The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Sharkfighters

A WWII pilot serving in the Pacific is shot down, his plane crashing in the ocean. Besides worrying about pilots strafing him and finishing what they couldn't, besides worrying about being rescued before any survival supplies run out, that pilot had to worry about one major thing. What about sharks cruising for a meal? Like Robert Shaw's iconic monologue in Jaws, maybe sharks were the most dangerous thing of all. Enter 1956's The Sharkfighters, an interesting look at a Navy effort to create a shark repellent for downed pilots.

It's the middle of World War II, and Navy officer Lt. Commander Ben Staves (Victor Mature) has been tasked with a mission that could save many lives. It isn't behind the lines or even at the front lines, but instead on a small island off of Cuba where a Navy science team is at work. He has been placed in command of the small outpost that's been tasked with creating a shark repellent that downed pilots can use until rescue arrives. The team has been at it for months with little in the way of results, but with some harrowing personal background on the subject, Staves hopes to whip his team into shape and get them going toward something positive. The bays and water all around the island is a virtual shark hunting ground so the samples are there, but the team has to come up with something that can work first. And it better work because they have to do a human test -- man in the water with sharks and repellent -- before sending it to Washington D.C. for approval. Can they do it?

Nothing flashy here that calls attention to itself in this WWII adventure film from director Jerry Hopper that's based on a true story. As if the ocean wasn't scary enough in itself, how about sharks trying to eat you? That simple and very real fear goes a long way in making this story interesting. Now, if the scientific process to develop a shark repellent isn't the most exciting thing around, that's a fair criticism. I've read about downed pilots, shipwreck victims trying to survive as sharks swam all around them, and yeah, it's fair to say I'm deeply, deeply terrified at the thought. Just 73 minutes long, 'Sharkfighters' doesn't screw around, getting to the nitty gritty quickly. It was filmed on location in Cuba -- 3 years before Castro's takeover -- so if for nothing else, give it a try to see 1950s Havana and Cuba in general, some supremely cool locations. Composer Jerome Moross' score is decent too. 

I got a kick out of a couple reviews pointing out that Mature took this film as a good chance to have a couple beers while shooting a pretty straightforward movie in Cuba. Fair? Yeah, I wouldn't pass that up either, but I thought Mature does a good job with his lead performance. He's no scientific experience or background with sharks, fish or the ocean, just a personal experience. The commander of a Navy destroyer, he saw his ship sunk by the Japanese and sharks decimate the survivors in the hours and days before they could be rescued. Like the movie itself, it's nothing flashy, but I've always been a Victor Mature fan, and he's good here. His Navy science team includes replaced commander and zoology expert Evans (Philip Coolidge), Ensign Harold Duncan (James Olson), a young chemist itching to get to the fighting, Chief Gordon (Claude Akins), the cameraman on board documenting the tests, and Carlos (Rafael Campos), a young Cuban man who helps on board.

The one odd point in a 73-minute movie for me was including Lt. Commander Staves' wife, Martha (Karen Steele), who moves to Havana with her husband and sees him on his few breaks. I'm assuming this addition to the script was an attempt to humanize Staves, to make him more than just a driven officer. We see a different side of him, but not necessarily a more interesting side of him. It isn't a long movie to begin with, and in the last 40 minutes or so it felt like far too much time was spent on the Staves' relationship rather than the mission at hand. I'm also assuming Steele was cast so Hopper and Co. would have an excuse to have a swimming at the beach scene, Steele wearing a clingy swimsuit. Subtle, it ain't.

For the most part, I liked this one. The tests of the repellent end up being the coolest thing going by far. We watch sharks swim around the test repellents and eagerly await a positive or a failure. Will the shark attack? Will it swim on? The highlight is not surprisingly the human test, a human subject -- no SPOILERS here as to who it is, silly reader -- getting into the water after 72 successful tests with fish and scraps. It's tense and simple and uncomfortable, a really high energy finale for a decent movie. Good, maybe even only average, but I enjoyed it. The positives definitely outweigh the negatives, and Cuba is a great backdrop to the story with much of the film spent in Havana and out on the water with Operation Shark Chaser.

The Sharkfighters (1956): ** 1/2 /****


  1. wow trip! i have this on my DVR from TMC i kinda liked this movie it was so strange and pointless yet entertaining and i actually bought a lobby card. the title alone i love.

  2. Strange and pointless is spot-on! It was completely mindless, but I liked it just enough too!