Film & Television

‘Playing with Sharks’ Chronicles a Lifetime of Affection and Regret

Two things happened on June 20, 1975. The concept of a “summer blockbuster” was born. And people stopped going into the water. The phenomenon behind both was a little movie you may have heard of: Jaws.

Jaws, based on Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel of the same name and previous year, was a production nightmare. The film, which was being directed by the virtually unknown and extremely inexperienced director Steven Spielberg, ended up more than 100 percent over budget and more than 200 percent over schedule. Both were due to the ambitious vision (or sheer naïveté?) of a novice director and the near constant mechanical problems with the movie’s true star, a robotic great white shark nicknamed “Bruce.”

Of course, in what has certainly become Hollywood legend, the challenges Spielberg faced in making Jaws ended up elevating the movie beyond its original conception. With Bruce on the fritz, Spielberg was forced to get creative about when and how the audience would know the shark was present. The constant but unseen danger is palpable and far more terrifying than the film’s climax, in which a motorized shark feasts on hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). As Spielberg later noted, “The film went from a Japanese Saturday matinee horror flick to more of a Hitchcock the- less-you-see-the-more-you-get thriller.”

Jaws opened and earned a record $7 million in its first weekend, $21 million in its first ten days, and $100 million in its first three months. It quickly passed The Godfather as history’s highest grossing film, then set new records for video rentals and re-releases.

As I mentioned, Jaws had an incredible effect on people — including this author, who was 13 when the movie came out. (I saw it twice that summer, hoping that a second viewing would relieve the near-constant anxiety that had lingered after the first. I was wrong.) Tragically, it also incited a worldwide frenzy of shark-hunting, something for which retired diver and lifelong conservationist Valerie Taylor feels some responsibility for. 

Valerie and her husband/partner Ron were instrumental in the success of Jaws. While Bruce (when actually working) was used in scenes with Quint, biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and police chief Brody (Roy Scheider), underwater footage of actual great whites was provided by the Taylors. 

 

The charismatic subject of writer-director and Emmy-nominee Sally Aitkin’s new documentary, Playing with Sharks: the Valerie Taylor Story, has been at home in — and in love with — the ocean since she was in her early twenties. Born in 1935, she spent her youth in Australia and New Zealand, and was institutionalized for a time as she recovered from polio. She began diving and spearfishing as a young woman to feed her parents, but soon became a champion. In Playing with Sharks, Taylor, who is now in her mid-80s, remembers there being seven women competitors and about 750 men. She met her husband, Ron, who was also a champion, at the St. George Spearfishing Club. 

Taylor looks back on her early career with some regret. “I only ever killed one shark. I wish I hadn’t. But there was so much life in the ocean then, you thought you couldn’t make a dent.” Together with Ron, Taylor decided to “shoot with cameras instead.”

Aitkin’s film benefits from years of their archival footage, and from Taylor’s stunning good looks, which seemed anomalous in both the scientific and scuba worlds. She had (and still has) long blond hair, clear blue eyes, and a lithe-limbed figure. Clad in bikinis or a bright pink wetsuit, she laughs that the media used to present her as a real-life “Bond girl.”

During the 1960s and early ‘70s, the Taylors chronicled Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, shot documentaries about sharks, and contributed to Blue Water, White Death, which received accolades both in theatrical release and on television. It was this work that brought them to the attention of Spielberg.

After Jaws set off international — and murderous — “galeophobia,” Taylor and her husband appeared on countless news programs and talk shows in an attempt to educate people. They stressed that the story was fiction and that real-life shark attacks posed less danger than driving. But, between misguided haters (“The only good shark is a dead shark!”) and a growing and insatiable appetite for shark fin soup in China, sharks continue to be hunted at alarming rates.

That said, Taylor has made some progress petitioning government agencies to protect various species. Her greatest success was helping to establish an ocean wildlife preserve in the exact Australian waters where her contributions to Jaws were filmed. 

A number of sequences in Playing with Sharks are difficult to watch, running counter as they do to the mythology Jaws created nearly fifty years ago. In 1979, Taylor donned a chainmail suit and allowed a shark to bite her arm in order to prove that while they do have sharp teeth, the force of their jaws is not as great as popular science believed. On more than one occasion, the Taylors rescued enormous “man-eaters” that were caught in lines; the sharks in question waited patiently through the couple’s maneuvering and swam peacefully away. And, in the film’s most startling footage, Taylor is captured hand-feeding and petting great whites from a tiny boatside platform as her nervous nephew holds onto her shirt. Although there is no sum of money on Earth that would entice me to trade places with her, Taylor’s fearlessness, curiosity, and interspecies good will are inspiring and humbling.

Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that oceanic sharks and rays have declined more than 70 percent since 1970, mainly because of overfishing. Taylor has certainly done her part to reverse this, chronicling unnecessary sport and black-market fishing as well as shooting years of stunning educational footage. But she clearly wishes she could do more.

The highlight of the film occurs toward the end, when Taylor is able (with assistance) to put back on a wetsuit and enjoy the spectacle of bullsharks feeding off the coast of Fiji. “I’ll do this until I’m in a wheelchair,” she smiles. Speaking with a lifetime’s worth of affection and regret, Taylor still insists that sharks hurt humans only by accident, that they have unique personalities, and intelligence akin to that of dogs. 

Reflecting on how many have disappeared, she sighs, “They just don’t deserve it.” 

Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story, a National Geographic film, is available on Disney+.

 

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