The Deep
In shallow waters

by Serafina Kent Bathrick

from Jump Cut, no. 16, 1977, pp. 1, 9
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2005

By opening day everyone in America will have read, seen, or heard about THE DEEP at least fifteen times. (1) Thus THE DEEP follows JAWS as another vacation-time thriller and another sea story for Robert Shaw. While both films draw on codes of male bonding, THE DEEP reveals a far more pernicious legitimation of such a relation, going far beyond the adventurist ideology and the metaphorical implications of JAWS. THE DEEP clearly encompasses and reinforces racial, sexual, and class antagonisms and sets male comradeship in a tradition of white supremacy, private enterprise, and imperialism.

THE DEEP opens with aerial shots which bring us slowly down to land on the island of Bermuda. Through a series of dissolves, we pass from tropical foliage to sand and blue ocean. Finally we plunge into the sea where we watch Gail and David (Jacqueline Bisset and Nick Nolte) cavort underwater with their camera and scuba gear. However, as soon as their play among sunken ships leads them to discover a medallion and a vial of morphine (both the color of gold), the issues of men's work, allegiances, and ambitions become central to the film. As the innocent couple carry their findings ashore, a black hotel worker, who is part of the Haitian mafia which preys on the island, observes them. These men (led by Louis Gossett) have long sought access to the drug cache, known to lie in a sunken WW2 navy ammunition ship. Gail and David have become interested in the history of the golden artifact, and directed to the authority on local shipwrecks, a reclusive scholar named Romer Treece (Robert Shaw). A chance storm, he tells them, has merged two sunken vessels. One is filled with munitions and morphine; the other, an ancient Spanish galleon, contains some baubles a royal suitor was sending to his intended.

At this point in the film narrative the two of treasure represent both the interests and the modes of business of the two groups of Bermuda residents. The blacks who traffic in drugs appear to be a part of a mob (the distributors are in New York City); their kind of business closely resembling a stereotypical mafia organization. The operation of the network undermines both the morality and the entrepreneurial promise of the American system. The white men are characterized as adventurous explorers — concerned with the historical authenticity of the gold they seek, as well as with its market value. The bond between Treece and David will finally take the form of a business deal; their contract (integrated into the film as a structural device) and competition will place them firmly in a tradition of private enterprise. Their partnership will be the proof of the vitality and enduring system of rewards that exist within capitalism.

The place of Gail, the only woman in THE DEEP (but groping for air in all the ads), is significant to further insure the moral position of the white men. Her nature as sex-object and independent modern woman are both traits which help explain her victimization by blacks, and in this way she functions to propel the narrative by defining as chivalrous the mission of David and Treece: killers who are richly rewarded for their adventure. It is in this context that the film approaches the subject of male bonding, relying on both notions of sexual morality and ethical business practice to reinforce its ideology.

As viewers we are moved swiftly from a place where we strongly identify with the newly arrived young tourists (our pleasure at this point also derives from being voyeurs of the braless Bisset), to a more distanced place as spectators who have paid to watch the male violence that accelerates throughout the film. Both the technology of underwater filmmaking and what C. Wright Mills calls the "machinery of amusement" (2) function in THE DEEP to provide the underwater spectacle we want to see, but more important they sustain the film's central focus on male bonding. We can best understand the ideology of this phenomenon by noting how the interdependence of violence and friendship evolves through the uses of underwater machinery and the related laws of men's work. The sexist assumptions that give impetus to the heroics of the white men, and the racism evidenced by their desire to kill off blacks while collecting gold, are consistently linked to technology and its promise of power. And the power that the mastery of this technology provides our heroes insures them sexual and material rewards for their buddy adventure. They win because they are more powerful. And because they have been shown to be morally and ethically superior to their enemies, their triumph seems only right.

 If technology and business acumen are the key legitimating factors for male bonding (both through the filmmaking techniques of a 40% underwater narrative and the functions of scuba gear within the narrative), we need to look carefully at how the uses of this machinery are inherent in bourgeois ideology which equates progress with science and assumes that natural forces must be repressed as a threat to civilization. History has shown us how white hegemony has used this control of nature by technology to further its interests and to contain its less sophisticated enemies under the guise of spreading western culture — civilization per se. As the ecology movement today has revealed, we are rarely invited to question the impact of technology as an instrument of domination, for its ends always justify its means.

In THE DEEP it becomes clear how what was sold to playful (and affluent) tourists as the machinery of amusement readily converts into an underwater arsenal. David and Treece use these "toys" to combat the island's blacks in order to acquire the precious gems and gold. But the behavior and interaction of the white woman and the mob of black men set in motion the conversion of these "toys" into weaponry for the race war which concludes THE DEEP. Both are necessary to justify David and Treece's relationship, and the spoken contracts which bind them to each other and to the task of conquest. The first encounters in the film depict the collapse of Gail as a sexual adult woman, and permit our outraged heroes to transfer their sexual desires into a shared pursuit of sunken treasure. Later episodes bring the struggle of the racial antagonists into full swing, and lead to a happy ending that celebrates the pairing of two white men as victors.

