On March 5, 1982, Film Ventures International released a killer-shark movie called Great White to 300 North American theaters in Southern California, Texas, Louisiana, and Michigan, with a plan to expand to hundreds more across North American. Though audiences showed up to the tune of $3 million, that plan didn’t work out. One month prior to the film’s North American debut, Universal Studios filed a civil-action suit complaining of copyright infringement against the films Jaws and Jaws 2. On April 22, U.S. District Judge David Kenyon issued a preliminary injunction against the film, putting a halt to any expansion plans and prompting Universal to demand it be pulled from theaters. Universal’s efforts expanded around the globe, bringing similar suits in France, Belgium, Great Britain, and Australia, effectively making the film disappear from all but memory in most of the world.
That’s kind of extraordinary, since Jaws’ mammoth success inspired one imitator after another. These include well-known films like Joe Dante’s clever Piranha and the dreadful killer-whale-on-the-loose film Orca, but also titles like Mako: The Jaws Of Death and Tintorera… Tiger Shark, films that did little to try to hide their main source of inspiration. They joined other Jaws-inspired efforts that simply switched up the killer monster, films like Grizzly and Tentacles. What’s more, Universal was still embroiled in legal issues stemming from a 20th Century Fox complaint that the Universal-produced TV series Battlestar Galactica bore too strong a resemblance to Star Wars, meaning any charges of plagiarism could invite further discussion of a sore subject. To raise the studio’s ire, any film would have to be pretty brazen in its thievery.
But brazen might not be a strong enough word to describe Great White, which has stuck around despite Universal’s attempts to turn it into an un-movie. Great White played to some success in Italy—home to its prolific director, Enzo G. Castellari—and elsewhere, under titles like The Last Shark and, most flagrantly, The Last Jaws. It soon became available via bootlegs in the U.S., though the injunction stood as late as 2008, when Los Angeles’ New Beverly Theater attempted to screen it on a double bill with another of Castellari’s films, The Inglorious Bastards, the Italian World War II movie that inspired the Quentin Tarantino film of the same name, though not quite the same spelling. More recently, Great White has quietly surfaced legally via Amazon, where viewers can stream it and buy it digitally, and less officially on YouTube, where a user has uploaded the entire feature.
The years have done little to make Great White look less like a Jaws rip-off. If anything, its inspiration’s longevity and iconic status has only underscored the similarities. Great White opens with teens on a beach, one of whom becomes a great white shark’s first human meal, and it ends with an exploding shark. In between, we get: a self-serving politician (Joshua Sinclair) who insists a beach event must go on despite the dangers of shark attacks; underwater footage from the shark’s point of view; and—to add a dash of Jaws 2 to the mix—some dumb teens recklessly putting their lives in danger. Universal’s suit offers even more details, with point-by-point examples of similarities that include:
In Great White the empty boat of a local fisherman is found floating in the water. After examining the arm of the fisherman discovered in the hull, the expert tries to warn the politician about the dangers of the shark. In Jaws the police chief and the scientist find the empty boat of a local fisherman floating in the water. After examining the body of the dead fisherman and a shark's tooth found in the hull, the two men try to warn the politician about the dangers of the shark.
The local shark expert in Great White, Peter Benton (James Franciscus) is a combination of two characters in Jaws: the shark expert (Richard Dreyfuss) and the local police chief (Roy Scheider). As the shark expert in Jaws, Richard Dreyfuss tries to warn the town of the dangers of the shark; in Great White, the shark expert does the same thing. In Jaws, the local police chief has a blond wife and a child injured by the shark; in Great White, James Franciscus has a blond wife and a child injured by the shark.
That last detail may seem nitpick-y, given that there are many blond wives in the world, but it actually skips over a few details. Not only does the name Peter Benton bear an unmistakable resemblance to Peter Benchley, who co-wrote the Jaws screenplay based on his novel of the same name, but Great White’s Benton is also a bestselling author who happens to be the local shark authority in Port Harbor, the film’s idyllic setting (even though the dialogue reminds viewers that Port Harbor has never had any trouble with sharks).
Another item from the suit could define understatement: “The salty skippers, both of whom have heavy English-type accents and are experienced shark hunters, are substantially similar.” In Great White, Vic Morrow essentially does a movie-length impression of Robert Shaw’s performance as Quint in Jaws. From the unkempt mustache and white turtleneck down, it’s an uncanny piece of imitation.
A skilled veteran, Morrow might have just been trying to amuse himself in the midst of an unchallenging assignment. Or maybe, he was just following the guiding spirit of the film: When in doubt, do what Jaws did, only more gaudily and cheaply.
