I had planned to review Sharks’ Treasure last week but found it such a profoundly strange experience that I needed an extra week to digest what I’d just seen. This is a film by a director with a Criterion Collection release to his name, which is not something I can write often when putting together a Sharksploitation article. Despite being in the hands of the fairly respectable Cornel Wilde — who is also the writer, star, and composer of a ridiculous song on the soundtrack titled “Money, Money” — Sharks’ Treasure is the most off-putting, jarring cinematic nightmare I’ve seen in some time. And I’m not even sure if that’s a bad thing.
USA, 1975, Cornel Wilde
But it’s not it. Sharks’ Treasure is all about the unexpected themes and subtext, whether deliberate or not, it weaves into its lack of plot. Cornel Wilde’s character, the centrepiece of the film, is the vessel for much of this strangeness — as you’d expect, being that he is also the director and writer. The character of Jim is undeniably unique, but to call him an eccentric character doesn’t quite capture his almost inhuman aura.
Wilde spends most of the film in speedos showing off his fit leather-body. This could be read as Wilde desperately trying to hold onto his youth, but the writing tells us otherwise. Jim is proud of his age, even taking time out of the already short running time to do weird finger push ups to prove his worth. Jim speaks of religion a lot and bans smoking from his boat. He has a conversation with his young friend who tells him of an old acquaintance who died regretting his shitty life. There is a feeling of death and old age that surrounds everything in the film.
This is also an incredibly homoerotic film. The only woman in this film has a minuscule amount of screen time (and seems more like a studio demand wedged into the edit than a choice on the part of Wilde), and there is a strong sense of sexual tension running rampant on Jim’s boat. Wilde takes every opportunity to dish out advice while massaging his young friends. But it’s not until the pirates show up that the homoeroticism hits fever pitch.
The pirate’s leader, Lobo (Cliff Osmond), is clearly in the middle of a destructive relationship with a young escaped convict, Juanito (David Gilliam). In one scene, Lobo even tries to force Juanito to wear a bikini. Jim tries to coax the young man away from Lobo’s violent grasp.
While Wilde’s character is gentle and sage-like — a trustworthy father figure — Lobo (Cliff Osmond) is a total sadist. He drools and sweats with mad pleasure as his whips his young ward, clearly getting his rocks off on the violence. Maybe I’m just reading too much into it — perhaps blinded by all the shirtless men — but I refuse to believe the sexual overtones in Sharks’ Treasure are entirely unintentional. While this film might pretend to be an adventure movie about finding treasure, crusty sex bubbles in every scene. There’s a truth to these scenes that the rest of the film lacks. Action included.
To get this out of the way: real sharks are killed in Sharks’ Treasure and it’s fucking sickening. The late Roger Ebert makes an interesting observation in his one-star review of the film. “Although a lot of sharks are caught, speared, shot and otherwise mishandled in the movie, there’s no outcry from the audience, not even from the kids… even if we hate to see four-legged creatures killed, we don’t identify much with sharks.” It’s sadly true, but I’m glad that the unnecessary slaughter of sharks has been getting some attention of late.
Shark murder aside, there is some incredible underwater imagery in this film and it’s almost always packed full of sharks. The scenes where Jim and his pals go searching for treasure are beautifully shot. The vision of a seabed littered with sharks is breathtaking and the film’s jarring synth score makes it seem all the more dreamlike.
Sharks’ Treasure would have to be the strangest shark film I’ve reviewed yet. I’ve discussed shark films that barely feature a sharks, CGI-infested nonsense, silent shark cinema, and one of the greatest bad movies ever conceived, but nothing has befuddled me more than this.
As far as I know, Sharks’ Treasure doesn’t have a legit DVD release, but you can find it on VHS for super cheap.