Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Shark Week 4: 'The Sharkfighters' (1956)

Its title conjures up images of strong men punching sharks in the face, but The Sharkfighters is actually a dull docudrama with a stolid patriotic tone, based on the real-life Navy research into creating a shark repellent during World War II. There is one deadly shark attack in the movie, and plenty of footage of actual sharks, but the characters mostly treat the sharks with a detached scientific attitude. Even main character Lt. Cmdr. Ben Staves (Victor Mature), who has a personal vendetta against sharks after they killed much of his crew following the sinking of his battleship, mostly keeps his attitude calm and clinical, after he's assigned to the so-called Project Shark Chaser unit on the Isle of Pines in Cuba.

Since they can't just ask Batman, the Naval scientists of Project Shark Chaser use the unusually shark-infested waters around the Isle of Pines to test various compounds for their shark-repelling abilities, in the hopes of developing a formula that can be used by U.S. sailors and pilots who find themselves stranded at sea. Ben clashes with Naval ichthyologist Lt. Cmdr. Leonard Evans (Philip Coolidge), who prefers a methodical and slower approach to research and testing, and young Naval chemist Ensign Harold Duncan (James Olson), who wishes he were serving on the frontlines instead of in a lab on a peaceful island. But those conflicts are exceedingly mild, and the movie proceeds at a leisurely pace, although it only runs 74 minutes.

After one of the dumbass local teens working with the Americans gets himself killed by a shark, things seem like they might get serious, but even that incident is just a blip in the project's progress. Eventually when the team gets close to a solution, Ben insists on speeding up the testing process, and in the movie's finale he volunteers himself for a human test, to be absolutely sure that the formula works. That's not until the final 10 minutes or so, though, and even when Ben is in the water, deliberately attracting sharks to see if the repellent works, there isn't a whole lot of suspense. Mature is such a wet blanket that Ben's anger at sharks and post-traumatic stress barely come across, and the movie isn't really interested in character development.

Aside from the shark footage, the best thing The Sharkfighters has going for it is the local color. It was shot entirely on location in Cuba, when such a thing was easily possible for American movies, and it features some gratuitous (but enjoyable) scenes of Ben and Leonard out and about in Havana, checking out local clubs and dancers. Karen Steele brings a bit of feistiness to her role as Ben's wife, and it's fun to see the cosmopolitan life in Havana that existed at the time. There isn't as much of the village life on the island, but the funeral scene of the teen who gets killed by a shark is a moment of stark naturalism in the middle of hokey patriotism. More of that, and less of Mature's bland manliness, could have helped make this movie slightly more memorable.

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