Back in the mid-1970s, before the juggernaut that is Star Wars rolled into town, one movie ruled the world – Jaws. It invented the summer blockbuster and was the highest-grossing movie of all time until Lucas unleashed the force. So what do you do if you are a notorious Italian-American movie producer who is well known for being… ahem… inspired by the works of others? Well, you phone your employee Luciano Vincenzoni in the middle of the night and scream at him down the phone. This is, seriously, how the movie Orca came to be.


Orca The Killer Whale

Dino de Laurentis had just walked out of a showing of Jaws and had headed directly to the phone booth, called up Vincenzoni and demanded:

“Find a fish tougher and more terrible than the great white!”

Then he hung up. Luckily for Vincenzoni, who was clueless in matters of nature, his brother Adriano was a keen amateur zoologist who directed him towards the orca, otherwise known as the killer whale. When researching his subject, this is where he had a stroke of luck in the form of Arthur Herzog.

Arthur Herzog III was born in 1927 and passed away in 2010. He was an American novelist, non-fiction writer, and journalist, who was dabbling at the time in science-based, nature-centric thrillers. One of his books in this arena had already been made into a movie. You may remember it. The Swarm.

Oh boy! Hardly top pedigree. But wait! You see I have read Herzog’s book and it’s very different to the movie not bad at all. It is far more science-based. It goes into great detail about the killer bees, their invasion of the hives, and their spread. It includes diagrams and schematics. It eschews the movie’s sillier sequences for a detailed description of how such an invasion, spreading across hives across the country, eventually brings America to its knees as others race to find a way to stop it.

Back in 1972, before Jaws and before The Swarm was published, he had an idea about a killer whale based upon that creature’s well-documented intelligence and emotional capabilities. A modern Moby Dick. This subject matter bought him into the sphere of Dino de Laurentis, in search of a story about the sea creature capable of besting Jaws, and the rest is history.

I have read this book. It too is quite different from the movie Orca in a lot of ways, but the movie adaption follows the storyline more closely than The Swarm adaption did. So what do we get?

Well, this movie is quite famous. Or should that be infamous? It actually has a good cast, a decent budget, above-average special effects, is well directed and the lead actor really tries. If you are the type of person whose idea of entertainment is watching Bo Derek have her leg bitten off then this is the movie for you!

Doc Savage: Man Of Bronze and Logan’s Run director Michael Anderson really does try his best. So where does it all go wrong?

Doc Savage

Well, at the end of the day you simply cannot get past the fact it’s a kind of soggy Death Wish, with Paul Kersey replaced with a killer whale. Yes, we are serious. It’s basically a revenge flick where the antagonist is also the protagonist who is also a whale. This movie manages to be a whale-based Jaws: The Revenge nearly a decade before Jaws: The Revenge even existed. To make this clear, we should probably talk you through the plot.

And before we go any further, yes we know that the orca is technically a dolphin, not a whale.

Watery John Wick

At the opening of the movie, we find a diver checking underwater recording equipment when a great white shark appears. The diver manages to sneak to the surface finding a boat in hot pursuit of the great white who, the dialogue tells us, is:

“…twenty five foot long if it’s an inch!”

Irish acting powerhouse, legendary drinker, and first Harry Potter Dumbledore, Richard Harris plays Captain Nolan who is in charge of the boat. Nolan is an Irish Canadian fisherman living in South Harbour, Nova Scotia. The movie was filmed in Newfoundland on location so it looks authentic and everything seems cloaked in a penetrating, damp cold that you can almost feel.

He’s on a mission to catch a great white shark for an aquarium to help pay off the mortgage on his boat, the Bumpo. The diver comes aboard and, gasp, it’s 30-year-old stone-cold fox Charlotte Rampling, last seen as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.


When an unlikely series of coincidences means her assistant, Ken, ends up in the water the shark closes in. Just as Ken is about to become lunch the shark is miraculously attacked and destroyed by the biggest, baddest aquatic predator on the block, a killer whale. Take that Jaws!

This sets Nolan off on a different mission, while we have to get educated in a rather romanticized view of killer whales whether we like it or not. Rampling’s character is Dr. Rachel Bedford and she is, gasp again, an expert in killer whales.

Her and Nolan orbiting each other gives us unholy amounts of exposition about how the whales are so clever, and empathetic, and care for their mates and family, and how they are capable of all sorts of human emotions and responses, including revenge. The plot demands this point is made clear, as is required, because Nolan has decided he will capture an orca instead. Off he goes on his new mission. This happens right after this point about how wonderful the whales are has been rammed home by a sequence of extended whale frolicking set to music.


The music. We have to talk about the music. The famous Ennio Morricone scored the movie and while I am pretty sure the score is good, it is completely out of place. It is as if the score has just wandered in from a completely different movie and attached itself, somehow, to this film. It is dramatic, emotional, and clearly meant to accompany something that very much doesn’t include a whale going medieval on an Irishman’s ass.

Nolan and crew head out to score themselves a whale, find the pod we saw frolicking together earlier as they are such wonderful, family orientated, intelligent creatures. We feel we should mention that again, just in case you have forgotten.

