People knew they wanted sharks in movies. From the tiger sharks in Largo’s pool in Thunderball, through the mechanical menace of Jaws, to the CGI creations of The Meg, they have been a mainstay. However, getting a shark on-screen is often easier said than done.
During pre-production of Jaws, producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck genuinely thought they could catch a Great White shark and have it trained to perform on camera as required. After being laughed at by shark experts such as Ron and Valerie Taylor, they turned to production designer Joe Alves and effects maestro Bob Mattey to create the model sharks used in the production.
Other movies before Jaws had persisted with the use of real sharks. These were frequently heavily drugged and manhandled to perform by shark wranglers. Yet while making Shark! in 1969 off the coast of Mexico, something went very, very wrong. At the time, however, it was not called Shark!
His Bones Are Coral
Victor Canning’s novel His Bones Are Coral was serialized in 1954 and fully published in 1955. It was adapted into an original screenplay by Ken Hughes shortly after publication but it languished in development hell until July 1966.
Then it was picked up by Gaumont Pictures, to be directed by Byron Haskin. It was to be produced by Mark Cooper, star George Montgomery and was to be called Twist of the Knife. A location was identified in Mexico and then… nothing. The movie was destined to languish even longer.
The novel tells the story of a gunrunner who loses his cargo near a small coastal Sudanese town. He is stranded there while figuring out his next movie. A woman hires him to raid a sunken ship that sits on the seabed in local shark-infested waters and he thinks he can cover his losses from the job and the haul. However, he’s not the only one and cross follows double-cross.
In April 1967 the project finally began to gain some traction and Skip Steloff picked up the option for Calderon-Stell. Director Sam Fuller was brought in to deliver his first movie since The Naked Kiss. The cast included Arthur Kennedy and Barry Sullivan. In the lead was a young, up-and-coming actor who was transitioning from television to movies. After starring in Gunsmoke, and Hawk on the small screen, with roles in Navajo Joe and 100 Rifles already under his belt, Burt Reynolds was still some years away from his breakthrough role in Deliverance.
Fuller joined the project, he rewrote the script and retitled it Caine, the name of Reynold’s character. He shared writing credit with John Kingsbridge, saying:
“I liked the idea of making a story where, for once, the hero is really the heavy, the heavy is the girl, there’s another heavy, and you find out in the end they’re all heavies.”
Doing a story about four amoral characters… to show not only a double cross on a double cross but when we think we know who the heavy is, we find out the real heavy behind it all is the girl… I have the hero not only allow her to die, but he shrugs it off. I thought that was exciting… I had such fun because I went beyond the average switch of revealing the villain. I also didn’t have the guy just let the girl go to jail; he lets her be eaten by sharks.”
The studio clearly liked what they saw, as even before filming began the producers announced they had signed Fuller to a four-picture deal, including a sequel to Caine.
The Mexico-American co-production was scheduled for nine weeks in 1967. Manzanillo, Mexico was standing in for Sudan and a young local stuntman named Jose Marco was hired as Burt Reynold’s stunt double to shoot some of the underwater shark sequences.
This would be his final job.
Tragedy, Horror, And Mystery
Filming the underwater shark sequences was completed in a fenced-off enclosure in the sea, to keep the situation controllable. A local Bull shark was captured and it was to be sedated to feature in the shark scenes. No official account exists of what happened next, but there are varying different stories.
According to Life Magazine, who reported on the incident:
“A realistic film became too real!”
Marco was in the water in scuba gear alongside the subdued Bull shark. A Great White shark managed to break through the nets protecting the filming area from the rest of the sea. It charged at the camera crew then turned and launched itself at Marco. The crew divers set about the Great White with spears but the shark would not be deterred as it disemboweled Marco right there on the set.
The stuntman’s injuries were so severe that he later died at a hospital.
However, a separate version of events also exists. Others have claimed that the local stunt teams were responsible for sedating the Bull shark. Instead of using recognized drugs, they simply dragged the unfortunate creature onto the beach for a while to make it groggy. When filming was underway, the Bull shark woke up and turned on its handler, violently attacking him.
Anyone who knows anything about sharks knows that Bull sharks are angry, violent sharks. Their relatively large size holds considerable power and they are known as having absolutely no tolerance for provocation.
Its aggressive nature is legendary, as is its presence in warm, shallow brackish and freshwater systems including estuaries and rivers. They can tolerate fresh water and can travel far up rivers. They have been known to travel up the Mississippi River as far as Alton, Illinois, about 1,100 kilometres (700 miles) from the ocean. At sea larger-sized bull sharks are probably responsible for the majority of near-shore shark attacks, including many bites attributed to other species like the Great White or Tiger shark.
So when an animal like this has been dragged onto a beach and left there for a while until it goes unconscious, you can bet it won’t be a happy shark when it wakes up.
This is where the mystery deepens. Despite this horrific accident, a detailed investigation carried out some years later revealed that there was no official record of the attack in Mexico, no record of a stuntman named Jose Marco, and no hospital records of the incident. Marco was allegedly in a hospital, suffering from his horrific injuries, for two days before he died.
Life Magazine had no comment. Shoddy Mexican records keeping? A cover-up to avoid blame? Or did it happen at all?
Amoral Hollywood Strikes Again
Never an industry to let a good crisis go to waste, the studio seized on the publicity that Jose’s apparent on-set death was generating. They changed Caine to Shark! as the title, despite sharks actually only featuring in a few scenes.
The rumor also surfaced that producers allegedly used the footage of his real death in some of the shots in the opening scene of the movie. Did they start that rumor themselves? You be the judge. The attack starts around the 1:45 mark.
Jose Marcos’ death and the production company’s attempts to capitalize on the tragedy was a trigger point for director Fuller. He quit the production immediately and demanded that his name be stricken from the film. The production company refused to do so.
Instead, the producers patched together a sloppily edited final product made up of scenes already filmed by Fuller. Fuller was so horrified with the final product that he disowned the movie entirely. He said it had been butchered so badly in editing that it was no longer recognizable as his film.
The subsequent release wasn’t the end of the movie, either. They even re-released it via Hallmark in 1975 as Man-Eater to cash in on the success of Jaws, with advertising once again focusing on the death of the stuntman during production.
Hollywood never fails to disappoint.
Liked this article? Check out the rest of our series on Hollywood History at Last Movie Outpost. Previously we have taken a look back at the history of some of the most important moments in cinema. We have covered the history of stunts, of special effects, of the studio system, and explored Hollywood’s ties to the mob. We have also examined some of the spooky goings-on associated with Tinseltown and we told the story of one of the true giants of Hollywood. We delved into the backstory of one of the best-known names in the history of horror, Hammer. We took a walk through the history of one of cinema’s greatest art forms – the world of miniatures and model-making for movies.
We explored the history of the box that changed so many Outposters lives – the VCR. We even delved into the murky waters of movie money and the hidden world of Hollywood Accounting. Last time out we went deep into genre with a history of disaster movies.