Four men take to the open sea in search of long-lost treasure, running afoul of bloodthirsty sharks and escaped convicts in the process. That’s the short version of what happens in Sharks’ Treasure, a mostly forgotten 70s adventure film written, produced, and directed by Cornel Wilde, who also stars and wrote a song for the movie in good measure (he doesn’t sing it, though -- nobody can do everything).
Wilde is best known today as the director and star of 1966’s The Naked Prey, one of the best films ever made about macho conflict intersecting with nature. Sharks’ Treasure operates in a similar mode, although it has a wealth of characters and dialogue compared to the earlier film. Once the convicts come into the picture, the tension level increases and hits a more Naked Prey-like register, but Sharks’ Treasure may have an even bigger surplus of testosterone between Wilde and the rest of the cast -- a cast which includes the great and recently departed Yaphet Kotto in a supporting role that unfortunately dwindles as the film progresses.
Sharks’ Treasure is one of those movies that feels designed to be watched on television on a weekend afternoon, but Wilde’s mastery of storytelling economy might make it a little difficult to fall asleep as you watch it. The plot kicks off almost immediately, with an opening close-up of a rough-looking gold coin, the first piece of the treasure that will drive the entire narrative, and gets started right away. These early scenes have a somewhat choppy, jittery feel, like Wilde is impatient to get on the boat and get on with it, and sure enough the whole crew comes together without a lot of the usual expected throat-clearing or other niceties. The treasure is tentatively located via nautical map, Kotto’s Ben Flynn makes himself available as a diver and cook in exchange for shares for himself and his rattled Vietnam POW vet partner, and we’re off to the fish fry.
Kotto deserves special attention for his work in this film, not just because he recently passed away. Anyone familiar with this one-of-a-kind actor already knows his penchant for imbuing shallow roles with humanity, warmth, humor, and pathos, and he does all that with relatively little here. The meatiest subplot his Flynn gets is nicotine habit, but he’s magnetic onscreen as usual, and the sequence in which his friend and would-be business partner is stabbed and thrown to the sea (where he’s ripped apart by feeding tiger sharks in one of the film’s most memorable set-pieces) is a great display of undisguised grief and anguish, a moment that shows in blunt terms just how good an actor he was.
Wilde once claimed that he came up with the basic idea for Sharks’ Treasure years before, but that it was the success of Jaws that allowed him to finally secure financing and get the picture made. And even though Wilde doesn’t quite have Spielberg’s visual flair, his fim doesn’t embarrass itself in comparison to Jaws unlike a lot of knockoffs do. I think one reason for this is the addition of a couple additional plot elements that keep things moving and don’t depend on simple man vs shark dramatic conflict. First we have the “treasure” alluded to in the title, about $400,000 worth of gold and silver that the guys methodically find, dig, and crack out of their undersea rocks while simultaneously evading a shark feeding frenzy. I’m a sucker for underwater action and the footage captured for Sharks’ Treasure has a certain documentary quality that makes it more exciting than slicker, more expensive studio water tank product, and I enjoyed seeing the various tools of the treasure hunting trade being put to use onscreen.
Wilde cleverly establishes a handful of escaped convicts being pursued by police earlier in the film, and just when you forget all about them they show up again on his boat (the Moby, in case you were interested). This is when things get really tense, because the cons don’t know about the treasure and we get some real suspense mined out of their inevitable discovery. Then, the film becomes something of a nautical cat and mouse game between these two groups of increasingly desperate and emotionally unraveling men, which gives Sharks’ Treasure a high dramatic pitch that the more plot-driven Jaws doesn’t even aspire to. Familiar character actor Cliff Osmond puts in an impressive turn as Lobo, the sadistic leader of the convicts’ gang, an insecure basket case of a man who seems more interested in attaining a twisted kind of “respect” from his subordinates than he is in the task at hand.
It’s at this point that “Sharks’ Treasure” takes a few vaguely psychosexual digressions related to Lobo’s relationship with his men, particularly David Gilliam as Juanito. Wilde cleverly plots these tense sequences by emphasizing the cracks in the bad guys’ dynamic and how they can be exploited through various forms of subtlety and psychological subterfuge -- including Wilde’s character (in an ambiguously presented plot point) intentionally losing a fight to Lobo in order to gain a little of his trust.
Sharks’ Treasure is the kind of manly-man’s movie that finds time for a fist fight and a pushup demonstration, with a lot of rough banter and paternal pep talks. There’s a thread about young, attractive men going to seed and finding themselves without any resources to draw upon, which may have resonated somewhat with former screen idol Wilde. Even though the seafaring cinematography can’t compete with Jaws and its attention to detail, he finds a few good images in the surf and sand, and a good jump scare featuring a giant hungry whale shark.
Fans of The Naked Prey will be pleased that Sharks’ Treasure ends with an extended chase through sea and a deserted island, and an encore presentation of “Money, Money,” the song that sums up the films overarching theme: the danger of pinning all your hopes on a big financial windfall instead of on your fellow man.