Nolan closes in aboard the Bumpo with his crew Annie (Bo Derek), Novak (Keenen Wynn), and Paul (Peter Hooten). Nolan is ready to shoot a tranquilizer-laden harpoon into the male orca and we get to that scene. What scene?

THAT scene!

If there is one scene this movie really is infamous for, it is what happens next. When this movie was first seen on TV in the early 1980s this scene was all anyone could talk about in the school playground the next day. It is such a mean-spirited scene, played out graphically and in broad daylight.


Nolan tries to shoot the male but misses, nicks its fin to give it a handy identification mark for later, and instead spears the female who in a panic rams herself into the boat propellers. As they haul the injured female aboard, she turns out to be pregnant and promptly suffers a miscarriage while her enraged mate looks on, roaring. There is simply no way to do this scene justice in text form, you will have to see for yourself.

See what we mean? Wowsers! Now they have done it. Later that night, as they return to port, the orca kills one of Nolan’s crew as the body of the whale’s dying mate is released. The monumentally vengeful orca pushes the body of his now-dead mate onto the shore outside the town. This is a threat to Nolan. How do we know this? Because Dr. Rachel Exposition tells him so. She claims the whale will now stop at nothing to avenge its dead family.


If her word wasn’t enough, then enter Will Sampson (Fish Hawk, Fire Walker) in the form of Jacob Umilak who arrives with the truly staggering line:

“She speak you the truth!”

You see, as usual Samson is playing the required “Token Native Who is Wise In The Ways Of Nature That Are Inflicted By The Plot”. Like all of these magic indigenous folk in movies, his entire job is to pop up and deliver exposition whenever Whitey does some dumb shit, usually with some added mysticism thrown in for local color. The zingers keep coming as he solemnly tells Nolan:

“She know it from the university, I know it from my ancestors.”

He warns Nolan to stay out of the orca’s territory. The orca is having none of it. He wants his revenge and so he sets out to terrorize the town. He sinks boats in the harbor. He causes the fish to run from the fishing grounds. He even demonstrates a hitherto unknown in a whale (dolphin!) understanding of the mechanical workings of a fuel store and pumping system to cause an explosion.


The townspeople have had enough. They want this done and they threaten and cajole Nolan until he goes back to see to fight the whale. This is what the whale wanted all along, according to Wise-Umm-Native Big Chief Speaksindumbsentences and Dr Rachel Exposition who tells him:

“If he is like a human, what he wants isn’t necessarily what he should have!”

There is a whole load of melodrama with Nolan empathizing with the whale because, you see, his own wife and unborn child had previously been killed in a car crash caused by a drunk driver.

God, I miss lobby cards

Nolan decides to fight the orca after it sinks a house on stilts over the water and in the course of this Bo Derek is made rapidly shorter and less well balanced in another totally mean-spirited scene.

Dr Rachel Exposition and the hapless Ken (remember him) join the crew because it’s in the script, along with Umilak. Jesus, this cruise is going to be a barrel of laughs.

The whale lures them further and further North, picking off crew members along the way in various inventive ways including lifeboats, icebergs, and Ken being fucking Ken all over the place before they arrive in Malta which has been set-dressed by designer Mario Garbugliato to look like the remote polar region of Labrador.

Oh fucking hell, Ken!

It is here that the vengeful Orca turns from footage clearly shot in an aquarium tank into a rubber replica, and the final showdown begins.

What The Actual…

You’ll know if you have seen this movie. If you haven’t, trust me, it really is as completely mental as it sounds. All the ingredients were there for something good, but it just can’t get over the fact that at the end of the day it’s about a whale (dolphin) going cray-cray and heading out for revenge.


The main orcas used for filming were trained animals from Marineland of the Pacific and Marine World Africa alongside artificial rubber whales. Apparently, the models were so lifelike that animal rights activists tried to block the trucks transporting them, confusing them for real orcas. The shark used early in the film was captured by noted shark hunter Ron Taylor.

Richard Harris, as you would expect, gives it absolutely everything he has got the way only a completely drunk Irish thespian can. He thinks he’s in Shakespeare whereas almost all the rest of the crew, and at least a couple of the cast, probably wished they were working for Roger Corman making Piranha. At least that looked like fun.

According to Vincenzoni, Harris had begun to drink heavily on set after reading a tabloid magazine and seeing a photograph of his wife (Ann Turkel) on a beach with a younger man. He was frequently physically stopped from flying from Newfoundland to Malibu in order to kill them both. He brawled on set with Vincenzoni and Harris gave the Italian a black eye. He insisted on performing his own stunts, drunk, and was apparently nearly killed several times during the filming of the final showdown.


Kids, if you are going to drink and act then, for God’s sake, drink and act like Richard Harris. A King among men!

The movie currently sits at 9% on Rotten Tomatoes but that is clearly crap. You HAVE to see this movie. I mean, it’s awful but it’s just so delightfully weird in tone and execution, plus completely batshit insane in every way, that it demands your attention.

Technically, it is a 1.5-star movie all day long, but a drunk Richard Harris, adrift in a sea of insanity, clearly delivering an actor’s performance that is so far above what the movie around him deserves drags it higher. You really, truly have to watch this movie just to confirm for yourself that it actually exists.

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