In the 1970’s, we were blessed with a film that made the entire world afraid to go in the water again. It made a lot of money at the box office, featured a score from an Academy Award winning composer, starred two Oscar nominated actors and, most importantly, exposed the ocean as the wet death trap that it is. It also starred three incredibly attractive people who enjoyed decades as sex symbols to their respective communities. This film, which was plagued with production issues and was based on an extremely popular book from a former journalist, tells the story of a salty, drunkard fisherman as he tries to rescue a small coastal town that is being plagued by a terror from the deep. To say that it took the world by storm when it was released during the blistering summer months would be an understatement, and it remains one of the finest examples of marine-based cinema in history,
“But Tyler,” I hear you all saying (because I’m standing outside and watching you read this), “you wrote an article about Jaws last month! Why don’t you write about something different for once?” First of all, you seem like a cool person. Do you want to hang out? Secondly, I’m not talking about Jaws! I’m writing about the other great mid-70’s death-by-ocean movie, Orca.
I can see where you might be confused. There are a lot of similarities between the two films. One of the films is a world-crushing blockbuster that not only explores the depths of the oceans for ancient horrors, but also explores the depths of our souls to find out what makes us human. The other is Jaws. I feel like Spielberg’s 1975 film, while it is a classic, gets way more credit than Orca simply due to over saturation. Not enough people out there have even heard of Orca, let alone sat down to enjoy it. What I would like to do in this article is explore three facets of each of these movies to determine which is the finer film. At the end, I not only hope to have opened your eyes a little bit, but I also hope that we become good friends and go out to get brunch and stuff.
Many people assume that Jaws has the higher-quality cast, but I completely disagree. Orca stars Richard Harris as the grizzled Irish-Canadian fisherman Nolan, Charlotte Rampling as spicy ichthyologist Rachel and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’s Will Samson as a wary but loyal Inuit chief named Umilak. Now, an ensemble of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss is nothing to shake a stick at, but Orca’s crew doesn’t stop there. It also features a very young Bo Derek in her feature film debut and a pre-nerd Robert Carradine as a pair of shipmates that meet unfortunate ends at the behest of the ocean’s mightiest creature.
What this whole argument boils down to is one simple fact. Richard Harris is the father of Jared Harris, so, by my logic, if we didn’t have Richard Harris, we wouldn’t have The Terror. Point Orca.
Jaws is an all time classic story about a small-town sheriff who joins an upstart scientist and a crusty crab to hunt down a giant great white shark that is terrorizing the island of Amity. It’s man versus hungry beast, and it includes an epic chase and showdown that makes us all question our place on the world’s food chain. I can only find one fault in the entire plot, and it has to do with the central motivations of the shark.
The shark in Jaws is hungry. That is all. It wants to eat, and skinny dipper’s legs taste the best (trust me). There’s no menace or ill-will in the shark’s dinosaur brain. It is only doing what feels natural to a shark. The killer whale in Orca, however is out for one thing. Vengeance.
Captain Nolan, in an ill-advised attempt to capture a live orca to sell to an aquarium, accidentally harpoons a female that is in the middle of the pod. As he brings the animal alongside the ship, she gets tangled in the propeller, filling the northern Atlantic with clouds of blood. He is a man of honor and doesn’t want to harm the creature anymore than he has to, so he orders her to be brought aboard. As she is hanging above the deck, however, she gives birth to a still-born whale fetus that falls to the boat with a wet slap. Even though he didn’t mean to, Nolan killed the male orca’s mate and his unborn child. Right then and there, you can see that this male, named Nickfin, will now stop at nothing to get his revenge.
Nickfin pursues the ship and kills one of Nolan’s crew that very day. It batters the boat until it begins to sink. When they finally find refuge in the fishing village of South Harbor, Nickfin does what any animal would do; he head-butts open the gasoline lines to the town and runs into a house that happened to have a lit lantern on the table, thereby causing a giant explosion that fills the night sky with the angry ambers and reds of righteous revenge.
What does Nickfin decide to do as the explosions rock the entire country of Canada? Why, he jumps playfully in front of the flames, issuing one of the most heavy metal F-You’s in the history of cinema. I know that sharks can jump and stuff, (I’ve seen Planet Earth), but would the shark from Jaws even have thought to be so metal? No way. Point Orca.
Finally, we come to one of the most important factors that influence a film’s greatness: It’s quotability. Jaws has some incredible lines peppered throughout the entire film, from “That’s some bad hat, Harry” to “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” and basically anything Quint says. If you walked up to someone on the street and asked them to give you their favorite line from Jaws, you might come away with 100 great answers. The only thing that all of these lines are missing? A most-likely wasted Richard Harris screaming each of them at the top of his lungs.
Orca has more than its fair share of memorable lines, and each of them are delivered with a drunken ferocity by one of the finest actors in the history of cinema. Richard Harris, in a role that he chose over starring in Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg, reads each of his lines as if he is trying to act them to life. In one memorable scene, after Annie (Bo Derek) has her already-broken leg bit off like a Kit-Kat by Nickfin, Harris strides to the water’s edge and bellows his acceptance of the whale’s challenge. “You revengeful son of a bitch,” he yells at the dark water, “You win. I’m coming for you”. It’s a powerful acceptance of his own fate, an acknowledgment that he can no longer run from his destiny. It not only signals that the film’s third act is about the begin, but it also forces us as viewers to explore how we are trying to outrun our own demons. Nolan can no longer shirk his destiny. Can any of us, really?
While Jaws has the iconic “Smile, you son of a bitch” line as Brody takes aim with his weapon, Orca has a similar scene where Nolan fires his shotgun at Nickfin while screaming “WHAT IN HELL ARE YOU?” It’s a killer whale, sure, but has it’s blood lust transformed its true nature into something much more monstrous? What in hell is it, indeed. Point Orca.
So there you have it! In three of the most important factors that determine a film’s greatness, Orca wins hands down. So, without any further delay, I’m ready to answer the question:
Is Orca a better film than Jaws?
No it is not. It’s a ton of fun, though!
You can rent Orca on Amazon for like three dollars, so do yourself a favor and give it a try. Join our Horror Movie Fiend Club of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group and let us know what you think of it! While you’re at it, bookmark our homepage at Nightmare on Film Street so you can keep up to date with the hottest horror news, reviews, and retrospectives the internet has to offer.