With hundreds of DVDs getting released each week, it's inevitable that a few good ones might slip under the radar. I meant to write about Blue Water, White Death when it finally hit DVD for the first time at the end of July, but I lost track of it until recently. As a kid, the television commercials for this 1971 documentary seriously freaked me out. They featured a big ol' shark with big ol' teeth attacking a man in an underwater cage. I never got to see the movie -- no doubt my parents didn't want me to suffer unnecessary nightmares -- but by the time Jaws rolled around a few years later, I was eager to confront the demon that swam in the deep blue sea.

Watching Blue Water, White Death more than 35 years after its initial release, I was struck by the unhurried cinema verite approach, which was very much "of the moment" when it came out, but plays now as a refreshing change from the 'talking heads and clips' approach of so many documentaries. In 1969, diver Peter Gimbel assembled a small crew to search for a great white shark, which had rarely been caught on film. They spent weeks diving off the coast of East Africa to no avail. Months later they took their quest to Australia, where they finally encountered two sharks and captured the thrilling, haunting, utterly compelling footage that gave me nightmares as a youngster.

As a film, Blue Water, White Death holds up very well as a solid, striking document of the team's expedition. The amazing underwater footage is often mesmerizing, especially one sequence in which Gimbel and the other divers leave their protective cages to swim among and get footage of dozens of sharks feeding on a whale. The sharks are not great whites, but they are good-sized, fierce and very hungry. Divers had evidently never before left their cages like that, and it sounds near suicidal even today, yet is representative of the thrills, chills and human drama leading up to the encounter with the great white sharks. Speaking of human drama, we get a good sense of the good natured camaraderie and competitive spirit among the team members. One of the film crew members is Tom Chapin, who brought along his guitar and, in the only dated part of the film, sings a few folk songs. After the voyage, he was inspired to pursue his dreams and decided to become a folk singer full-time.

A feature on the making of the film and the audio commentary by some surviving members of the team on the DVD provide historical perspective and are fascinating in and of themselves. The quality of the transfer is very good, but not outstanding. Still, even in a time when we're overrun by shark footage on television and in the movies, I highly recommend Blue Water, White Death and the MGM DVD.
categories Cinematical