 At the outset of the film, David and Gail swim happily among exotic fish in the Caribbean. He takes her picture with his nifty underwater camera while she makes mock-cheesecake poses in her transparent tee shirt. Until she is severely frightened by an as yet invisible eel, the two are just plain having fun underwater. After they have climbed onto their boat following her scare and his underwater lecture about staying calm, she pouts: "We might as well be married for all the concern I get around here." But when he becomes amorous as she changes out of her wet shirt (he and we see only her bare back), she makes it quite clear that she prefers to return quickly to the hotel where it's warm and dry. The sense that he more than she enjoys the world of nature and adventure ("I feel things so I do 'em") is further emphasized when she accuses him of absurd ventures that merely add to his tee shirt collection (he is wearing a Mt. Everest model at the time). David, as played by Nick Nolte, a newcomer and the ultimate in heavy cardboard, is particularly vulnerable to Gail's intelligence and criticism. We initially experience the couple from New York as voyeurs who watch her bare breasts through a white shirt both underwater and as she surfaces (a different pleasure in each shot), and further indulge as we watch him watching her and photographing her for later viewing. But while it's sexy to share air and play games underwater, when she turns down David's request that they swim nude, we too realize his frustration of seeing but not doing. David and Gail's use of masks and oxygen tanks is just for fun, but for him, it's a little bit boring. And just as we realize there is a difference between their vacation ideas, meeting Treece provides David (and us) with the possibility for "real" adventure.

 From the first meeting of these physically opposite heroes (David is a young gregarious specimen of strength; the other an angular, rude, older man with the physique of an alcoholic), the framing and camera angles accentuate the intimacy of their relationship. When David and Gail first stand outside Treece's lighthouse door, there is a tight two-shot of the men with the older man's face featured because it is framed by a small barred window. As the eager tourist peers in, he is intrigued by a guided roughness. (Surely Shaw is a second Richard Burton, a student of that haunted look.) Not until the neophyte exhibits both trust and respect does the mentor warm up, ultimately acting as host and protector, gaining a paternal place in this ersatz family.

The parent-child construct that evolves may be one of the many token efforts to legitimize the male bonding: it implies that because it's natural to need a family, there's nothing sexual about an older-younger pair of buddies. The film is not afraid to suggest that Treece is a real loner however, and though he is often situated in front of a framed photo of a man and woman (soft focus suggests there was a woman), he refers only to his mother, recalling her wish that he retain a faithful bodyguard to be his "family." Thus, in spite of the characteristic innuendo that clears away suspicion of homosexuality, the plot and the imagery in THE DEEP remind us constantly that the two men are completely involved in their friendship and in the ways that it is changing their lives. Repeated medium close ups frame the two men as they lean to look at maps and artifacts, or as they signal each other with gestures and glances while swimming through the dark corridors of a shipwreck.

The interdependence of David and Treece is finally stated through a verbal contract, but before this happens the sexuality of their friendship is established. Treece has asserted his authority as a white islander and David's teacher. "I'm all the government you need," he tells the naive boy who had plans to report information about the morphine supply to the local law. Treece shares his knowledge of the history of this place along with his sense for its mystery. There is something sexual linked to his fascination with such adventure: "If the Jamaican pirates don't get you, it'll be the cold embrace of the sea!" The two men thus begin to acknowledge a replacement for Gail who is only "the girl" to Treece, and something of a killjoy for David. The two share the same lover now, and while the sea offers them only a cold embrace, she also holds treasures that a team of men can enjoy.

Early in the film, Adam (Burgess Meredith), a corrupt old navy man who knows of the morphine stash and will eventually collaborate with the blacks against Treece, recognizes the sample bottle which David and Gail bring ashore. "This is the real thing all right. The old girl finally lost her virginity." He points out for us that exploring a sealed vessel is an erotic experience for a man. And Treece knows that the navy ship's impenetrable body had long frustrated the local drug racketeers. The craggy scholar tells David that eager blacks had approached the ship, attempting to perform "an autopsy with everything but forceps" as they sought her treasure. The language of both Treece and Adam is full of sexist ambiguity and implications about the powers of women to hold and withhold. It may also be significant at this point that the white men are discussing only the vessel that contains the infamous drugs, and are careful to attribute to blacks these attitudes towards the sunken ship. Thus while they name the sexual allure of their undersea conquest, they shift the focus from their own libidinous impulses to those of the primitives — neatly depending on our own racist beliefs and fears. Gail provides the necessary ideology of chivalry that keeps our heroes' own assault a moral one.

