Written, produced, and co-directed by underwater photographer Peter Gimbel, the 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death is one of the first documentary films to concentrate on sharks, the Great White in particular, and it was reportedly a big influence on Spielberg's Jaws.
The premise of the film is fairly simple, even if the execution really is not. Gimbel and a crew of underwater photographers (Stan Waterman who worked on The Deep as well as Ron Taylor and Valerie Taylor who shot some of the underwater footage for Jaws at Spielberg's request), scientists and scuba divers all board a boat in South Africa and sail out to see in search of the elusive Great White shark. Following a whaling ship, a sure fire way to ensure that the nearby seas are full of blood, the crew submerge themselves in shark cages (later in the film they voyage with their cameras outside the safety of the cage!), cameras running at full speed ahead, shooting plenty of fantastic footage of various sharks of all shapes and sizes but for the bulk of the picture the Great White is nowhere to be seen. Several months later, the crew have voyaged from South African shores to the waters off the coast of Australia and only then are they able to find and finally film a Great White in its natural habitat.
While certain aspects of the film are a little on the dated side, such as the folk music on the soundtrack and the very seventies looking fashions, Blue Water, White Death is interesting now for likely the very same reasons it was interesting back in 1971 - and that reason is sharks. Lots and lots of sharks. Despite the fact that the boat-based material and bits and pieces with the crew are not particularly fascinating, whenever the film heads underwater to film the sharks, it shines in a big, big way. Not only is it beautiful to look at but it's also claustrophobic and at times very frightening. The cameras capture the soulless and cold look of their subjects very effectively and at quite a close range. Seeing swarms of sharks descend upon a whale carcass and tearing chunks out of it only a few feet from where our intrepid photographers lay protected by only flimsy aluminum bars is really quite a spectacle. Likewise, some of the gruesome footage of the South African whaling industry of the era stands out, as the camera really capture the brutality and cruelty
The documentary definitely deserves some credit for breaking new ground. If the stories behind the film are to be believed, no one had ever shot a Great White before and as such, the film has definitely got some interesting historical significance for breaking new ground in that department. Likewise, seeing what the crew went through in order to obtain this footage and how long and hard they worked to achieve their goal makes the final results all the more admirable. Some of the footage of the crew going back and forth feels a little staged and gets a bit dull but it does serve to give the underwater footage some context so in that regard it at least feels necessary.
That said, everyone and everything in this film plays second fiddle to the sharks that remain the real stars of the movie. Graceful, deadly, beautiful and frightening all at once the footage in this film is simply amazing. Although it takes a while to get to the eventual Great White encounter, the results, even if they are too brief, are certainly worth the wait. Along the way the cast reveals some interesting personal details, shark related facts ('just punch'em in the nose!') and real life drama that segues from one fantastic piece of underwater footage to the next. Since the film was made, shark footage has become more common thank to programming on the Discovery Channel and what not but this film still stands the test of time, even if it is a little rough around the edges in comparison to more modern fare. The influence on Jaws and underwater cinematography are undeniable and the footage contained in the feature still carries some serious weight.
MGM's 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer for Blue Water, White Death isn't perfect but it's certainly very good. Some scenes are more than a little bit grainy and at times the colors are a bit on the faded side. Thankfully, this isn't a constant problem and it's likely more to do with the original photography than the transfer itself. The underwater scenes look a little less crisp than scenes shot above water, but again, that's just the nature of the beast. By and large, we're left with a fairly detailed image that doesn't suffer from any compression artifacts or heavy edge enhancement. The odd speck of print damage shows up here and there but it's never overpowering. Any complaints levied against the image quality are minimal.
The movie is presented in an English language Dolby Digital Mono track with optional subtitles provided in English, French and Spanish. There aren't any problems with hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced. Some of the material shot on the boat has some wind in the background but it's likely always been there. The narration is clean and clear and the background music sounds quite good.
The biggest and best of the extra features on the disc is a commentary track with divers Valerie and Ron Taylor, diving co-coordinator Rodney Fox, and diver/associate producer Stan Waterman. This turns out to be a pretty interesting track as we not only learn about the sharks that highlight the film but also about the whaling industry which obviously plays a big part in the first half of the movie. Regional interest in various products made out of whales was the main reason for the practice but it's interesting to hear how that's changed over the years. The commentators talk about their interaction with the sharks, wax nostalgic about many of the people that they worked with on the film, and discuss their own personal interactions with the ocean itself. There are some pretty interesting stories here as this was a long and rather difficult shoot - definitely take the time to check out this commentary.
From there, check out the twenty-five minute retrospective featurette, Diving Into Blue Water, White Death. Presented, like the feature, in 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen, this featurette focuses on the same participants who contribute to the commentary track in 2007 as they're given an award for the work they've done in the field of underwater photography. Interviews and clips from the reception make up the bulk of the featurette but the highlights are the stories about life inside the shark cage (we get to see what one of the cages used looks like after the fact!) used in the film. A few very impressive stills taken underwater round out the piece.
Rodney Fox - Great White Shark Expeditions is a five minute long montage of photographs taken during Fox's many dives into the ocean off of Australia where he's been studying sharks and doing work to get them protected.
Rounding out the extra features are Sea Salt (a very lengthy text essay on the life and times of Stan Waterman featuring an intro from Peter Benchley) and the MGM Men Of Action promo reel. Animated menus and chapter stops are also included.
While the movie itself does drag in spots, the underwater photography and close up encounters with the sharks completely redeem the film making it wholly worthwhile. MGM's disc looks and sounds good and there are some surprisingly decent supplements hidden away on the disc. Blue Water, White Death comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.