in Jaws. Luciano's brother Adriano had an interest in zoology and reportedly pointed toward the killer whale. Luciana Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati were credited for the original story and screenplay.
That's one version, anyway. Arthur Herzog published a novel titled Orca in September 1976, that supposedly inspired the film, though it's not credited at all. Was it a novelization? A few years later, Herzog told his new wife that he'd had the idea before Jaws and that Orca was based on his novel. After spending a couple hours researching this point, I gave up. Someone knows positively, I'm sure, which story is accurate.
Reportedly, famed 'ghost writer' Robert Towne did ... something ... with the script as well in an uncredited capacity. A 1988 article in Washington Post referred to this as a known fact while suggesting that Towne himself didn't want to talk about it.
My own memory of Orca is confined to the trailer; for reasons I can't recall, I was never sufficiently motivated to see it in a theater when it was originally released in July 1977. Was it the bad reviews? The review in my hometown Los Angeles Times is not available, but The New York Times was scathing: "If it were medically possible to overdose on claptrap, Orca, which opened yesterday at the Criterion and other theaters, would be compelled to carry a warning from the Surgeon General."
The uncredited reviewer for the trade publication Variety had a similar opinion:"Orca is man-vs-beast nonsense. Some fine special effects and underwater camera work are plowed under in dumb storytelling." When the film was eventually released on DVD about 15 years ago, reviews were mostly dismissive.
Prompted by the imminent release of 47 Meters Down, another killer shark movie, I sought out something for comparison's sake, and Orca was the only title available to me for rental (online legally at Amazon and Vudu and others). Having recently rewatched Logan's Run cinched it for me; Orca was the followup film by director Michael Anderson.
Like Logan's Run before it, Orca is a film that was ahead of its time as far as visual effects are concerned. Much more appalling, though, is the premise that a killer whale, a misnomer of a name if ever there was one, would stalk a human so as to take revenge. In the wild, killer whales simply do not intentionally attack humans. (In captivity, of course, that's a different story; see the documentary Blackfish.)
Compromising the film further, the presence of whale experts Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling) and Umilak (Will Sampson) bring diversity to the cast, but both are limited to delivering arguments that are contradictory and confusing.
What saves the film, at least in my mind, is Richard Harris. He's Captain Nolan, a salty Irish sea wolf who moved to Canada in his youth but now longs to return home. First, though, he must pay off the mortgage on his boat, and so he's been searching for a great white shark to capture and sell to a marine park.
He finds one, but before he can capture the beast, it's killed by a killer whale, prompting Nolan to switch his focus. Things do not go as planned, Nolan accidentally captures Mr. Orca's wife, Mrs. Orca, who doesn't want to be captured, and then to the surprise of everyone ...
Well, it's a spoiler, but it's pretty gnarly and unpleasant to see, and it results in Mr. Orca fixing one good eye on Captain Nolan and vowing revenge until they can go mano a man -- er, make that mano a shark -- and settle things in the water, once and for all.
The film runs a fleet 92 minutes, which is theoretically perfect for the story that unfolds, and director Michael Anderson definitely works hard to orchestrate a solid thriller with an unusual setting. It's easy enough to overlook the limitations of fake killer whales and footage filmed in captivity that strains to fit into the fictional narrative, and the often overheated and irresolute characterizations continually get swamped with one more set piece that moves the narrative along neatly.
Richard Harris was still on a good, busy run as a leading man; Orca fits neatly somewhere between The Return of a Man Called Horse and The Wild Geese as far as his performance is concerned. He's fooling himself, and no one else quite believes him, yet he's also haunted by his own demons. He knows what he's done and eventually is forced to realize that he must face up to his own sins.
Harris, aged 46 during production, performed his own stunts. He continued giving fiery performances until his death in 2002, becoming beloved by millions for playing Professor Albus Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter installments.
Rampling remains a wonder. She followed this up with Stardust Memories and The Verdict. Will Sampson continued dispensing Native American wisdom to stupid white people until he died too young in 1987. Bo Derek made her first film appearance as Bo Derek -- she made one prior film as Kathleen Collins, Fantasies, which wasn't released until 1981 -- before shooting to stardom in 10 two years later.
Ultimately beached by its own ambitions, Orca plays best as the tale of one man who must confront his own mortality in the form of a killer whale.
70s Rewind is a feature that allows the writer to relive his past through his favorite film decade.