A giant great white shark stakes it claims to the waters off the coast of Port Harbor, a peaceful fishing village. When a windsurfer is killed, the mayor stubbornly wants to keep the beaches open for the annual Regatta and refuses to believe there is a problem but with a huge shark killing off his guests, is that really a good idea?
If ever there was an award for the most blatant rip-off ever made then surely The Great White would win hands down. The Italians were noted for their ability to shamelessly exploit popular American releases by making cheap and nasty versions. One of their favourite films to ‘mimic’ was Steven Spielberg’s classic 1975 blockbuster Jaws and the country released a handful of pathetic knock-offs in the following years. But none were more blatant than The Great White, a film which follows the structure and plot of Jaws to the point where it’s almost scene-for-scene at times. This film never saw an American release because it was such a copy (even down to the poster) than Universal Studios decided to sue the producers for copyright infringement. It was promptly withdrawn from cinemas and only available on dodgy bootlegs from Europe and Japan.
But I’m not sure whether anyone from Universal actually saw the finished article because if they had, they would have realised there was nothing to worry about. As derivative as The Great White is, there is no mistaking which is the masterpiece and which is the forgery. The torrid history of this film is more notorious than its content and what you get is virtually a budget copy of Jaws with a couple of bits of Jaws 2 thrown in for good measure. Even though the film has a bit of a cheaper feel to it, you could easily pass this off as Jaws 5 – in fact it’s much more entertaining than Jaws 3 and Jaws: The Revenge both were. Make no mistake about it, The Great White is a terribly-made film. But boy, it sure is entertaining.
One of the strengths of Jaws was that when the film was landlocked or the shark wasn’t on the screen, the characters were able to hold your interest. In Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, you had a trio of great actors who all managed to captivate the audience and at times, their interplay was so good that the meddling of the shark was something of a disappointment to break-up the banter. There’s nothing of the like here and despite James Franciscus and Vic Morrow doing their best Chief Brodie/Matt Hooper (Franciscus is a combination of the two) and Quint impressions (Morrow chews the scenery like a madman), the script never makes their exchanges anything more than plodding filler in between attacks.
The highlight and the problem of the film is the same thing: the shark. There’s no question that it looks terribly phoney. It has little movement apart from opening and closing its jaws and seems to only move forward in a slow, jerky fashion. Plus it roars. But that’s precisely the fun of it – the shark looks terrible but at least it’s physically there. No CGI or stock footage sharks here, just an old school model (though stock footage is used for the shark swimming, it’s not during the actual attacks). Dummies are thrown into its mouth when it’s chewing its victims up and the shark gets well fed. It seems to swim around in slow-mo for added impact and the cheesy disco-esque theme it gets given is nowhere near the same level as John Williams’ iconic score.
This leads to all manner of gory moments as people are bitten in half or have their legs ripped off. Whereas other films have only suggested the brutality of a shark attack, The Great White is only too happy to show the consequences. The finale aboard the broken off dock is particularly memorable for an icky moment but this review wouldn’t be complete without mention of the helicopter attack. The logistics of trying to catch a shark by dangling a piece of meat out of a helicopter have to be seen to be believed and the resultant use of a miniature helicopter to film the aftermath is the highlight set piece.
I guess your enjoyment of The Great White will come on whether you have a tolerance for something as trashy and as blatantly exploitative as this and you desperately want to see an Italian Jaws knock-off or whether you think the makers of this have a cheek and it is just bottom of the sea rubbish. It may be junk but it’s entertaining.