Orca (1977)

Recent killer whale movies feature children (see: 1993’s Free Willy). Orca, now on DVD, reminds us it wasn’t always that way. In 1975, Jaws (sharks, not whales) did have incidental kids in it, and youngsters were surely part of its blockbuster audience. Hollywood apparently took this to mean movies needed to star kids. You can see the shift as early as Jaws 2 (1977), when the focus moves from adults on a boat to a crew of teens adrift on a catamaran. Still, not all Jaws knockoffs of the latter-1970s fell into this trap.

Orca opens on a pair of happily wed killer whales in Newfoundland, under a twangy Ennio Morricone score. Produced by Dino DeLaurentis, the movie offers not just these killer whales, but also a great white shark, a Christian allegory, a Sergio Leone-style showdown, and a relationship between whale and man à la Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. And, while Orca frequently annoys and bores, it also lingers in the mind long after the credits fade.

The primary reason is protagonist Captain Nolan (Richard Harris), a proud Irish seaman who prowls around the Newfoundland coast in search of great white sharks to capture and sell to aquariums. He meets local killer whale expert Rachel (Charlotte Rampling) by accident, coming to her aid when she’s threatened by a great white. In turn, she spends some quality expository time filling him in on how killer whales are mammals, not fish like sharks, they can communicate over great distances, and may in fact be many times more intelligent than people. He becomes determined to capture one to sell to the aquariums instead of a shark. Ill-equipped for any sort of serious whale-capturing endeavor, he soon has a bleeding female orca hanging off the mizzenmast, ejecting her unborn fetus onto the deck of his boat.

Though Nolan instantly regrets what his casual masculinity has wrought, the female whale is too entwined in rope to be loosed, so he shakily hoses the fetus off his deck and sails home, the anguished papa screaming off in the distance, vowing revenge. Orca thus bangs up Nolan’s boat on the way back, so that the captain needs to dock for repairs. When he cuts loose the now basically dead female whale, her mate noses her body onto the shore, so all the locals can see the result of Nolan’s callousness.

This makes the locals eager to fix up Nolan’s boat as quickly as possible and have him be on his way, for they be sensin’ a fight. Will Sampson (Chief Broom in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [1975]) plays the Native Newfoundlander Umilak, delivering turgid lines about the orca’s fighting spirit. This whale also has special powers, apparently, as he can tell whenever someone is leaning out of Nolan’s boat, and so jump right up and swallow him whole. It also knows about power-lines, blowing up half the town by strategically rupturing some local fuel lines, then knocking over a nearby cabin’s lamp.

Nolan, meantime, remains determined. This even though the days of Jaws‘ salty Quint (Robert Shaw) were more or less over by 1977, and stars like Burt Reynolds or Harrison Ford came with a glint of self-awareness in their eyes. Nolan had no such glint. He remained unable to confess, ask directions, or let a woman drive. Orca is about masculinity in transition, the white man recognizing his guilt for thousands of years of oppression of sea mammals, women, and Native Americans. Still, Nolan bears his guilt with Hemingway-esque stoicism.

Though Nolan plans to sail away on his boat in the dead of night to spare his crew, wanting to offer himself to the whale’s mercy, instead, he’s accompanied by Umilak and Rachel. The climax leads them all up to the frozen waters of the Arctic, where the ship is covered in fake-looking icicles and everyone tries to act cold while sweating in front of fake-looking icebergs. Despite all of this artifice, the orca is never less than convincing, making one wonder if any killer whales were harmed during the making of this film. When the whale lifts its head out of the water to stare down Nolan, it’s incredibly strange, man and whale in a sort of gunfight pose, surrounded by white ice.

Due to some fuzzy motivations, the phony icebergs, and the godawful end credits music, one doesn’t come away from Orca feeling very positive. But, as a 1970s ecological disaster film mingled with Jaws knockoff, it does provide a provocative protagonist. Nolan is a Christ figure, at the crossroads between the tough old men of 1950s shark- and communist-infested seas and the girly men to come, the “sensitive” white males who don’t drink or smoke in front of their children, arrange play dates, worry about political correctness, and run to Human Resources when they overhear sexual conversations in the neighboring office cubicle.

Nolan is like an Ahab forced by the New Bedford Whaling Corporation to take sensitivity training. The orca, meanwhile, rises from his peaceful place in the sea to become a sort of eco-Arnold Schwarzenegger, not interested in Nolan’s feeble attempt at apologies, only in a fair showdown. Captain Nolan was one of a dying breed. The next movie generation of seagoing salts will be clean-shaven men of 21, driving Greenpeace vessels, and carrying tear-stained children at their sides. Me, I’ll take the flawed male who has no choice but to aim his shotgun one last time at merciless cthonic nature. I guarantee you any kid alive would choose the same.