It’s a little funny to think about the current documentary boom and realize that for years, decades even, documentaries were considered persona non grata throughout much of the film industry. Despite there being so many famous docs (or docus or docos, as my friend Anthony Timpson calls them), their popularity over the last decade or so is truly an incredible thing. I remember in my days of working in sales for a small NYC film and video distributor and trying to convince the Blockbusters and Hollywood Videos that this or that documentary was worth their time and being told “Sorry, but I’ve already bought my documentary title for the month”. Now they purchase several each month, with an overabundance of titles on a number of worthy topics, although the more mainstream titles and subject matters are usually the ones to get the shelf space, usually leaving that Holocaust documentary to go unviewed by most normal folk.
But with this resurgence in documentaries one doco subgenre seems to have fallen by the wayside: The nature doc. Now, I know what you’re thinking, what about MARCH OF THE PENGUINS and WINGED MIGRATION? Yes, they were hits and beloved by audiences, but after that how many of them can you name from the last twenty years or so? Nature docs used to be a shoo-in for theatrical release and were even the cornerstone of Disney’s live action unit for many years, but for some reason they’ve fallen out of favor. I’m sure the fact that they’re difficult to film and that similar type programming shows up on Animal Planet, The Discovery Channel, and the National Geographic channel all the time may have stripped away some of their theatrical appeal, but when these things work, they work extremely well. For me, one prime examples of this subgenre is Peter Gimbel and James Lipscomb’s BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH, an outstanding piece of filmmaking that has been forgotten by all but a few, but an important film and one that still provides some stunning moments that few films could ever replicate.
I had some vague recollections of BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH left over from my youth when it would air occasionally on TV but it wasn’t until a 2005 screening at Quentin Tarantino’s QT Fest at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin was I able to see the film in its true widescreen glory on the Drafthouse screen with a packed and appreciative house. Quentin screened the film as part of a documentary night which also included the Canadian wolf documentary A CRY IN THE WILD and while that film underwhelmed, BLUE WATER turned a bunch of jaded, seen-it-all moviegoers into wide-eyed easy-to-impress kids again. Apparently there wasn’t much recorded footage of great white sharks when the film was made (1971), so the film was both an effort to study these magnificent bastards and get them on camera. The film’s crew includes some of the true experts on sharks of the era, such as the directors and Ron & Valerie Taylor, who were later hired to film the real shark footage in JAWS based on their work here. Also on the crew for some reason is folk singer Tom Chapin (Harry’s brother) whose musical interludes are sometimes lovely, other times puzzling, and you simply have to wonder just what the hell he’s doing there. The crew begins in South Africa, where they tail a whaling vessel that leaves a whale carcass behind in order to attract Great Whites, and while it provides a popular snack shack for many other types of sharks, the Great Whites fail to materialize. However, the film crew takes advantage of the situation to shoot some remarkable footage of the sharks in the region and, in what can only be described (and I understand that this sounds like ridiculous hyperbole) as one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen in a movie, the divers, realizing that the sharks are solely interested in the whale carcass, leave their cages to swim among the sharks, which outnumber them by the dozens. The audience and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing and it was a reminder that for all of cinema’s gifts to show you sights that you’ve never seen before, it’s only those images that come from real life that truly matter and this is one that I will never forget.
Once the Great Whites arrive in the film’s last third (by this point the crew is in the oceans off of southern Australia) we are once again treated to some jaw-dropping images, as these ferocious beasts become the stars of the show and the footage is still incredibly impressive even after JAWS and Shark Week have seemingly stolen their thunder. The footage also serves as a reminder that these puppies are not to be fucked with - not now, not ever - as they charge the cameras with such intensity that the entire audience was once again awestruck by what we were seeing and by the time the film was over the huge burst of applause it received was more than well deserved. Even if you don’t have an interest in sharks or any other kind of underwater life, BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH’s dramatic footage will still hook you in and once it all done you’ll find a new appreciation for what these brave shark hunters do. I’d love to be able to point you to a DVD or revival screening of the film, but unfortunately it’s currently stuck on a shelf somewhere, just waiting for someone to show it again. I did a little digging (OK, I checked the IMDB) and discovered that since the film was produced by Cinema Center Films, which was CBS’ old theatrical production outfit, so this means Viacom owns it and Paramount has the DVD rights. While they’ve released much of the old CBS Films output (which includes a few classics, like LITTLE BIG MAN, PRIME CUT and SNOOPY COME HOME) there still are a few prime titles left to come out and BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH is one of them. Paramount usually doesn’t know what they have in their vaults and they sit on things for way too long, but with any hope maybe word of this great title will reach them soon and hopefully this exceptional documentary will be seen again.