HCF GUILTY PLEASURES: ORCA-THE KILLER WHALE [US/Italy 1977]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 92 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Captain Nolan is an Irish Canadian who catches marine animals to pay off the mortgage of his boat and return to Ireland. Nolan and his crew are looking for a great white shark for a local aquarium, and find one, only for an orca to save one of their number from it. Nolan decides to capture the orca, but mistakenly harpoons a pregnant female who subsequently miscarries. Her mate attacks the boat and one of Nolan’s crew members cuts the female off the ship. The following day, the orca pushes his now dead mate onto shore and sets out for revenge against the human who has killed two members of his family….
Though its reputation seems to have improved a bit of late, much like two other films from producer Dino De Laurentiis which I had as Guilty Pleasures, Dune and the 1976 King Kong, Orca-The Killer Whale got the most terrible reviews when it came out and is still widely regarded as a shameless Jaws knock-off. There’s no doubt that De Laurentiis was trying to cash in on the success of Steven Spielberg’s superb shark movie, but it tries very hard to be different. For a start, its sea monster is quite sympathetic, the plot is more of a revenge tale [yes, the story does bear similarities to the awful Jaws 4: The Revenge, but this film is far better crafted], and at times it attempts a bit of psychological and moral complexity. In fact, I’d go further than that. It goes for a full mythic feel in the fashion of Moby Dick. It doesn’t entirely succeed in that but deserves kudos for trying. Orca has its problems, but there are times I think it’s very good indeed, and it’s certainly interesting. I definitely think it’s a better film than the third and fourth Jaws films.
De Laurentiis, who had just had great commercial if not critical success with his King Kong, assigned producer Luciano Vincenzoni to: “Find a fish tougher and more terrible than the great white”. Vincenzoni was directed to killer whales by his brother Adriano. The script was by Vicenzoni and Sergio Donati, both veterans of Sergio Leone’s films, though Robert Towne did an uncredited polish. Mostly filmed on location in Newfoundland, the film used both real and model orcas, the models seeming so lifelike that several animal rights activist groups such as PETA blocked the trucks transporting them, confusing them for real animals. 46 year old Richard Harris insisted on performing his own stunts in the polar sequences, and while he was actually acting on a stage in Malta for those scenes, he still nearly died several times. What with things like Harris claiming that the film would make Jaws look like: “An anaemic sprat”, the critics had their knives out for this movie and it didn’t do too well at the box office either, though De Laurentiis did consider a sequel that would follow on from both his gorilla and whale movies and pit Kong against an orca. Unfortunately, he made King Kong Lives [now that’s a pretty bad movie, though I can’t say that I don’t enjoy watching it] instead. The US TV version of Orca, as with many other films around the time, contains some extra dialogue scenes. Hopefully a Blu-ray release, as happened with The Deep, will contain some of this footage.
One major obvious technical flaw about Orca is that it’s very easy to tell that some of the whale footage is shot in tanks, and this is right from the very first scene, though I don’t care too much when Ennio Morricone’s beautiful theme comes on. This gorgeous creation, which gives me goose bumps when the haunting wordless female singing of Edda Dell’Orso [familiar from some of the Leone film scores] comes in, truly is a piece of great beauty and immediately makes us sympathise with the whales. For some bizarre reason, this opening title version of this piece is not on the CD, an infuriating omission. Anyway, back to the film, and Orca sets out a nice fast pace from the past, quickly getting us into some action and a great bit when the orca kills a shark, the filmmakers obviously saying: “Take that, Spielberg”. Then you get one of the Top Ten Scenes That Shouldn’t Have Been In A Film Rated ‘PG’, when the female aborts her foetus on the ship and they hose the thing into the sea. The briefly seen foetus isn’t very convincing, but it’s a shocking and upsetting scene nonetheless, but then much of the first third of this film is upsetting if you’re an animal lover, seeing these wonderful creatures being brutalised by man. Damn it, seeing the male orca, accompanied by some others, push his dead mate through the sea in a beautifully photographed scene while that bloody music plays again almost brings a tear to my eye!
The creating of so much sympathy for the orca means that one doesn’t really like Captain Nolan very much, and may even begin to cheer when the Charles Bronson-like creature starts destroying ships, a power plant [there’s a great shot with lots of explosions on one side and the orca jumping around in the sea in an almost mocking, playful fashion on the other], and start to polish off Nolan’s crewmates. One of them is Bo Derek in her film debut, and you certainly want her to be killed after witnessing her painful, so-called ‘acting’. She isn’t, but does lose a leg in one of the film’s most exciting sequences. Director Michael Anderson is no Spielberg, in fact he’s no Jeannot Schwarcz either, but he handles the high points well enough. Also effective are the close-ups of the orca’s eyes, again going for pity and even intelligence rather than fear. The final half hour takes place at sea, but instead of lots of thrilling action sequences the film begins to slow to a halt and try to build up its allegorical, mythical dimensions, though a final confrontation on the ice is very well staged indeed. The odd thing about watching Orca is that afterwards it seems like you’ve watched a film far longer than it actually is, and I mean that in a good way.
A common criticism with this film is that it’s hard to know who to root for. The orca starts killing innocent people to get Nolan to come out and fight him, while the actions of Nolan, who begins the film as a heartless idiot, seem a little strange at times, especially when he appears to hesitate to kill his opponent, while we never ever warm to him, but this is actually one of Orca’s most interesting aspects. Richard Harris does a great job of showing us a multi-dimensional character full of internal conflict. He wants to survive but knows he’s done wrong, and it eventually comes down to what is more important: his mortal life or eternal salvation. His best scene might be when he confessed that he had not loved his family as much as the whale loved his. Less successful is the involvement of Will Sampson as a Native American predictably prone to cryptic statements [wasn’t there one in some of the Free Willy films too?]. While orcas are highly intelligent, some of the scientific mumbo-jumbo said about them in this film, most of it given to Charlotte Rampling as a marine biologist, is just no more than mumbo-jumbo, including the poster tagline: “The killer whale is one of the most intelligent creatures in the universe. Incredibly, he is the only animal other than man who kills for revenge. He has one mate, and if she is harmed by man, he will hunt down that person with a relentless, terrible vengeance – across seas, across time, across all obstacles.” It sounds good though.
Orca: The Killer Whale seems to try to be both an exciting revenge of nature thriller and a more thoughtful study of man’s relationship to nature, and doesn’t quite pull it off even if gets very close in places. It’s also, when you think about it, very bleak, another reason perhaps why this film, which may have been far more successful had it been released a few years earlier, has never been very popular. I think it’s far from being your average Grade ‘B’ monster flick though and deserves some reappraisal. And by the way, I guess it’s the Italian financing and large number of Italians in the crew that means that this film, like most Italian 70’s films set in the present day, has the obligatory bottle of J & B whisky in shot, though nobody is actually seen to drink any!