SharksploitationI remember when I first heard of Shark Week. I was on holiday in New Zealand, the place I was staying in had the Discovery Channel – a rare treat for me. It happened to be Shark Week, and it was that point I realised I was not alone in my obsession. In fact, I was far from alone. There was a huge group of people who shared my fears and love of sharks. Years later, and several Discovery Channel documentaries later, I’d gotten to the point where it seemed every shark documentary series featured the same great white footage I’d seen hundreds of times before. Discovery Channel’s increasingly overblown stylistic approach and repetitive shark facts were starting to grate on my nerves. Great White Death is the first time I’ve enjoyed a shark documentary in a while.


aka: Pirates of the Deep
USA, 1981, Jean-Patrick Lebel

Great White Death

When I think of Canadian Hollywood kingpin Glenn Ford, the first thing that springs to mind is great white sharks. Wait, no, that’s not right. The first things that springs to mind are films like The Big Heat – one of my all time favourites – and classic westerns like 3:10 to Yuma. No, sharks do not appear on the list of things that spring to mind when I think of Glenn Ford. But I guess when Jean-Patrick Lebel, director of Great White Death, thought of sharks, Glenn Ford came to mind, because Glenn Ford is the host of this sharktastic documentary. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. Yes, Glenn Ford, one of the all time greats of classic Hollywood, talking with scripted authority about sharks.

Great White Death is more in tune with a mondo film than a straightforward shark documentary. Like the work of Jacopetti, Cavara and Prosperi, it jumps tenuously from scene to scene with little focus. At times it even throws sharks to the wayside with odd tangents about things like sea snakes. Again like a mondo film, it leans more towards mysticism rather than science, although it does spout the occasional scientific fact (often incorrect or outdated), and it has a voyeuristic interest in “primitive” cultures and their relationship with sharks. Its presentation of sharks, particularly great whites, is schizophrenic. The overblown narration refers to sharks using various romanticised terms – sometimes they’re “gods”, other times “demons”. But mostly Ford calls sharks “pirates”, which begins with a questionable analogy brought up early in the film connecting the film to its alternative title, Pirates of the Deep. Sometimes the film seems to be suggesting that sharks are evil and should be destroyed (“for those who don’t believe sharks eat people”, the film shows footage of a human skull being pulled out of a dead shark’s stomach), but then it is quick to point out the good that sharks do.

Great White Death‘s romanticism may come across as unscientific and a product of its time, but there’s a truth to it that a lot (not all of them, just a lot) of modern day nature documentaries have forgotten. Sharks are amazing animals, appearing almost supernatural and godlike, so why not exploit that imagery? It’s comforting to see a film that is unashamed in its awe of the power of nature. While the film may at times stretch the truth – interviews are clearly carefully scripted and I’m not sure I believe all the stories put forward – its explorations of sharks across the globe is quite fascinating. The footage shot off the coast of a popular South African tourist beach involving murky water and shark nets is extremely unnerving. Similarly, a scene where sailors attempt to bring a great white on-board their boat is incredible.

Shark Rating - 4Where Great White Death really shines is where it matters most: its shark footage. The documentary is a mix of older stock footage (including the famously horrifying footage of the Australian diver Henri Bource who lost a leg to a great white), new footage and reenactments. The reenactments, surprisingly, are quite effective. The film opens in a fantastically exploitative fashion with two women being attacked by sharks. These sort of reenactments occur regularly throughout the documentary occasionally even blurring the line between reality and fiction. The combined use of reenactments and genuine footage add to the film’s mondo feel. While some of the old stock footage was familiar, a lot I’d not seen before.

Shark fans will get a kick out of Great White Death. Everyone else, not so much. The film doesn’t exactly offer much, if anything, in the way of scientific value. And it doesn’t say anything new. It’s hard to even decipher what it’s trying to say as it takes a confusing middle-ground in its concluding narration. But it is a film that understands the mind-blowing glory of sharks and exploits that in the best possible way. Throw in the bizarre presence of Glenn Ford and you have yourself one hell of an entertaining movie.


Great White Death has had a few dodgy DVD releases, including one from Troma. Don’t expect remastered sound and vision. Apparently, every release has just taken the film from a VHS source. I’ve also read, but cannot confirm, that the DVD releases are missing footage included on the VHS release. I don’t know if that’s every DVD release or one specifically. You may be better off tracking down a VHS. If anyone knows the differences between DVD versions, please post below!