What completes the sexual bond that is implied between the white men is the way in which David's "girlfriend" is reduced to a nonactive participant in the narrative. Just as her sexual identity becomes obscured through a gradual change of costumes (from see-through whites to black wet suits), the use of crosscutting also heightens our acceptance of her evolution-through-victimization. Through the use of this editing device (reminiscent of D. W. Griffith spectaculars which build on racial and sexual stereotyping), Gail's voodoo-rape is presented as the cause for (and perhaps the result of) the allegiance between David and Treece.

On the men's first night out to check the sunken treasure, Gail chooses to stay in the hotel, angry at David's bluff machismo. After the dive, the two men climb back onto their boat and are immediately alerted to voodoo dangers by the dead black cat pinned to their cabin door. They also notice that the hotel lights are out, and the association of primitive signals with possible danger to Gail are clear to everyone.

The use of crosscutting at this point extends the distance between the diver rescuers and the woman-in-distress, and similarly extends the duration of her attack. The sequence begins with a shot of Gail entering and attempting to lock her dark room; cut to the two men at sea anxious to move their boat towards shore; cut to Gail in medium shot, aware of possible intruders, and then a close up to show her expression of horror as she sees her attackers; cut to the divers still putting towards shore; cut to Gail now prone on her bed, followed by a montage of shots from her point of view showing blacks in voodoo masks looming above her; cut to the two men now reaching shore just below the hotel; cut to an extreme cut of Gail's bare belly, blood and chicken claws drip and scratch her; cut to David now on a scaffold elevator (one of the many sets built for the film) where he must fight off an enemy black as he attempts to reach the top of the cliff where the hotel is situated. This last dimly lit interlude not only prolongs his arrival at Gail's door, but serves to exhibit for Treece (and us) David's dexterity and know-how. This struggle not only extends the effort to rescue the victimized female, but even diverts us from it by highlighting the "real" drama that takes place between these opposite male adversaries.

 David finally reaches Gail, but the ritual rape is over and the urbane sexual woman has become a whimpering child. "I'm so helpless," she cries to him, as if to finalize her submission. This attack represents the second violation of Gail by primitive men. In an earlier scene, after the couple have been briefly but violently abducted by blacks who want to know the whereabouts of the morphine, the leering natives force her to remove her bra. Slow cross-cutting heightens the sexual tension here too, for while the black boss stares at her breasts (We watch her from above his point of view and see only her humiliated face and her bared shoulders), there are cuts between her face, his beady eyes, and David in medium long shot across the room. The terrified blond boy stands with a knife at his throat, anguished at the thought that his moral outcry will result in his death.

The uses of cross-cutting in both these female-as-victim episodes serve to sharpen our sense of and sympathy for the white man's predicament: he must subdue or kill this primitive enemy who threatens to take his finest possession. But the subtext established before the second of these incidents has provided us with an analogous, perhaps more terrifying threat-namely that these same black men are bent on procuring another kind of treasure from another unspoiled woman who lies at the bottom of the ocean. This cold creature will provide them with drugs which they will sell to their contacts in New York City. These men must be stopped; they seek to destroy the heart and mind of America (David and Gail's hometown on top of that). Thus the editing patterns help to reinforce the importance of Treece and David's contract, made in the middle of the film: They will work together and they will meet a three-day deadline by appearing to provide the enemy with drugs while using that time to attain for themselves the nearby gold.

 As a typical Hollywood narrative device, the contract gives urgency to the second half of THE DEEP and allows us to appreciate the workings of the entrepreneurial relationship. There is always an ideology in the use of a contract as a structural element. The overriding ideology of THE DEEP's presentation of white male bonding is that white men work best when a contract structures their relationship and that they work well under pressure. David and Treece will compete with the blacks for the treasure, but they will do so for the right reasons and, because they are better at it, they will win.

In addition to the sexual shift from women to treasure, and the related business morality, there also occurs a change in the uses of technology. Just as Gail and David's romance diminishes along with her status as an independent woman, their romantic "playthings," such as underwater cameras, lights, and masks become the implements needed by the team of men to carry out and win their contest. An aspect of this ideology of the white handyman develops even on the first dive that the men make together. From David's early confrontation with the ravenous moray eel to the final all-out war scenes when live ammunition explodes and tanks and tubes are burst and slashed, there is a steady escalation of violence whereby the machinery of amusement becomes, or becomes confused with, the technology of war. Combat is no longer enough to make modern men into buddies. Only science coupled with business can grant them a legitimate place in today's world.

