The Day of the Dolphin (1973)

Initially dismissed as a waste of its big name talent (Mike Nichols, George C. Scott, and Buck Henry were all accused of slumming), 1973’s Day of the Dolphin found a second life after Jaws‘ release in 1975. Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster made anything featuring underwater monsters seem suddenly fascinating, and Dolphin fit the bill perfectly. For anyone who saw it as a kid during the summer of 1975, when it aired as a network TV prime time movie, the mention of the title might bring a knowing smile. One might not remember if it was any good, but it sure seemed, somehow, memorable.

At the time, with only three major broadcast networks, a movie like this would be the pop culture currency of its moment, something everyone could talk about to any other kid and bond over. Jaws had made sharks into cultural superstars, and by extension, killer whales (Orca [1977]) moray eels (The Deep [1970]), Piranha [1980] and even the beach itself (Blood Beach [1981]). They all became focal points for delicious summer anxiety and discussion for years to come.

The Day of the Dolphin was different, in that the dolphin was the good guy. It was about big sea creatures, and that gave it zeitgeist caché, though, and it was also “adult” in a lot of ways, with an assassination plot, bugging devices, paranoia, and disillusionment. It seemed mysterious, important, more than a little incomprehensible to us children, making it enticing. It was also, with its central concept of sweet, innocent dolphins being abducted by a shadowy government splinter sect, profoundly sad.

We kids could recognize an immediate father figure in Dr. Jake Terell (Scott) the head of a cool research center on its own island, where dolphins are taught to talk. It’s a fantasy island paradise he rules with tough but loving authority. Jake’s pride and joy is Alpha, a male dolphin raised in captivity whom he has been slowly teaching the phonetics of the English language.

However, Alpha cannot be aught to think in English (he can only imitate), until Jake instructs him concerning loss. To do this, he brings in a female dolphin, Beta, lets Alpha fall in love with her, then separates them until Alpha can ask for her… in English. The extended scene that shows Alpha swimming furiously in circles, whapping his tail on the door of the pen that separates them, is heartbreaking (perhaps especially for us kids in 1973, smarting from similar lessons).

Jake is a ’70s-style father, kindly but determined to teach worthy lessons even when he feels his child/dolphin’s pain. When Alpha finally asks for Beta by name, it is a deeply satisfying moment, illustrating the poststructuralist concept of language as a compromise born of loss (i.e., Alpha is no longer “just” an animal, and is now ripe for all sorts of humanlike self-aware misery).

And of course, trouble lies ahead. First an oily investigator (Paul Sorvino) blackmails his way onto the island, and soon after, Jake and his wife (Trish Van Devere, Scott’s offscreen wife) are tricked away to the mainland while a shadowy government splinter group kidnaps the dolphins to use in an assassination attempt on the President (hence the “Day of” in the title).

Today, dolphin-lovers are typically associated with crystals and new age tattoos, but back in ’73, even the suburbs were bastions of free love, mood rings, and an appreciation of dolphins’ profound beauty. Such idealism seems naïve today. Back then it came as a sad shock when the concept of free love and peace got hijacked by speed, heroin, Mr. Goodbar-style psychos and crazed cultists.

In teaching Alpha and Beta to speak, Jake dooms them to humanity, awakening them to eternal longing and opening the doorway to their exploitation. Eventually, in order to prevent Alpha and Beta’s further mistreatment, Jake must convince them to swim far away from the island and the evil government agents. They love him to much to leave, so Jake must reject them, totally. Innocents that they are, the dolphins understand only absolutes. They cannot grasp that men can tell lies, or that some men are bad, while some are good. In order to save them, Jake must deny his own love for them. “Men are bad,” he tells them, barely concealing his manly tears. “All men… bad.”

“All men bad.” This great line resonated for me — then and now. Scott — best known, of course, for playing General Patton and rejecting his Oscar for the role in 1970 — seemed to be condemning all human violence and abuse. As Jake, he appears the ultimate father, taking responsibility for our pain, for fostering language, sending us to school, bringing us into a social and political environment where our innocence would be up for grabs. Jake told us kids that what we always suspected was true: the summer of love was dead, long live the summer of the shark.