Romeo and Juliet among sponge divers - that’s the basic premise of 1953’s Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, an entertaining and picturesque adventure. Now, on most days, any resemblance to that particular Shakespeare play – one I’ve always hated since my earliest school days - would have me running for the nearest exit, but for some reason, it works here. Perhaps that’s because director Robert D. Webb and screenwriter I.A. Bezzarides spend less time wallowing in tragedy (though there is some of that) and more on the culture clash between two fishing communities - one Greek, the other Anglo, each fighting to eke out a living in the Florida Keys.
The Greeks, here personified by the father Mike Petrakis (Gilbert Roland) and his son, Tony (Robert Wagner), are hard-pressed to find enough sponges to make ends meet. Another crew has scored a massive haul by diving in the deadly waters off the 12-Mile Reef, but Mike refuses to go there, after an attempt years in the past resulted in the death of his brother. So the Petrakis clan head for the Keys, an area commonly fished by the Anglos and considered off limits to anyone else. The Anglos (whom the Greeks call the "Conchs") are led by the calm and collected Thomas Rhys (Richard Boone), who, though tough and stern, proves to have a sense of honor. That can’t be said for his sniveling son, Griff, (Harry Carey, Jr.) or his ambitious and cruel partner, Arnold Dix (Peter Graves). Arnold and Griff wait for the Petrakis to bring in a boat full of sponges, then hijack the lot, after threatening to cut Mike's airline with an axe. This encounter sets off a chain of events which rapidly escalate as tensions rise, including brawls, sabotage, boat burning, and a burgeoning romance between Rhys’ free-spirited daughter, Gwyneth (a luminous Terry Moore), and the handsome, headstrong Tony. Needless to say, as times get increasingly desperate, the harder it is to resist the siren call of the sponge-rich, dangerous currents that lurk beneath the 12-Mile Reef...
The love story between our two young and impossibly pretty leads is soapy if sweet enough, but it’s really the conflict between the two rival groups that keeps the story moving. We’re never told exactly when this story is taking place; it might be set sometime before the aqualung was invented (by the late, great Jacques Costeau and engineer Emile Gagnan, as it happens) in the mid-1940s, or it could be contemporary, in the early 1950s, and the Petrakis family is only able to find, or afford, old equipment. Whatever the case may be, as far as this movie is concerned, it means the divers need to wear those old diving bell-type helmets, heavy rubber suits and weighted boots, and be fed oxygen through long tubes paid out slowly as they descend awkwardly into the depths. It could be argued that sponge fishing isn’t the most exciting thing to watch at the best of times, but nevertheless there are some decent thrills here for those with a penchant for old-school, undersea adventure. These scenes are enjoyable, but the movie fares best above water, with the beautiful Florida locations captured with a skilled eye by Oscar-nominated cinematographer, Edward Cronjager.
This was Robert Wagner’s first chance headlining a film and, while he’s clearly no Greek, despite the curly black locks the studio stylist gives him, he otherwise does a decent enough job as the scrappy young adonis who loves his father but chafes under his shadow. Wagner was never an actor of great depth, especially at this stage of his career, but what he lacks in complexity he makes up for in physicality. In other words, he does a nice line in sullen brooding and looks good with his shirt off.
As the Juliet to his Romeo, Terry Moore is cuteness personified, lighting up the screen with her megawatt smile and boundless energy. She also brings a nice quirkiness to what could have been a stock character, her Gwyneth at times capricious, refreshingly frank and boldly playful, but underneath it all, strong and fair-minded like her father, and willing to put her neck, and reputation, on the line to support the man she loves. Moore has been quoted as being justifiably proud of her figure when at her starlet peak, and she effortlessly rocks that innocently sexy tomboy thing here.
As is often the case, the dramatic heavy-lifting is done by the supporting cast. I’ll watch pretty much anything that features either Gilbert Roland or Richard Boone, and to have them both in the same film is a treat, though they hardly share any scenes together. In fact, Roland, and his irrepressible, macho charisma, pretty much steal the movie right out from under nominal lead Wagner's meticulously-coiffed head. Whether swaggering around with a cigar clenched between his teeth, following his superstitious pre-dive ritual by crossing himself and perching a little stocking cap on his head before donning his heavy diving helmet, or waxing lyrical about the dangerous, mystical undersea realm of the 12-Mile Reef, Roland commands whatever scene he's in. Boone has by far the smaller, less showy part but brings his natural authority to bear as the sympathetic patriarch of the Anglo fishing fleet. It’s fun but weird to see perennial good guy Peter Graves play a low-down creep, long before he was Jim Phelps on Mission: Impossible. And old ethnic standby J. Carroll Naish lends pep to his role as Socrates, loyal friend and advisor to the Petrakis family.
The real MVP of the film, however, and perhaps its longest-lasting legacy, is the wonderful score from the great Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann’s work for Alfred Hitchcock is likely what most movie fans remember him for today, but as good as those scores are, the ones that really stick in my memory are the lesser-known, less-heralded but equally rich fantasy and adventure scores he did, for films such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts and the like. His copious work here lends every scene it accompanies a power, majesty and ethereal beauty that lifts the film to a higher plane, evoking the mysterious and unknowable spirit of the deep. (Click here to get a brief sampling of the soundtrack).
Reportedly the third movie filmed in Fox’s Cinemascope process (after The Robe and How to Marry a Millionaire), Beneath... can now, finally, be seen in all its scenic Technicolor glory. After years of awful public domain releases, Fox Cinema Archives finally relented and issued a Made On Demand DVD-R version last year. Remastered and anamorphically enhanced in something approaching its proper 2:66 widescreen aspect ratio (despite being incorrectly labeled on the disc packaging as 1:33), it's great to see the film looking as good as it does - though a sharper Blu-Ray upgrade would not go amiss.
While basically a modest B-movie melodrama buffed up to "A" status by big budget Fox studio gloss, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef remains a fun watch. It's no lost classic, but it is a good example of the kind of colorful, escapist fare that movie studios used to put out on a regular basis back in the day, helped immeasurably by its game cast, atmospheric locations, gorgeous cinematography and spine-tingling score. I mean, come on...how can you resist a movie that features a star-crossed romance, lots of messing around on boats, a fistfight that ends with Gilbert Roland shoving a cigar down Peter Graves' throat, a dangerous-when-wet Terry Moore cavorting around in little white shorts, a shirtless Robert Wagner playing a Greek, death by "the bends," and a climactic fight with an octopus?
This post is my contribution to the Beach Party Blogathon, hosted by those kooky, crazy kids, Kristina at Speakeasy and Ruth at Silver Screenings. To read some more summer movie goodness, grab your board and sandals and head on over to the luau where all the action is, by clicking here.
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