It’s easy to see why Universal took action. With Great White’s similarities, and its Jaws-inspired marketing campaign, it would be hard for the studio not to feel ripped off. Critics who got a chance to see the film backed up that feeling. Miami News critic Jon Marlowe complained screenwriter Mark Princi “borrowed so blatantly and heavily from both Jaws and Jaws II that we have all seen and heard his story before.” Deseret News’ Christopher Hicks made his feelings clear in a review that begins “Most ripoffs of other movies at least try to subtly cover up the fact that they are copying a popular film.” Under the headline “Great White sinks to cinematic depths,” William Beamon of St. Petersburg’s Evening Independent referred to it as “a shameless ripoff.” Those on the side of Great White did little to help their case, in America or elsewhere. In the Australian court case, producer Ugo Tucci admitted to having seen both Jaws and its sequel, but insisted he was inspired by meeting Mexican swimmer/shark expert/oceanographer/novelist Ramon Brava—and, in his words, “my own thoughts about sharks.”
Yet while Great White undoubtedly steals heavily from Jaws, Universal’s actions, however understandable, seem a bit extreme. Bad artists copy, great artists steal, goes a line widely (though inaccurately) attributed to Pablo Picasso. There’s no mistaking Great White for great art, nor does it pretend to be. At one point a TV producer tells a crew member, who’s despairing that his footage of an attack isn’t good enough, “Use a little stock footage. Nobody’ll know the difference.” Within a minute, the film itself cuts to not-so-convincing shark footage that doesn’t match the rest of the film. Then there’s the shark itself, brought to life, sort of, via a combination of underwater shots of real sharks, barely mobile miniatures, and a life-sized model that seems capable of doing little but popping up alongside boats and making roaring noises as if trying to frighten his victims to death.
It’s not, by even the most generous standards, a great movie, or even a good one. Yet it’s part of the long tradition of scrappy imitations, which keeps the blood of genre moviemaking pumping. Castellari directs with great brio, using restless camerawork and a fondness for jarring shifts in focus to liven up even the most ordinary scene, and at one point offering a vision of beachgoers running in slow motion years before Baywatch made it a staple. He also engages in a game of one-upmanship: In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he sends his shark to attack a helicopter, first by biting a man in half, then by dragging the chopper to the briny deep.
There’s a similar scene in Jaws 2, but it’s dull by comparison. To attempt something that outrageous on a shoestring budget takes moxie, and while there’s little of Spielberg’s skilled assurance in the film, Castellari slips in a lot of “Why the hell not?” ideas.
From the distance of several decades, the lawsuit also looks symptomatic, yet another indication that low-budget genre films would have a tougher time of it in the 1980s and beyond, as big-budget genre fare started to become the primary way Hollywood studios made their money, and the traditional outlets for B-movies started to dry up. In the 1960s and ’70s, Europe in general and Italy in particular housed a thriving film industry that turned out genre films for receptive audiences in grindhouses and drive-ins. As in Great White, down-on-their-luck stars could team with enthusiastic journeymen to make vibrant, or at the very least profitable, movies. Much of it was derivative, some of it deceptive. For instance, the Lucio Fulci film known in America as Zombie—the one with the infamous, Jaws-inspired zombie-vs.-shark fight—first screened in Italy as Zombi 2, an attempt to pass it off as a sequel to Dawn Of The Dead, which played Italy as Zombi.
The combination of an established filmmaking system, the creative energy of those behind the camera, and an audience that would walk away disappointed if not given the thrills they came seeking often led to memorable movies. Yet by the end of the 1980s, grindhouses had all but vanished, drive-ins had started to fade, and theaters had become increasingly dominated by big studio fare. The days when Great White could play, however briefly, in the same theater as Vice Squad and Death Wish II, but also Chariots Of Fire and Arthur, as it did in St. Petersburg, Florida, had become a thing of the past.
It’s easy to see this as no great loss, but that would be inaccurate. Many such films have passed into blessed obscurity, and the modern exemplars of gleefully derivative efforts, direct-to-home-video mockbusters like the Transmorphers series and Android Cop, don’t exactly suggest it’s a trend worth reviving. Yet without Sergio Leone deciding to rip off Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and make a Western on the cheap in Europe, the spaghetti Western might never have become a worldwide phenomenon. That’s just one example of the dishonest-yet-honorable tradition of movie rip-offs.
Great White may have gone too far, and Universal successfully argued again and again that it did. But creative thievery is an intrinsic part of filmmaking, just as it is in any art form. Sometimes that means Steven Spielberg artfully lifting a shot from Vertigo to convey mounting terror. Sometimes that means taking someone else’s killer-shark idea and running with it to ridiculous places. Movies would be poorer without either.
Our Jaws Movie Of The Week discussion ends here. Don’t miss Tuesday’s Keynote on how the film’s sound design works to build a sense of dread, even more than its iconic score, and Wednesday’s staff forum on the monsters, men, and moments that make it unforgettable. And join us next week as we ride into the danger zone to take on the most 1980s of all blockbusters: Top Gun.