This debut entry in the Jaws rip-off sweepstakes was directed by Hungarian-born bad-ass Cornel Wilde, the star of one of my all-time favorite TV (horror) movies: 1972’s Gargoyles, a movie that scared the stuffing out me in the day—so please take that into consideration as I come to hail Cornel Wilde, not tear him down.
Shark’s Treasure, as with his previous directing effort from five years earlier, No Blade of Grass (that took fifteen years to get made), was a long-gestating passion project that Wilde wanted to make back in 1969 but was unable to secure financing. After not getting Sharks’ Treasure produced, in conjunction with the lukewarm response to his post-apoc romp, No Blade of Grass, Wilde retreated from theatre and film—both as an actor and director—into television, which led to his gig on Gargoyles.
Then some new kid on the block by the name of Steven Spielberg created “shark fever” with some movie called Jaws.
But that “new kid” got $9 million to make his movie—then grossed under $500 million. United Artists’ placed a bet of $2 million on the green felt with Wilde—and broke even.
It was Cornel Wilde’s final film as a producer, writer and director. After that, he meandered in a few TV and film roles—one was the Lee Majors-starring Viking romp, The Norseman—up until his death to leukemia in 1989, three days after his 77th birthday.
Jim Carnahan (Cornel Wilde, then 60 and doing one-arm pushups in the film) is the obligatory, hard luck sea dog who finds his dreams of a big payday in a young buck’s (David Gilliam, 1972’s Frogs* and 1976’s The Eagle Has Landed) wild story about sunken treasure off the coast of Honduras.
Now if this all sounds a lot like Antonio Margheriti’s Piranha rip-off, Killer Fish (starring, say what (?), Lee Majors!), which itself was Joe Dante’s rip-off of Jaws—then it probably is. (And it also reminds of Steward Raffill’s later High Risk**, about a filmmaker and his down-on-their-luck buddies ripping off a Honduran drug lord.)
According to Wilde, in an October 1975 interview for The Christian Science Monitor, he classified the film as a down to earth treasure hunting story with a bunch of hard-luck hustlers and ex-cons (very familiar U.S TV actors Cliff Osmond and David Canary, along with the even more familiar Yaphet Kotto) who give up everything, even their jobs, to battle pirates, sharks, and their own greed to recover treasure. In addition to his claims that the characters and incidents were based on “true accounts,” another one of his marketing points for the film was that it was “the most dangerous picture he ever worked on.”
As you can see from the film’s one-sheet, Wilde decided to attack Spielberg’s much ballyhooed mechanical shark and made sure everyone knew the shark footage in Sharks’ Treasure was 100% real and that we “will see the total shock of the most sensational shark fight ever filmed.”
Wilde was obviously going for the John Huston-directed and Humphrey Bogart-starring 1948 adventure romp, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—only with sharks and water, instead of Mexican deserts. He ended up with an AIP or Crown International Pictures’ romp—and everyone stayed away in droves.
Inspired by B&S Movies’ formulating a revisit to last year’s “Shark Week” and my re-watching Wilde’s commendable effort all these years later, I have to admit his shark romp—the first film in the coveted “Bastard Sons of Jaws” sweepstakes—the film doesn’t have the same impact as I sat in the darken duplex all those years ago. It is, in fact, a sad end to the greatness Wilde achieved with his self-made classics Beach Red, The Naked Prey, and Storm Fear, along with his acting gig in High Sierra going toe-to-toe with Humphrey Bogart.
Yes, there’s no doubt all of the underwater photography is real—and it is spectacular (Wilde upped the Spielberg game: instead of one Great White, it’s a hoard of Tiger Sharks)—but the film wrapped around it is, well, it’s like Roger Corman secured all the sets from Jaws before Universal tore ‘em down and drained the water tanks, and pumped out a shark-clone quickie.
Yeah, there’s some nice character development (i.e., Cliff Osmond, and “The Kid” that got them into this mess, David Gilliam, are ex-prison lovers; Wilde is a virility-swaggering braggart) but, yeah, the drama is overwrought. It’s hokey. It’s all very “TV Movie,” but not as TV Movie-good as Wilde’s previous acting gig in Gargoyles.
So, while Sharks’ Treasure isn’t bad, it isn’t good. And while I have a nostalgic attachment to the film, you’d probably rather watch a trashier Italian shark flick, like Luigi Cozzi and Sergio Martino’s shark collaboration, Monster Shark (or Devil Fish, or Red Ocean, or whatever the hell the alternate title on the VHS cover says).
Sigh. Cornell Wilde deserved better. So did Michael Sopkiw.
Say what? You need more shark and “nature run amuck” films? Then check out our last December’s shark tribute week, “Bastard Pups of Jaws,” which features everything imaginable—from 1976’s Grizzly to 1977’s Orca, and 1979’s The Great Alligator all the way out to Renny Harlin’s 1999 shark romp, Deep Blue Sea. And don’t forget to pick up a copy of Drive-In Asylum’s “Summer Shark Special” issue from this past August.
*George McGowan, the director of Frogs, also directed the “Star Wars Dropping” that is The Shape of Things to Come.
**Stuart Raffill directed another “Star Wars Dropping”: The Ice Pirates.