In 1975, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws opened a lot of doors for the man-versus-nature horror film. In the years that followed, theaters saw heroes fighting different kinds of fish (Piranha), other aquatic animals (Alligator), and even landlocked beasts (Grizzly), all in imitation of the big shark blockbuster. In 1977, the film that seemed to be the closest thing to a blatant Jaws rip-off was released when mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis brought Orca to the screen.
Orca begins with two aquatic teams tracking the same great white shark. One team, led by Captain Nolan (Richard Harris, better known to today’s audiences as Dumbledore from the first two Harry Potter movies), is interested in capturing the shark to sell it to an aquarium while the other, led by Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling, Dr. Vogel from this season of “Dexter”), wants to study the specimen. As the two crews clash with each other, the shark attacks and chases one of the Rachel’s men. Just as the shark is about to strike, a killer whale comes out of nowhere and saves the day. After seeing its awesome power up close, Nolan switches his focus from catching the shark to capturing one of the orca whales. While Nolan is attempting to trap one of the orcas, he and his team accidentally kill a female while her mate watches. The male orca then sets off on a vengeful reign of terror against Nolan, his crew, and the nearby fishing village. After a series of assaults by the whale, Nolan decides that he must face the creature and do battle with it. Nolan sets sail, accompanied by Dr. Bedford and an Inuit guide named Jacob Umilak (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Will Sampson), towards what will be a fight to the finish with the ruthless killer whale.
Superficially, Orca looks like a simple Jaws clone: a B-movie with an implausible plot, full of on-the-nose dialogue and continuity errors. However, upon further review, the fact becomes clear that it is much more than that. Orca was directed by Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run, Around the World in Eighty Days) from a script by Luciano Vincenzoni (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) and Sergio Donati (Once Upon a Time in the West); with that much Hollywood firepower behind the scenes, there’s bound to be more than meets the eye. A unique type of revenge tale, Orca blurs the line between good and evil, grays the area between right and wrong. The killing of the female whale generates a ton of sympathy for the orca, turning Nolan from hero to villain. The film spends most of its duration focusing on Nolan the antagonist, the whale’s vendetta giving the captain a serious Moby Dick complex. The man-versus-nature theme of the film is complicated by Nolan’s reprehensible behavior – by the time the inevitable climactic battle occurs, the audience is firmly in the whale’s corner. The titular whale is clearly the protagonist in Orca.
And what a protagonist he is. The whale is brought to life through a clever combination of stock footage and animatronics. Wherever possible, Orca uses shots of real whales, a male named Nepo and a female named Yaka, on loan from Marine World in Redwood City, California. The sequences where the orca taunts Nolan use one of the live whales, showing the magnificent beast breaching, jumping, and flapping his tail fins in a mocking fashion. During attack and fight scenes, the rubber whales are brought in, and they look pretty convincing (at least as convincing as Bruce the shark from Jaws). Like the shark in Jaws, the orca’s presence is telegraphed by his dorsal fin cutting through the water, recognizable by a small wound on it that was the result of an unsuccessful harpoon shot by Nolan, in a textbook case of show-them-the-bomb suspense building. Even with the whale sometimes appearing to be doing his Marine World show routine instead of avenging his mate, the orca in Orca can hold his own among his rival aquatic cinematic monsters.
For such a seemingly exploitational film, Dino De Laurentiis pulls together some A-list talent for Orca. Not only is Michael Anderson behind the camera and Vincenzoni and Donati on top of the script, but the cast that is assembled in Orca pulls together a great group of familiar, star-powered faces that would be right at home in an Irwin Allen disaster flick. In addition to the leads of Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, and Will Sampson, the film boasts a first-rate supporting cast that includes Robert Carradine (Revenge of the Nerds), Bo Derek (10), and Keenan Wynn (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). It’s a pretty impressive ensemble for what is essentially a big-budget B-movie.
The high-profile talent in Orca is not limited to the director, writers, and cast; the film also features an inspired score by the legendary Ennio Morricone (The Thing). Although there is nothing in the film as memorable as Morricone’s work in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, his soundtrack for Orca is the perfect mix of big Hollywood dramatic swirls and action-packed, sea-faring ballads. Morricone is a master of both the subtle and the ostentatious, and both extremes are on display in his score for Orca.
When it comes to man-versus-animal films, there is simply no match for Jaws. So, Orca doesn’t try. It may feature a killer aquatic beast, but that’s where the comparisons end. It will never be as iconic as Jaws, but it definitely deserves a place on the same shelf.