On the evening of Gail's voodoo-rape, David saves himself from the eel only because he is the owner of an underwater camera with a flash attachment. Still an innocent tourist, he swims behind Treece through dark passages that lead to the sunken treasure. Not yet engaged in the work at hand, and still a spectator who enjoys the marvels of this place, he stops to watch an enormous fish which stares in wonder at him. David adjusts his camera to photograph the contemplative creature, when the deadly moray suddenly snaps the fish in half. As David cowers he drops his camera to the bottom where the shutter is triggered so that repeated "shots" of light force the eel to retreat. We are reminded that the basic trappings of the tourist can become fiery weapons as the whole screen lights up to attack our own retinas. This "lucky" malfunction brings us to realize that David and Treece's survival will involve a firm alliance between them and the machinery they possess.

 Following this first undersea incident and the shore episodes leading to the attack on Gail, the two comrades become more seriously committed to a battle which had begun for the younger man as pure adventure. On the first day of the three-day contract, David and Treece dive (Gail is with them as a fellow worker) to bring back some bags of morphine ampoules. They are using a powerful vacuum hose to remove the layers of sand that have buried the tiny bottles. Suddenly, the suction device lifts a stray hand grenade from the floor of the wreck and there follows an explosion. A series of shots pan and tilt to follow a pile of mortar shells now tumbling around the divers. A kind of war is on, and as the swimmers dodge the corroded relics from WW2, yet another legitimating ideology emerges: this one links our heroes with a tradition of "fighting men." Similarly their knowledge and curiosity about the conquistadors validate David and Treece as daring "discoverers."

On the second dive David and Treece save their lives with the same vacuum machine by surrounding themselves with bubbles and sand which hide them from sharks the enemy attracted to the area. Finally, on the last dive, the ever-ingenious whites use the same machine to blind approaching blacks. Throughout the three tests which Treece and his buddy endure, the machines which they wear or carry to perform acts of searching and uncovering, become the implements of war. Ultimately the enemies cannot survive underwater with any success (although they have some of the necessary gear, and carry spear-guns). They are all drowned or devoured by the forces of the sea, the same natural forces with which they have been associated throughout the film. When the reappearing eel finally eats the head of the black leader, we are clear on the ways of "natural law." As the privileged spectators of a film, we are joined with David and Treece to enjoy the added pleasure of watching the enemy killed off by the same naturally violent powers from which technology has saved the whites. How like the comeuppance strategy which exonerates the racial and sexual brutality committed by white men in all the James Bond films.

 The racism in THE DEEP is thus reinforced when blacks are equated with everything that is uncivilized or uncontrollable. Their business is with drugs, their tools are their muscular bodies, their survival is instinctual. It is clear that they cannot combat the genius of the white man whose sophistication is seen as the result of a long and glorious history of daring and winning. This film suggests that it is the innate expertise and the inborn morality of whites which grants them the right to discover the past and possess its treasure. THE DEEP reminds us that white men make history.

And if the blacks in the film exist to remind us of the constant vigilance and scientific knowledge needed to control and contain their impulses, the one woman in the film serves as a type of in-between creation, for she is neither a primitive nor an enlightened being. Gail has the body of a sexual woman, but as a modern equal to her man she dares to mock and play-until she is subdued. After her rape, she is at once brought to full adulthood and to childish submission. Following that incident Gail becomes a "helper" to her two protectors. Dressed in mannish clothes she cooperates like a junior buddy or a girl Friday. She goes along for the dives, and even gets lucky and kills a last black swimmer who crawls over the edge of the boat to cut the air tubes that keep her men alive.

Gail is especially helpful and creative as a woman when the heroes are stumped by the meaning of a cryptic note which might prove the authenticity of the jewels. Not too liberated, our Gail can still identify a shopping-list when she sees one, especially since it all had to do with courtship. But while the men need her around, she knows her place. In the last shot of the film, after the older man has dynamited the two ships to roll them over the edge of a sea cliff, the somber couple sits on board ship imagining that Treece had met his end. Gail is placed on the far edge of the frame, so that when the older man is reborn and bursts out of the water, calling "David" and flinging the missing dragon and chain into the air, the two men are centered in the frame, united by the glistening arc of gold that connects their outstretched hands.

The last shot in the film is an ecstatic celebration of Treece and David: their teamwork, their energies, their love. What THE DEEP reveals about the world "below the surface," however, is that it is full of both treasure and treachery with the blacks and whites clashing as they each seek power and position. This film is structured to convince us that white men seek only what affirms their place in the tradition of pioneers and enlightened explorers, while blacks corrupt that promise of civilization, preying on its moral and material base. THE DEEP tells us that white men's knowledge of history and their capacity to "manage" and "work" with the technology that is their inheritance, grants them an additional pleasure: the friendship of other men.


1. Filmmaker's Newsletter, June 1977, pp. 28-29.

2. C. Wright Mills, Power, Politics and People (New York, 1963), p. 349.