Peter Benchley’s Regret

“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

Watching Steven Spielberg’s jaw-breaking monster flick, Jaws, and Peter Yates’ romantic adventure film, The Deep, over again and with a new pair of eyes reminds me of Winston Churchill’s ominous warning to the world. It also reminds me of how far we have come in destroying our environment as ice cliffs crumble into the sea and disappear for ever.

During earlier screenings of Peter Benchley’s ocean adventures we reacted with fear to the monstrous great white shark stalking its human nemesis much like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick did over a century earlier. We reacted with fear when the giant eel feasted on the human head of The Deep’s villain, Henri Cloche (Louis Gossett Jr).

But, today we are the demons of the ocean as its waters continue to heat up at an unprecedented rate. Today, we are still only casually aware of how the oceans’ scarce resources are being scooped out from deeper depths by large fishing corporations and polluted by the world’s oil barons. We may be thinking that we do little harm every time we visit the beach. But we ravenously consume what the ocean has left to offer us, and every time we dip our delicate toes into the salty, mercury-poisoned water, we do more harm than we imagine.

great white shark

Even though the great white shark is but a plastic replica of the real thing, I watched Steven Spielberg’s creation with a lot more respect and was rooting for it to survive Quint’s (Robert Shaw) hunting antics even though I am already aware of the outcome.

The great white shark is one of the oldest surviving species of our oceans, having been around for millions of years. WWF mentions that, according to research, over 100 million sharks are killed annually. And yet, every time a great white shark is spotted in our warm waters, we still react with shock and horror. What can we do to save this precious species which is vital for sustaining the marine environment? Well, we could stay out of the ocean’s waters for one thing, and allow the sharks to go about their natural business without our interference.

The people of Amity did not heed Sheriff Brody’s (Roy Scheider) warnings and continued to plunge their blubbery bodies into the water only for the confused shark to randomly pick out his prey.

The author of Jaws, Peter Benchley, became an instant millionaire when paperback copies of his book went on sale world-wide. It is estimated that over 10 million copies have been sold. Before his death, the author expressed regret for portraying the shark as a callous man-eater. He claimed to have done everything within his powers to make us aware that the great white is not the killer that it was made out to be. Simply put, it is us who are the killers.

great white shark 2

There are still far too many hunters like Quint at sea. Like the critically endangered rhino, the sharks are in trouble. Greedy hunters, out to make a quick buck, are not hunting to put a small meal on the table, like thousands of small fishermen around the world are no longer allowed to do, but hunting the beast for its fins.

I’m trying to think of a more appropriate musical score to accompany this majestic beast on its long journeys through the ocean waters to replace the one composed by John Williams for Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster.

Both Benchley and Spielberg deserve praise for creating this story, because man’s carelessness, selfishness and ignorance for the sanctity and survival of this beautiful beast is highlighted, reminding us of Melville’s classic.

Sadly, unlike Melville’s creature, the great white shark, nicknamed Jaws, is slayed and, once more, Hollywood exalts (American) men as brave and victorious heroes.

the deep 1

But at what cost?

Ultimately I enjoyed Steve Spielberg’s thriller. But I enjoyed Yates’ adventure still more. This film is set along the Bermuda archipelago. The opening scenes of The Deep are marvellous. It shows the story’s young heroes, David Sanders (Nick Nolte) and Gail Berke (Jacqueline Bisset), diving beneath the waves. The water is crystal clear, and the divers forage above a kaleidoscopic coral reef. The reef’s tiny species go about their underwater business undisturbed.

It reminds me of another sore point in the saga of marine conservation. The sharks are not the only species under threat beneath the waves. While coral reefs shrivel and dry so much so that it crumbles like dust if we sample it between our fingers, whole species of marine creatures and organisms are dying. The polluted water is too warm to sustain these reefs.

The survival of these reefs, necessary for sustaining ocean life, is a more complex problem which we must solve. It too easy for us to point fingers at our political and national representatives when we see them go about their business shifting timelines and shuffling their papers, fudging over facts and figures, redacting vital information from these fact sheets, guarding their political agenda’s under the disguise of protecting and sustaining their economies and protecting the interests of big, global businesses, until another Conference of the Parties rolls around.

conference of the parties 1

We keep on hearing the same, tired narrative, “fifty years from now”. We don’t have that much time. We need to act now. It would warm my heart (and my conscience) if I was able to travel to the coast and buy a fresh line from the local fisherman, rather than rely on the massive supermarkets who, in turn, are supplied abundantly by the large fishing companies who are still allowed to scoop tons of fish from deeper depths of the ocean.

Both The Deep and Jaws are mirror images of our flawed humanity. Even its heroes are preoccupied with personal interests over and above those of the ocean. The ocean’s environment is grossly disturbed when these hunter-gatherers pursue larger and unnecessary prey, such as the great white shark and a huge bounty of treasure dating back to 1714. Perhaps, and unusually for such a character, Romer Treece (Robert Shaw) emerges as the noble savage who shares his deep knowledge and respect of the ocean’s depths and its inhabitants, even the buried treasure.

Romer Treece bears the hallmarks of the crusty, but refined colonial adventurer who, unlike Melville’s Captain Ahab, has made peace with the natural surroundings which he adopts as his home. In this case, it is the tranquil Bermuda coastline. In our mad drive to commercialize and exploit our natural resources, I wonder what it looks like today.

Closer to home, I have seen how the waves crash mercilessly against the eroding breakers and walls to claim back its natural space. We have allowed this to happen. Far from our shorelines, ice caps are melting at great speed, contributing to rising sea levels and, along with the warm sea currents, contributing to the unusually bad storms we experience every winter.

waves 1

Love, true love, is under threat as David and Gail are compromised by their greed for the ocean’s treasure. At least the creatures survive in The Deep. A horde of tiger-toothed sharks are attracted to bait chucked into the sea by villains who seek to murder the film’s heroes. A rare giant eel, which has made the shipwrecked Goliath its home, devours Henri Cloche, head and all. Oh, and by the way, this eel is endangered too.

I enjoyed just about every aspect of this old-fashioned adventure, from the characters, good and bad, to the ocean photography and John Barry’s gentle soundtrack Down Deep Inside, a suitable accompaniment to showcase the ocean’s once-pristine beauty. Donna Summer has immortalised this track with her own lyrics which endure long after the film’s credits have completed its crawl.

Churchill was not thinking about the environment when he spoke of us “entering into a period of consequences”. But it resonated during Al Gore’s presentation of An Inconvenient Truth.

It is not too late for us to act. But we need to act now.


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